So far, all the articles here at Easy Does It FI have been philosophical. Philosophy of happiness, FI, and life in general are pretty heavy topics. And while I’ve only started to scratch the surface on these points, I wanted to take a step away for something a little more practical and fun: home barrel-aged whisk(e)y!*
Over the past couple years, many storefronts have started selling “baby barrels”- small oak barrels charred inside- as a way to “barrel age” cheap liquor at home and convert it to a smoother, more refined top-end liquor.
Interested in learning a new skill that could potentially turn a $10 bottle of booze into a $100+ bottle, I found a local shop selling barrels made by a Minnesota cooper. When they had a sale, I dropped by for a 1 L sized barrel. I also picked up a few “essences”, little bottles of flavor concentrate. I headed home and proceeded to start my first batch of home-barrel-aged fine Tennessee whiskey.
Since then, I’ve made several batches and gotten a much better handle on what works best. So how did it go? Is it worth trying for yourself?
Overall, if you are interested in trying something new (and enjoy tinkering with alcohol), the fun of experimenting, alone, has more than paid out the cost of procuring the barrel.
The liquor results have also been very positive. Would I ever mistake the home-made stuff for something out of a $200+ bottle of fine single malt scotch or bourbon? No, thankfully not (if a little barrel could do that, it would take all the fun out of sampling fine drams!). But what the barrel does do is improve the flavor with added smoothness and oakiness. There’s no magic here, what goes in is what comes out, so I recommend using drinks or brands you already generally like. “Garbage in, garbage out”, so if you like what you put in, what you get out will only be better. That low-end liquor you generally save for mixing with coke will become the top-shelf base liquor you mix with fine liqueurs to make manhattans, negronis, mint juleps, or mai tai’s. If you like what you make enough, you can certainly sip it on the rocks or neat, but again, it probably will never be exactly the same as the stuff the professionals charge big money for. On that note, “garbage in, garbage out” works to a point; I’d never risk ruining a 12-year scotch in the hopes of turning it into an 18-year clone!
Put another way, lots of brands have different levels often denoted by different label colors. Generally, all the spirits from a company start out as a mash made from the same grain bill and brewed, fermented, and distilled in the same vessels by the same people. The only difference will be what happens to that spirit after it comes off the distillation run. This is where the barrel comes in. Think of it as a way to convert that cheap-label color into the top-shelf label color of the same brand. It’s the same base ingredients but with additional complexity and smoothness.
The first step, (after you buy the barrel,) is to select the right beverage. While pretty much every beverage on the market has an expression aged in barrels, whiskeys like bourbons and scotches tend to be a good place to start because the spirit is fairly neutral and complemented well by woody flavors (as opposed to something like rum which is infused with spices). If you plan to barrel different types of beverages, try to pick something that won’t leave a sticky residue. Since the barrel breathes, avoid ingredients which spoil (like milk or juice) or go flat (like carbonated beverages). As I mentioned above, “garbage in, garbage out”, so the more you like what goes in, the better you will like what comes out.
The only other point in making your selection is what proof to barrel. Usually distillers barrel at “cask strength” which is upwards of 120-150 proof. Since this is your first time, I recommend just going with bottle strength (80-100 proof). Your barrel will have years of life to experiment with later.
Once you have your barrel and liquor, soak your new barrel in water as per the included instructions. Barrels come dry, so getting a good seal requires hydrating the staves. Getting a good seal from the outset will help avoid drips and ensure the barrel lasts for years. As the first liquid to touch your barrel, it’s also cool to see how much color the water picks up in just a few minutes. Fresh barrels come loaded with flavor!
While the barrel is hydrating, it’s time to consider filtration. The char in the barrel creates a layer of carbon which will act as a filter as the liquid seeps in and out of the wood, but why not help it out? I typically run my whiskey through an activated charcoal filter before barreling. Will it remove some of the flavor? Yes. But it can also remove some of the artificial colors and nasty congeners. Having tried it both ways, I’ve found that it is the single best step for removing the fiery burn of cheap booze. I have also found that higher quality filters have more effect (I.e. multi-stage vs. single stage filters) and that re-pouring back through the filter can improve it further (albeit with diminishing returns). The Mythbusters actually showed similar results with vodka years ago. Also, if you’re afraid of the cost of filters, just use the pitcher you have in the fridge. After rinsing liquor through mine, it goes right back to work in the fridge. I can’t taste any lasting impact on my water, and so far, my wife has yet to notice.
Once you have your liquor and barrel prepared, you’re ready to fill. You can add as much or as little as you like, but you should at least add enough to keep the barrel wet and avoid leaks.
After the barrel is charged, leave it alone for a couple weeks. Rotate the barrel every couple of days to help ensure the liquor touches all the wood and the wood stays moist. (But don’t worry if you forget, I’ve left mine 2/3 full for weeks with no problems.) During this time, two competing processes will occur, oaking and airing.
“Oaking” is the process by which the liquids in the liquor dissolve flavoring chemicals out of the wood. Wood contains glucose and other sugars as well as oily resins, organic compounds like vanillins and tannins, and plenty of proteins. Water and ethanol are both fairly strong solvents and will work to dissolve these compounds out of the wood. The char works here to caramelize those sugars and increase contact surface area. Temperature swings over time will further accelerate the process mechanically by causing the barrel to expand and contract, forcing the liquor into and out of the wood.
The other process, which I’ve alluded to as “airing” or “breathing”. This is what happens as ambient air moves in and out of the barrel. (Try leaving wine or liquor out overnight and taste the difference a few hours makes.) The barrel is not airtight and the expansion/contraction mentioned above will create airflow around the whiskey. This will have many effects including some oxidation as well as evaporation of the liquor. In commercial, 52 gallon barrels, the amount of evaporation lost as “Angel’s Share” can be 1-7% per year. Due to smaller size, a baby barrel could lose over half the volume in a year. As this evaporation occurs, the liquor will try to equilibrate with the ambient air. In cooler, more stable climates, like Scotland, the process will occur much slower than in hot, dry places like Kentucky. In moist climates, alcohol will tend to preferentially evaporate (lowering proof) while in dry climates, water will evaporate (increasing proof). Obviously, some of this effect also depends on starting proof of the liquid. A climate would have to be very moist indeed to reduce ABV to below bottling proof!
As you wait on your barrel, these two processes will compete. Swings in ambient conditions, barrel geometry, and concentration of oaky chemicals will promote one process or the other. In a first-fill baby barrel, the oaking will be very rapid. For a first fill barrel, you can probably wait about two weeks and then start sampling your liquor. Taste it over time, and let it go as long as you want. If you let it go longer, it will become more heavily oaked, which is fine, as long as you like those flavors. When you feel like it’s ready, bottle it, label it, and pour in a new liquor to age.
Repeated and Long-Term Use of Your Barrel
Over time and repeated fills, you will notice changes. Over the course of repeated fills, the oak flavors will dissolve out of the wood. The remaining flavors will be deeper in the wood and less soluble in the liquor. Oakiness requiring days on first fill will take months on eighth fill and its exact character will differ since the wood gives up most of its sugars quickly. As the pace of oaking slows, the liquor will have more time to breathe, adding more smoothness and time for evaporation.
Eventually, the oaking will be so slow, that very little flavor will be imparted into the barrel. At this point, you have a choice. You can attempt to rechar the inside of your barrel or find some fresh wood.
Given how difficult it would be to get a small torch through the bung and how uneven the reaulting char would be, I recommend sourcing your own wood chips. Many home brew stores will sell charred wood chips, but it’s so expensive for such a small bag, why not make them yourself.
To make woodchips, all you have to do is source some untreated white oak and char it. I found a farmer in Pennsylvania selling 30″ staves (for constructing scarecrows) and willing to ship a couple for cheap. Once delivered, I used a dovetail saw to cut them into small (~1″ on a side) cubes. I charred them by baking them in my oven for 3-4 hours. I didn’t flame char anything because I still carbon filter my whisky (and didn’t want to turn the little wood blocks into charcoal briquettes).
Toasting the wood at different temperatures will bring out different flavors (see below). I targetted the “sweet” spot in the low 300-F range.
A handful of these freshly charred/toasted oak cubes will add renewed oaking power to your barrel. Just make sure you cut them small enough to get out of your barrel.
One final note on fresh chips and aging: You could do your oaking separately in a jar and then barrel it for the breathing. I’ve tried this in various sequences, and have found I tend to get impatient and add more oak than necessary to the jar stage. This “over-oaking” works best for liquors that really need the extra flavor to cover the underlying spirit. Commercial moonshines, for example, can taste a bit like rancid corn (to me).
The wood- “American White Oak” is the most commonly used wood for barrels in North America. First-fill barrels get used in the USA for whiskey, before getting reused at least twice more (and over the course of up to 30 years) by the scotch distilleries. Oak is used for the relatively neutral flavor profile as well it’s high density “hardwood” character which makes a better seal and attenuates oaking.
The Char- Distillers can order barrel with “medium” or other amounts of char which are supposed to have a different level of burn and depth of penetration into the wood. Any cooper will tell you that a barrel on fire is fairly difficult to control, so most barrels get what they get in terms of exact flame level.
Essences- These little bottles of additives work under the assumption that vodka is just water and ethanol, while whisky is just water, ethanol and some additional flavors. Essences are supposed to be the concentrated flavors filling the role of “additional flavors”. However, what’s the chance that someone could recreate those “extra whisky/rum/tequila flavors” from scratch with any level of authenticity? The only way I could think would be to make a bottle of whisky and somehow remove all the ethanol and most of the water. Who in their right mind would go to that effort and ruin a nice bottle of whisky?
Proof of liquor to age- All professional distillers barrel age at “cask strength”. This higher concentration of ethanol will change how flavors dissolve from the barrel and how the liquid evaporates over time. It will also allow a distiller to produce more bottles of product from a given barrel because they get to dilute it down before bottling. I recommend experimenting with aging different concentrations as well as diluting to different proofs before bottling. I tend to go on taste, but you can use a distiller’s hydrometer to get a better estimate of proof at each step in the process.
Parting words, “Taste, taste, taste!” and have fun!
*I don’t descriminate. A great whisky/whiskey can come from anywhere, and I plan to bounce around freely in my use of the “e”. In general, the unwritten rule is that a country with “e” in the name (Ireland, United States) keeps the “e” in “whiskey”, while countries absent an “e” in their name (Scotland, Canada, Japan) spell it “whisky”.