Coconut aromas might be more readily found in sunscreen and shampoo, but some whiskies offer an array of coconut scents and flavors, a particular pleasure in hot weather. These characteristics may call to mind cracking the fibrous shell to reveal snowy white flesh, devouring a macaroon, inhaling the moreish aromas of toasted flakes, scooping up spoonfuls of coconut cream pie, or biting into a Mounds or Almond Joy: associations that make us feel good. For coconut flavors in whisky, however, the journey to your glass starts in the forest with the decision of which tree to chop down to build casks.
Coconut notes are associated with oak lactones, colloquially known as whisky lactones. These volatile oak lactones are not a single compound, but the important ones to know are the cis- and trans- forms of 3-methyl-4-octanolide. All types of oak used for casks contain oak lactones, but Quercus alba, American white oak, has much higher levels than Quercus robur, European oak.
After a tree is felled, the oak’s age can be determined by counting the dark rings of its cross-section. Oak lactones are found in the highest concentrations in the earlywood, the lighter rings of the trunk that grow during springtime. Slow-growth oak has a much higher proportion of earlywood than fast-growth oak, which has a visibly coarser grain due to the wider rings of latewood. Whether a tree is slow-growth depends on many factors, including its position in the forest, soil quality, rainfall, elevation, and the density of trees around it. When distillers talk about their commitment to high-quality oak casks, one of the specifics they typically insist on is slow-growth wood.
At sawmills and cooperages, air-seasoning (drying) the timber for 18 to 24 months promotes higher levels of oak lactones than shorter periods of seasoning or artificially reducing the moisture of the wood in a kiln. Like the caress of warm sun on the wood in the yard, toasting the staves helps to increase the levels of oak lactones below the surface layers, though these levels can be destroyed if the cask is heavily charred. Most of a barrel’s oak lactones are extracted by whisky in its first filling; although rejuvenation—scraping and re-charring the interior—can extend the working life of a cask, it’s not possible to restore the oak lactones once they’re spent.
Seek out the flavor of coconut in whisky and let it be your passport to an exotic paradise of gently lapping ocean waves, coconut palms, and barefoot strolls along white sandy beaches—even if only in your imagination.
Shell Game: Taste Different Types of Coconut in These Whiskies
For a taste of chocolate-dipped coconut, try Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Cornerstone Kentucky Straight Rye, redolent with lemon honey, raisin, and oak spices.
Indulge in a coconut macaroon with Barrell Bourbon (Batch 021), which has rich and lively flavors of candied peanuts, peppery spices, and grilled peaches
Enjoy a splash of coconut cream in Aberlour A’bunadh Alba Cask Strength (Batch 001), thanks to its light and sweet notes of shortbread, vanilla, and poached pear.