What’s the difference between American and French Oak?

If you’ve ever stepped foot in Starward Distillery you would have noticed many, many barrels. Nothing makes our distillers happier than collecting some of the best red wine barrels doing the rounds; many of them are sourced locally and so fresh they’re often still wet with wine when we fill them. Generally speaking, there are two key oaktypes used during our maturation process: French Oak and American Oak. At Starward, we use both types because we can’t get enough of the unique flavours and nuances each one brings to our whisky. Although French and American Oak barrels look quite similar there are some key differences. To chat us through what they are (and how they affect the final product you sip around the dinner table or at your local bar), we spoke with Starward’s Blender, Carlie Dyer.

French Oak Barrels

Up first we’re taking a trip to France, specifically its forests: Allier, Limousin, Troncais, Nevers and Vosges are all notable areas where French Oak grows. These barrels are often used to age all your classic high-end wines – think Burgundy, Bordeaux and some Champagne, as well as premium spirits like cognac. Due to France’s tighter harvesting regulations, French Oak trees aren’t as abundant as American, so they’re often in high demand. A key characteristic of French Oak is its tighter grain which allows the wine or spirit to age slowly, with the flavours of the wood being imparted gradually over time. In fact, according to Carlie, the flavours you will notice with French Oak include clove, cedar, nutmeg and cinnamon; it tends to be a bit more spice-forward, and there’s also a bit more tannin in the wood. If you’ve ever wondered how you can tell if a barrel is French or American, just look for the ‘F’ before the identification code on the barrel. This trick is a surefire way to impress your mates next time you book a table at our Distillery & Bar.

“French Oak makes up most of what’s in Starward Nova: a beautiful red wine cask that’s predominantly French Oak,” explains Carlie. If you haven’t enjoyed a dram of Nova, let us tell you, it’s the perfect introduction to Starward. A single malt pure red wine cask expression whose DNA can be found across all our whiskies. It’s the backbone of our signature single malt style and is matured exclusively in red wine barrels sourced from places like the Yarra Valley and Barossa. Those barrels are a mix of largely French Oak (which gives it a nutmeg-meets-cinnamon characteristic) with a hint of American Oak (which adds an element of sweetness). You’ll notice its vibrant red ochre colour and on the nose, it’s like we took bright flavours of red berries and orchard fruit and coated them in soft oak spice. On the palate, imagine a rich red berry pudding covered in vanilla, caramel and spice. The finish is balanced and long, and as the sweetness fades a delicious flavour lingers.

American Oak Barrels

Up next we head to the USA where towering American Oak trees can be found across California (hey, Big Sur), Minnesota (Fargo fans, we see you), Wisconsin and Georgia. American Oak barrels are often used to age bold and full-bodied wines like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and some Australian shiraz and, of course, whisky. The more porous nature of American Oak allows the wine or spirit to age faster, with the flavours of the wood being imparted more quickly and intensely. “Our typical flavours of an American Oak barrel are rich, bold vanilla, coconut and it often imparts more sweetness – it has a wider grain allowing for more oxygen contact,” explains Carlie. 

A classic example of an American Oak Starward iteration is 100 Proof, fully matured in American Oak barrels and bottled at 50% ABV. This is a delightfully full-bodied and decadent whisky, featuring notes of juicy plum, ganache and sweet vanilla alongside baking spices from the oak, and ripe figs and raisins. Thanks to the American Oak barrels – which once held big, bold Australian reds like cabernet and shiraz – you’ll notice a richer mouthfeel making it the perfect sipper, on ice or neat.


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