The opportunity to see the journey of a whisky from tree to barrel to glass is a rare one. Imagine our delight then, when we were invited to witness exactly that in the forests near Bordeaux, following the evolution of Jura Seven Wood.
Wood is a huge focus for whisky but how many of us know about the processes before the wood becomes a cask? Probably not that many. We marvel, understandably, at whisky that has been aged for 40 or perhaps even 50 years. And yet, the process really begins centuries before in the forest, which is where our trip began. But first, a brief introduction to Jura Seven Wood. The no age statement lightly peated single malt is initially aged in American white oak bourbon barrels, before it’s finished in six different types of French oak: Limousin, Tronçais, Allier, Vosges, Jupilles, and Les Bertranges. To save you counting on your fingers, yes, that adds up to seven wood types.
As we travel north on what looked like was going to be a rather grey day, the scenery becomes greener until we arrive at the Loches forest, a stark contrast to the stone buildings and baking heat of Bordeaux itself. Forest guard Fabien Daureau emerges from the trees to greet us. The forest is crucial to French history; back in the 1600s wood was predominantly used for energy and ship building. Rather sensibly, to ensure it was protected and managed correctly, the French government split the forest up into parcels, and guards like Daureau were put in place to manage each part. The forest is still divided up the same way, though now the primary use for wood has changed. In the parcel we’re visiting, it’s making casks.
Oak trees destined to become casks are like the A-listers of the tree world. They must be straight, tall and without branches lower down the trunk. Every 10 years, the guards will comb through the forest, deciding which trees they should cull and which they should keep. It’s a ruthless process. There are an overwhelming number of factors which will exclude a tree from making the cut (pun intended). These include knots in the wood (which would cause barrel leaks), branches low down on the trunk, or tiny imperfections that an untrained eye would never see. We come across a 100 year old tree with something called a ‘pippy’ trunk, a miniscule little nubbin on the trunk caused by a beam of light. Generally other trees act as a barrier to these beams, though clearly this one got through. The ‘pippy’ tree is now unusable as a cask, a century of growth gone to waste!
There are other tricks to reduce the chance of imperfections. To ensure branches don’t grow lower down the tree trunk, Fabien and his team must see that the trees grow close enough together so there isn’t enough light for this to happen. A lack of light also promotes upwards growth, though there’s a fine line. Block out too much light and you’ll no longer encourage the smaller trees, but hinder them.
Choosing when to cut is just as complex as growing them, and Daureau tells us that much like humans, trees have feelings. If all the surrounding trees are suddenly cut, then the remaining tree will go into a state of stress, because of sudden differences in water and light. Older healthy trees are still surrounded by smaller or dying trees, which serve no purpose but to keep the environment stable. As saplings, there are around one million oak trees per hectare. At 250 years old, only between 50 and 100 trees per hectare remain, through both natural selection and rigorous culling from the forest guard. Only a mere quarter of each tree can be used to create casks, as the higher up the tree you go, the less straight it is, lowering the quality of the wood. The very top will be used to make paper or firewood.
The ideal amount of growth is just incredibly slow, just 2mm a year. Slow growth results in a tight grain, which causes more interaction between the spirit and the wood. Good things take time. It’s incredible to see centuries of growth in one place, with great oaks that are soon to be cut standing tall next to tiny saplings.
We leave Daureau and the green wonders of the forest, making our way to the Sogibois stave mill just outside of Bordeaux. Here the oak is cut, revealing if the toils and efforts over the last few centuries have paid off. It’s only here that some trees reveal they’ve been housing bullets from World War I, which have rather poetically turned the wood black. Of course, they can’t be used. That’s not to say there aren’t some happy surprises. We’re shown an eye-catching unique orange wood, its rosy hue thanks to an unexplained mutation and the presence of beta carotene. It’s highly prized and much more expensive, though there’s no way of identifying the mutation until it’s cut. As much as we can try to control these factors, the fact is that nature is unpredictable, which is part of the beauty of the cask.
Following the journey of the oak, we then head to Demptos cooperage where the staves are made into casks – the very casks in which Jura Seven Wood is matured! The wood doesn’t merely pass through the cooperage, but spends a minimum of two years here while the water content is reduced to 20%. Once again, the length of time before the spirit even enters the barrel is just mind-boggling.
It’s also the cooperage which helps create the flavour profile of the whisky. There are simple differences between different wood types, for example French oak is spicier than the vanilla-heavy American oak. Then, there are more complex layers of wood categorisation, such as micro-porosity, determining how quickly the spirit will age. Demptos has built a menu of 188 different ‘ingredients’, forming a partnership with each whisky blender who will create their own recipe.
Having spent much of the day outside, we’re suddenly plunged into a dramatic and fiery warehouse, where the immensely skilled coopers are literally spinning flaming barrels around with their hands. They did have gloves on, mind. The inside of the barrel reaches a scorching 200 degrees celsius, while the outside remains a balmy 35 degrees. A delight to the senses, the barrel smells just like freshly baked bread after one hour of toasting. Of course, there are longer toasting periods, as it’s just another of the many ingredients that can be personalised. Around 150 barrels are made here each day, and it was both astonishing and encouraging how much of the work is still done by hand. Creating a barrel is such a delicate art (albeit with a lot of banging and clanging) that, even in this day and age, it requires a human hand.
Just as we saw the stages of tree growth and barrel-making, we also got to taste each stage of the Jura whisky throughout its ageing. What better place than in the midst of the beautiful Loches forest to taste the evolution of Seven Wood? Naturally, we started with the new make, the majority of which is unpeated, and full of creamy lemon, loads of malt and a hint of pear drop. Then, after maturing in American oak for 10 years, the spirit boasts boatloads of green tea, vanilla, banana and fresh mint.
To really show us the flavour French oak imparts, Glass shows us spirit matured in solely French oak, which is slightly more oily, bursting with mango, baking spices, set honey and chocolate. In Seven Wood however, the six French oak-matured spirits will have spent time in American white oak first, and will be blended with both peated and unpeated spirit that has been aged purely in American white oak. When that all comes together you get Seven Wood, with subtly smoky, nutty notes, vanilla, fresh peach, pear and a prickle of spice.
“It’s not just seven woods for the sake of it,” Glass notes as he explains the thought process behind the whisky. “When you look back at the recipes you’ve developed, you don’t realise you’ve used so many. It’s like opening a can of worms in terms of how many ingredients you can use.” Glass and his team found that these specific combinations created the desired layers of depth and complexity, a recipe that was built up over time. “Experimentation has always been very important to me,” Glass continues. “Without that sense of adventure, you’re never going to discover.”
The identity of Seven Wood was found in the French forest, so it’s no surprise Jura wanted to show off the often-overlooked stories of the trees themselves. I know that when I now look at a whisky, I won’t merely see an age statement or time in a warehouse, but will recall the years of growth, nature and talent that begin long before the liquid meets the cask. Glass told us that he was trying to create a harmony with Seven Wood, and harmony he has achieved. A thoroughly delicious whisky, paying its respect to the forest where it all began.