Tracing down tobacco aromas in aged brandies

I’ve become so accustomed to fermented beverages having flavors completely unrelated to their starting ingredients that I all too easily forget that there’s anything strange about it. And then I introduce someone to wine tasting for the first time and find myself having to explain that, yes, the wine tastes like cherries and no, they don’t put cherries in the wine to get it to taste that way. (But also sometimes that, yes, the wine tastes like oak, and yes, they do put oak in the wine, or wine in the oak, to make that happen.)

Wine and aged brandies, like Cognac, sometimes taste like tobacco. No one adds tobacco to them.* What happens instead is an example of what you could liken to chemical convergent evolution. Brandies can indeed contain odiferous molecules also characteristic of tobacco flavors. But those molecules appear to come from the breakdown of compounds present in grapes, not from any exposure to tobacco (and, needless to say, the tabanones in tobacco don’t come from grape-derived compounds).

Megastigmatrienone is more conveniently called tabanone. Or, more properly, megastigmatrienones are are more conveniently called tabanones, because the designations apply to a group of similar molecules. They seem to show up in wine because carotenoids – the highly pigmented class of antioxidant molecules you’ll recognize from it’s best-known carrot-colored member, beta-carotene – can become megastigmatrienones under appropriately acidic conditions. The precise pathway from grape-derived carotenoids to tobacco aromas remains something of a mystery. It seems that brandies, distilled from grape wine, end up with concentrated amounts of tabanones or precursors which then have an extra chance to develop into tabanones during barrel aging.

That mystery makes all the more interesting a recent study to quantify tobacco aroma molecules in Cognac and Armagnac**. Most of the (many) examples they tested contained some tabanones. Concentrations varied widely, but the Armagnacs averaged higher than the Cognacs and – evidently to everyone’s surprise – the aged rums thrown in for comparison ranked even higher than the Armagnacs. Much higher, in fact, even though the molasses from which rum is distilled doesn’t contain significant amounts either of tabanones or of the identified precursor molecules present in grapes.

So, why is this interesting?

  1. Tobacco aromas in aged spirits are evidently not just coming from molecules originally present in grapes.
  2. The oak barrels used for aging rum, as well as various brandies, probably contributes substantially to tobacco aromas in those spirits by leaching precursor molecules out of the wood and into the spirit and providing favorable conditions for their development.
  3. The researchers behind this study seem to think that their new-and-improved means for quantifying particular variants of tabanones could be useful for distinguishing Cognac from Armagnac, presumably to defend against passing one kind of spirit off as another. Looking at the enormous variation in tabanones between one kind of Cognac and another, or one kind of Armagnac and another, this suggestion seems frankly ridiculous. Chemistry backs up tasting experience: individual bottlings vary dramatically in the presence or absence of tobacco aromas as a defining characteristic. Yes, Armagnacs beat out Cognacs on average, but averages don’t help distinguish individuals when individual variation is so high. A more interesting use of this research, I think, is the starting point it provides for thinking about how barrel-aging adds to tobacco aromas, in spirits and possibly in wines. I suspect that the people who produce these spirits already have a lot to say on that point. Joining their knowledge with some well-placed chemical analyses could improve everyone’s understanding of how tobacco aromas happen and how to manipulate them.


* Ewwww.

**Camper English has drawn up a helpful comparison between Cognac and Armagnac at

Why oak is like pie, and the problems with that

Granted that I actually made a cherry clafoutis for Independence Day, not a cherry pie, but the holiday brings pies to mind. Pie is about as uniquely American as oak is, which is to say, not at all: both were invented and widely used in Europe long before the continent across the ocean was a concern, but Americans nonetheless took them to new and overblown heights (butter-baked-in-butter crack pie/butter pie, anyone?)

Historic pie makes sense. Modern pie is an enigma. And that brings us to oak barrels for wine aging, because the same can be said of both.

It’s hard to say, but pie was probably invented as a stand-in for owning cookware. In a time of communal village ovens (and Romans), a sturdy paste of flour and fat could encase your stew for baking even if you didn’t have a pan to spare. You cracked open the pie, ate the insides, and fed the crust to the dog or the servants. At some point, cooks began to make the crust with human consumption in mind, and pie segued from helpful and decorative (think the 4-and-20 blackbirds song) packaging to food.

A scene in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Farmer Boy sticks in my head as an example of what pie became. The country fair brings a generous table of fruit and custard and mince pies in spades, and the farm boy wants to have a slice of everything. By the time pie made it to the 19th c. farm family, it was clearly a good way to get plenty of calories into people, many of whom probably needed them.

We don’t. Everyone* making pie owns bakeware. Anything that makes sense as pie filling is even better sans crust (save for fillings that don’t make sense inside the pie in the first place; crack pie/butter pie, anyone?) Sweetened berries? Stewed apples? Pumpkin custard? Chocolate pudding? The crust is superfluous. Crusts are time-consuming to make. They’re calorically expensive. But, they look nice and some people are attached to the way they taste.

Replace “crust” with “barrels.” Barrels are very expensive. They’re heavy and hard to handle, subject to toppling in earthquakes, very hard to clean, and prone to contaminating good wines with bad yeast. We have plenty of other storage options. We’ve moved well, well past barrels for storing everything else, from nails to flour to pickles (hipsters excepted) that we once put in them. But, they look nice and a lot of folk have become attached to the way they taste, and so we keep rolling them out, like pie crust.

Yes, oak aging contributes more than flavor. Yes, oak’s breathable qualities, allowing wine to interact with oxygen in a minute and gradual way, are valuable and a royal pain in the engineering to mimic minus the barrel. But imagine that oak barrels were a new innovation instead of an old holdover. “New scientific innovation promises microoxygenation for better tannin integration, but costs thousands of dollars every year, adds days to your annual workload, and increases Brettanomyces contamination.” Would anyone buy it?

I appreciate the rounding and softening influence of oak in my reds as much as the next oenophile. I even like a wave of perceptible oak over the surface of a big-bodied chardonnay now and then. But I don’t like pie**. I think I hear the hypocrisy bell ringing in my ears, and I think it’s time to take oak alternatives more seriously.


*Impromptu midnight college bakers excepted. And me, when I first came to New Zealand and made pumpkin galette instead of pie for Thanksgiving because I’d been in the country three weeks and didn’t own a pie plate yet.

**Really. Ask my poor pie-starved husband who very patiently puts up with crisps, cobblers, and clafoutis.