Oak barrels in Australia: Master Cask’s Darren Lange on the craft spirits boom

Oak barrels in Australia: Master Cask has a portfolio of leading American and French oak cooperages

The application of oak barrels by Australian wine and spirits producers is rapidly evolving, Master Cask founder Darren Lange has told the Drinks Adventures podcast.

Growing up in the Barossa Valley, Darren has spent his life in and around the wine industry.

He has a technical winemaking background and the last 20 years of his career have been focused specifically on oak, initially as an employee of a leading importer and distributor of French and American oak wine barrels.

Darren founded Master Cask in 2010, realising a vision to assemble his own portfolio of French and American oak cooperages.

He was instrumental in establishing the Tasmanian Cask Company in 2014 and purchasing SA Cooperage in 2017.

These cooperages are producing increasingly specialised oak barrels for the emerging spirits industry in Australia, and it’s that area of Darren’s expertise that we spend most of our time discussing today.

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This is a special episode of the podcast made possible by the support of Master Cask.

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Oak barrels in Australia: Darren Lange interview transcript

DARREN LANGE: It’s changed a lot, you know, as have the wine styles. Australia through the ‘90s went through a huge growth period. A lot of opportunity and focus on international markets. But we were a young industry from a table wine point of view. All of this growth and all of this opportunity was quite new. And so we were planting a lot more new vineyards. The wine themselves probably lacked a little bit of complexity. And I think oak was used as one of the components to try and bring some depth and some three-dimensional complexity to those wines. We’ve moved away from those styles significantly. You know, the wines themselves back in the ‘90’s were high alcohol, high extraction, high everything. High oak input as well. And we’ve moved right back away from that and I think Australian wines are now, you know, have never been in a better state. Very much about varietal expression, expression of place and time. Reflecting the vintage conditions as well. And ensuring that the application of the oak is there to highlight that. It plays a supporting role, it’s not there as an additive. It’s there to bring three-dimensional complexity to the wine, absolutely. But always ensuring that the characteristics of the wine are lifted.

JAMES ATKINSON: Darren went out on his own to launch Master Cask when his previous employer decided to go in a new direction.

DARREN LANGE: In essence, they were going to become competitors of the coopers that I was working with internationally at the time. And when you’re representing barrels, you can’t be swapping between different brands all the time. You become connected I guess with the styles of the cooperages that you’re working with. And you believe in those styles and you believe that they are important; they contribute value to the industry. So, you become intrinsically connected with those and I didn’t want to be through some decisions that were being made in the business at the time that I was working for, to have that impact on what had been at that stage, you know, 10-years of my life in terms of developing those relationships with those cooperages. Being involved with coopers, it’s your life, it’s not just a job.

JAMES ATKINSON: Master Cask was initially established to supply oak barrels in Australia to the wine industry. But it wasn’t long before Darren began developing relationships with Tasmanian distillers, through Sullivans Cove’s Patrick Maguire, and eventually joining forces with local cooper, Adam Bone.

DARREN LANGE: The intention was purely just to build a portfolio of different coopers, that bring different styles and different characteristics, so that when I’m having those conversations with a winemaker, it’s not about me trying to just sell a barrel. I’m there to listen to what the winemakers are looking for in terms of style and texture, and all the different things that we consider when we’re looking at oak. And so to have a balanced portfolio, high end coopers in a portfolio for the wine industry that was really, that was the focus of the business when I started it. Pretty quickly I saw the opportunity in the spirits industry. Took my first trip down to Tasmania and was fortunate to meet Patrick Maguire as my first appointment, who was at that stage I think the Chairman of the local distiller’s association in Tasmania. And he was kind enough to share some contacts with me and so I spent the balance of that week sort of getting around and visiting most of the distilleries that existed at that time. Which I think from memory was 10 or 11. That was the start of that. And then really it wasn’t until 2014, the volumes had grown, there was enough consistency in requirements for barrels in Tasmania. And I saw an opportunity to actually be based in Tasmania. Was fortunate enough to meet Adam Bone at the time, who had also just started coopering down there and he’d be in contact with me in regarding supplying him oak. So it got to a point where he was buying all of his oak from me and pretty much he was coopering all of the barrels for me for Tasmania. So we joined those two things together.

JAMES ATKINSON: Before we started recording, you were telling me that the Australian spirits sector is a much bigger part of your business now than wine. Which surprised me because the Australian wine industry is huge and we’re known for our red wine. Red wine goes into oak barrels in Australia, but that’s not where the bulk of your business is anymore. Maybe you could explain how that has transpired?

DARREN LANGE: Yeah there’s a couple of factors there that drive that. One is that roughly $20 and up is where new oak barrels start to be used in the wine making process. And typically in those lower price points, it’s a lower percentage of new oak. As you go up into more premium wines, the percentage of your oak increases. That’s one reason. We say generally it’s around 3% of Australian wine actually sees new oak, it’s a tiny percentage of the market. That’s new barrel. Most wines would be going to barrel, they would just be going to older… either a second fill or a third fill oak. The other thing is that wine makers are looking for so much diversity and complexity, that typically in a wine you will have three to four coopers maybe to bring that level of three-dimensional complexity. You’re never supplying 100% of one customer, let alone one wine. And if you compare that then with spirits, it’s very different. 100% of what is maturing is going into barrel. So that’s a big difference in itself. And so if you compare the industries, I think the Australian wine barrel usage per year in terms of new oak would be around the 60,000 barrels mark. And spirits are probably approaching 40,000 barrels already, in a reasonably short period of time. And then when you consider, as I said, there’s a lot more concentration in terms of the coopers that are being used in spirits, that’s where you get the bigger number in terms of our business, the split between wine and spirits.

JAMES ATKINSON: And when you talk about the style of the different cooperages, how much do they vary?

DARREN LANGE: Significant and there’s a number of factors that drive that. I mean, the origin of the oak, where the oak comes from. The grain of the oak, so how fast the oak actually grows is also really important. We say in a basic sense, typically the tighter the grain, the more oak aromatics, the less tannin is in that oak. And the broader the grain, conversely you know, you have more tannin and less oak aromatic. So that has a big role. I think grain is probably more important than where the oak comes from, in terms of its origin. And then you’ve got the seasoning, so the oak is naturally air dried. That’s to adjust the moisture level of the oak. But probably more importantly, seasoning the oak effects the tannins. So you’ve got micro-flora, moulds and bacteria that grown on the surface of the oak. And that has an impact, that natural micro-flora has an impact on the seasoning and ultimately the flavour and the style of the tannins you end up with. So the seasoning is really important, how long you season it for, where it’s seasoned, how the oak is stacked. All of those things have a big influence. And then you come into the coopering. So coopering itself, making a barrel doesn’t really effect the style or the flavours of the barrel. It’s about the toasting and in the case of spirits, it’s toasting and charring, or just charring by itself. And how that influences the flavours. And then the really exciting part, once you’ve got a barrel, it’s then how you apply it. So it’s a matter of as I said before, understanding what the wine maker or the distiller is looking for stylistically. What their local conditions are, what their maturation conditions are going to be like and ensuring then that the application of that oak is very specific to those conditions. So you know, there’s quite a bit, particularly with new oak that really influences and has a big impact on the flavours and the styles of the barrel. For example, if you take exactly the same French oak out of the forest and you were to take that to Burgundy and then to Bordeaux, and you were to season that oak for the same period of time. You’d end up with completely different flavours and characteristics coming from that same oak. And so we’ve actually got a project that we’re working on at the moment with that in mind, where we’re actually seasoning oak in Tasmania. It’s French oak and American oak, so it’s not Australian. But we believe that we will get a significant imprint on that oak from the micro-flora that will grow where we’re seasoning that oak. So we’ve picked a location actually down at Port Arthur. Great rainfall, we looked at all the conditions down there and compared it to some of the, you know, the best seasoning regions for oak around the world. And we believe that we’ve got really great conditions down there to season that oak. So we’ll see what we get in another 12 months’ time. Its been there for 12 months as it is and we’ll look at that again in another 12 months and see what we’ve come up with.

JAMES ATKINSON: Have you had much exposure to whisky prior to that point when you saw that opportunity and thought I’m going to have to start meeting the needs of these craft distillers?

DARREN LANGE: No, I’ve got say I was probably more a bourbon drinker as a young person.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, bourbon’s whisky too.

DARREN LANGE: Yeah, exactly. No, exactly. But in terms of single malt, no I didn’t really have a huge knowledge of single malt whisky. So it was a real learning and an exciting learning process for me I’ve got to say. And challenging from a tasting point of view. So with wines, as I was saying before, I’d taste probably with I’d say about 180 different wine producers typically every year. And you can start at 07:30 in the morning and finish at 04:30/5:00 in the afternoon. And I don’t know, in a day maybe look at more than 100 wines that’s for sure. The challenge when I started in spirits and was very eager to follow that same sort of approach. You realise pretty quickly that it was far more challenging. But like anything, your palate develops and you become used to it, and you’re able to sort of progress and see a lot more whisky in a day than what I did when I first started that’s for sure.

JAMES ATKINSON: So up until that point you’d been dealing in new oak barrels in Australia. Once you started supplying the whisky industry you were then buying ex-fill casks from bourbon producers and wine producers in Australia, and then treating them before re-supplying them to whisky distillers. Is that correct?

DARREN LANGE: Yeah, exactly. So obviously we’d had that history purely with new oak. We’ve got lots of relationships with lots of high-end, premium wine makers around Australia. So we naturally had those relationships established and were able to source really high quality fortified barrels – tawny and sherry and tokay and muskets, and all of those sort of fortified wines. And then naturally we had a relationship there to access really again, high quality wine barrels. Sourcing probably wine casks is the most complicated for a number of reasons. There’s so many variables as I said with the base barrel to start with. And a lot of those oak variables are still very present and available for extraction into spirits. Even though the wine maker at say a barrel that’s six years old, would consider them to be neutral for wine at 14.5% alcohol. You put in a 63% alcohol spirit into those wine casks and there’s a lot more oak and oak flavours there to give to the spirit. So there’s all of those variables then play a big role that we mentioned before with new oak. They’re still there and present for spirit. And then you’ve got all the variability of the winery that’s had the barrels before, how they’ve maintained them, what wine styles have gone into them obviously have some influence. To be honest, I think the original aspects of the oak, you know, the style of the oak for the duration of the maturation will actually really be the critical, definitive factor for what the maturation will look like from those casks. As opposed to the wine characteristics. I think the previous fill from a wine component plays a role in the early part of a maturation. And if a wine cask is being used as a finishing cask, you’ll see some of those characteristics from the previous fill come through in the whisky. But for the duration of a four-year or six-year maturation in a wine cask, the key component or the influencing focus would still be about the original characteristics of the oak itself.

JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me what actually happens when spirit goes into a barrel. What are the different processes that occur during maturation?

DARREN LANGE: There’s only really three components to maturation. So there’s the extraction. So whether we’re talking about the component of the oak being extracted, whether they’re oak flavours. Or whether they’re previous fill flavours. As I said, with wine, given the wine has only been in there for a short period of time and probably over the course of its six-year life in a winery, it’s probably had different wines in it as well. So there’s not one wine component that would contribute. But with fortified that’s very different. Obviously the fortified wines have been in those barrels for a long, much longer period of time. So we do see a bigger influence from the previous fill component that comes from either the apera or the tawny, or whatever the fortified wine is. So there’s only extraction is one component of maturation. Then you’ve got concentration. So over the maturation period you’re losing water vapour, you’re losing liquid volume and so you get a concentrating effect of that. So the flavours that you’ve got there will concentrate over the maturation period. And then you’ve got the interaction, which is largely chemical reactions that are happening, largely driven by oxygen. And those reactions are what is, what I consider as true maturation. So they’re largely driven by time, as I said. They’re certainly driven by the conditions at the bond store. You know, the local conditions of where the distillery is will have a big influence on that. And as I said, time is really the key thing there that drives that maturation reaction, with the components of the spirit, with the components that have been extracted from the barrel. And then interacting with that oxygen over that period.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you can expedite the process obviously by putting your spirit into a smaller size barrel. The surface area to volume ratio plays a critical role. Is that a practice you think more characterised the early stages of the whisky industry in Australia or are we still seeing a lot of producers using smaller format oak barrels in Australia?

DARREN LANGE: Largely smaller oak is being used to bring whiskies to the market sooner. There’s been some great whiskies I think made in some smaller oak. It’s far more challenging to make a balanced whisky in a small cask. As you go up in size, I guess your window for picking the appropriate time for taking the whisky from the barrel. That window gets bigger as you go into larger formats. So when you’re in small barrels, to pick that spot to take the whisky out at maturation is much tighter. The other thing that you’ve got happening is you’ve got lots of extraction happening because you’re in a much smaller cask. And so to get… the extraction really happens quite quickly. But to follow that with the maturation, as I was saying before with the role of the oxygen and those interactions; they need time. So to get the balance, to get those interactions to take place and to balance, and to produce balanced whiskies in smaller casks is far more challenging. There’s no doubt about that. But we’ve seen some good examples of that in the early years, but I think as the industry matures and we’re already seeing that as a cooperage. The use of 20L barrels in particular is, I wouldn’t say it’s completely finished but it’s largely… well it’s certainly reduced significantly in the last 12 to 18 months.

JAMES ATKINSON: Darren says the use of oak by Australian whisky distillers has changed significantly in various other ways over the last decade.

DARREN LANGE: I think in the early days a lot of focus on port, you know, so ex-fortified port casks. Or Australian tawny I should say. And sherry/apera casks in Australia were very, so very fortified focus. I think we’ve seen an increase in the use of single-fill bourbon casks and I think that’s a good thing. The single fill bourbon cask, it’s not neutral but in terms of oak extraction it has less oak extraction than some of the other options. Obviously new oak, but also the wine barrel casks which are being used a little bit these days, well more and more these days. There’s a lot of oak extraction associated with those. Bourbon casks just be their… I mean they’re produced in huge numbers in the States for obviously for bourbon maturation and they’re very homogenous. There’s not the same level of approach to detail and variations as there is, as I explained with French oak for example, for the wine industry. They’re far more generic I suppose. That’s changing a little as the bourbon industry premiumises as well. But by in large, the volume of American bourbon casks is produced very homogenously, very consistently. So the barrel itself is consistent to start with and then it’s had 80% odd alcohol, bourbon matured in it. So its extracted a lot of those oak characters from the barrel, which you see in a bourbon style whisky. So that leaves a relatively consistent bourbon cask to be used to single malt all over the world. And so stylistically what single fill bourbon cask, what it does is it enables the quality of the new make spirit to remain intact and to shine through in the finished whisky. Having said that, there’s changes in the way that we now use fortified casks. The high, you know, premium single malt whiskies around the world are still made largely in particularly sherry casks. So fortified casks are still I think very, very critical to the future of whisky maturation generally. But certainly for Australia as well. So that will be obviously Australian apera for Australia. That’s really critical and then we’re also seeing as I said, some increases in the use of wine barrel casks as well. And then I think even in international markets, increasingly we’re starting to see some new oak influences being used. Either for finishing casks or for in the early stages of maturation for extraction. And then put to some second fill or third fill casks for the balance of the maturation. So really they’re the four key sort of groups, if you like. I think single fill bourbon will underpin a lot of it. It’s a very consistent, not neutral base but it provides a very respectful barrel as a base barrel for maturation. So whether then distillers start to look for finishing, various finishing casks to overlay over the backend of the maturation to bring some certain characteristics to the whiskies. You know, with individual approaches. But using that bourbon barrel as the base barrel, I think we’ll see a fair bit of that. I think it’s interesting, obviously with the supply of fortified barrels. There’s a lot of talk about the continuity of supply for fortified. I think if you look at what’s happening in Scotland, largely they are in terms of their sherry casks, they’re seasoned casks out of Spain. They’re not traditional casks that have been used for long term maturation of sherry. And I guess if you think back to history and the casks largely historically used in Scotland, from Spain were actually transport casks. So they weren’t necessarily long term maturation casks either. Everything as exported in bulk across to the UK and then largely bottled in the UK for local consumption in that market. Which meant that there was you know, a residual availability of empty barrels for the spirits industry there. So that was the natural process for accessing sherry casks back in those days. These days obviously the fortified wines of Spain, the sherry’s have to be bottled in country of origin. So all of those transport casks, they don’t exist anymore. So there’s been an industry that’s grown up now of seasoning casks for, specifically for the Scotch producers. And we’re very much going to have to go down that same path. Which is a good thing I think, ultimately. There’s some lovely old fortified casks that are available, absolutely. And we’ll continue to work hard to source those from Australian producers. But there’s a lot of variability in that, so a lot of inconsistencies in those tasks. So there’s opportunities in seasoning casks to control the base barrel that you’re using, the quality of the fortified wine that you’re using and then all of the parameters associated with the seasoning of those casks. So I think the Scottish industry sees seasoning of casks as a progressive direction and I think ultimately we’ll go down that path here.

JAMES ATKINSON: So essentially buying fortified wine purely to season your barrels. There’s not really an end consumer for that product?

DARREN LANGE: We’ll consume those fortified wines in the seasoning process essentially.

JAMES ATKINSON: The barrel just sucks it up?

DARREN LANGE: Yeah, absolutely.

JAMES ATKINSON: But Darren says in a country like Australia, there will never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to maturation for distillers.

DARREN LANGE: It’s site dependent and we’ve got such a diverse country in terms of climate and various conditions for maturation. I don’t think there’ll be a hard and fast rule on the right sized barrel. I think there’ll be appropriate size of cask for different maturation conditions. You know, even the building itself, how that impacts on temperature fluctuations. Barometric pressure, so depending on where you’re located, that has a big influence. Ocean influences are often talked about. And I think that oak should be there to highlight the characteristics of the new make and to allow those individual conditions, maturation conditions combined with the new make spirit to dominate and to dictate the style of that whisky. And the oak should be there to highlight that. Yes to bring three-dimensional complexity and play a role in sort of softening and making the whisky more approachable. But ultimately doing that and ensuring that the individual whisky is highlighted, not impacted too much by the oak.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are your thoughts on some of the other brown spirits categories – brandy, rum. Are you doing a lot of work with distillers that are making those products?

DARREN LANGE: Certainly rum is very much on the radar. We’ve started working very, very closely with a number of rum producers. And again, we’re in the early stages of looking at their style of new make and how we’re going to approach the maturation side of that. They do differ obviously in terms of which oaks and which style of oak, and what we need to do even in the cooperage to prepare those oaks for styles of spirit is slightly different. So rum, definitely. Brandy we haven’t seen much action on and I’m a little bit surprised. We’ve obviously got many, many of the older wineries, the more established wineries in Australia would still have stills at various stages of commissioning/decommissioning. I think there’s a great opportunity for brandy. And then beyond that, I think there’s even opportunities much smaller. But I think there’s opportunities in gin as well. I think to this point largely, most gin producers when they’re doing a barrel aged gin apply a cask to it and monitor it really, really closely. And when they feel that the oaks had enough influence they say well right that’s enough, lets remove the barrel from it and that’s what we’ve got. I think there’s opportunities to look much more specifically at the selection of oak. Purchase the barrel with a lot more purpose and a lot more focus for the sort of result you’re looking for from the barrel maturation of the gin. I think there’s some great opportunities there for sure.

JAMES ATKINSON: That seems to be a recurring theme across everything that we’ve discussed. Which is that you know, in the earlier days of the Australian whisky industry you were pretty much working with the barrels you were given to a certain extent. And now you’re treating them as an ingredient in the process and trying to create more custom products, that are really going to work much better with the spirit that’s going into them across the board?

DARREN LANGE: Yeah absolutely. We really now are focused on really working much, much closer with the distiller and understanding the new make. And then really working on the sourcing of the oak and how we then cooper. And how we then apply those barrels to the maturation process, to get the best outcome with the individual spirits that we’re working with.

JAMES ATKINSON: It must be exciting to think about what Australian craft spirits could look like in a decade, two-decades time when all of these little pieces of the puzzle fall into place and we start really making the optimal spirits that we can.

DARREN LANGE: If anything, I think it will happen quicker than that sort of timeframe. So yes, very, very exciting.

JAMES ATKINSON: That’s good because it means we’ll be around to drink it.

DARREN LANGE: Very, very exciting and very, very dynamic. I mean, it’s a very dynamic industry. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of experimental things happening. It’s very exciting times for us as a cooperage supplying the industry and exciting times for Australian spirits generally.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well that sounds like a pretty good note to finish on Darren. So, thanks very much for joining me for a chat about oak barrels in Australia.

DARREN LANGE: A pleasure.

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