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The Basics of Distilling: Barrel Aging Spirits

Rows of barrels

All good things get better with age. From gin and brandy all the way to vodka, whisky, and tequila – there is one thing all spirits have in common – their colour. They are all clear when they come off the sill; some stay that way, while others gain their colouration from the aging process. But, that’s not the only thing that happens during the aging process.

In case you were wondering how these spirits come to be so palatable, we’re here to divulge the not-so-secret that lies within their aging process. If you’re looking for authentic flavour and essence that stands out from the rest, it’s barrel-aged spirits that you’re craving. 

How Does Barrel Aging Alcohol Work?

Aging refers to the process of storing distilled spirits in barrels for a specified period of time. The objective of aging or maturation is to eliminate harsh flavours from the raw alcohol while incorporating a distinct taste and aroma derived from properties found in the barrel’s wood. 

When the alcohol is poured into the barrel, it is relatively colourless and flavourless. During its stay in the barrel, the alcohol will gradually take flavour and colour from the wood, which explains why some liquors, such as whisky and brandy, have a warm and amber hue. In contrast, clear alcohols, like vodka, lack colour because they weren’t aged.

For optimal flavour, colour, and aroma, spirits are typically aged for approximately 3 years.

A glass of whisky by a campfire

The History of Barrel Aging

It’s no surprise that barrel aging alcohol has a rich history. It all started in 350 B.C., when the Greeks and Romans found they preferred wine that had been aged in barrels over the fermented grape juice they’d been storing in animal pelts and clay. From that point on, the evolution of using barrels for numerous aging processes quickly progressed.

Using barrels for spirit maturation was another story – and was discovered by chance. In the 1800s, early American settlers were in need of a convenient way to store spirits, water, and food during their long travels on horseback and ship. It soon became clear that the best method to stow these goods was to keep them in oak barrels. On these long trips, the whisky had time to age, and experienced some turbulence which helped create more contact between liquor and wood.

It was then discovered that the wood contributed amazing benefits to the spirits’ flavour profile and aroma, resulting in a revelation that every liquor aficionado and expert is grateful for. 

Why the Type of Barrel Wood Matters

The type of wood that is used for aging spirits plays a huge role in determining its overall flavour, aroma, and colour. While it’s true that you can make barrels out of any kind of wood, oak continues to reign supreme for aging spirits. This is because oakwood contains gallic acid, a chemical rich in pseudo tannin compounds. 

Types of Oakwood Used for Barrel Aging Spirits

American White Oak

This type of oak is great for aging whisky, bourbon, and scotch, and has been hailed as the  most commanding force of barrel wood in the world. American white oak barrels are characterized by their ability to impart fragrant notes of vanilla, caramel, and coconut.  

Mongolian Oak 

In the whisky industry, this classification of oak is also typically referred to as Japanese Oak or Mizunara, and is distinguished by its unique spicy rye, oriental incense, and sandalwood tones. 

European Oak

If you want spice, vanilla, and bitter undertones to take center stage in your spirits, European oak is the way to go. This type of oak has a tighter grain structure and is more absorbent than its counterparts. This gives it the extraordinary ability to penetrate deeper into the liquor during the aging process.

Sessile Oak

This species, also famously known as the Irish oak, is commonly found in Europe. Sessile oak is popularly utilized for aging cognac. 

Toasting and Charring Barrels

Distilling experts often kick it up a notch by charring the insides of the barrels with fire. This process helps the oakwood release its natural sugars, therefore caramelizing the tannins towards vanilla. Depending on the level of char, new remarkable flavours come to fruition. If the wood is lightly charred, you can expect a sweet and toasted flavour, whereas heavily charred oak barrels give rise to edgier flavours personified by spicy and smoky aromas. The darker the wood, the deeper the colour of the spirit.

As an example, brandy is typically aged in lightly toasted barrels while American whisky is often aged in heavily charred barrels.

 A glass of whisky sitting on an oak barrel

The External Contributing Factors to Barrel Aging

Barrel aging spirits is an art. In order to produce consistently delicious, perfectly aged liquors, you have to take into account the size of the barrels, the time spent in the barrels, and the environment in which the barrel lives.

The specific timing for aging spirits plays a major role in achieving the desired flavour profile relative to the toast or char of the barrel. The first couple months after a spirit is placed in a barrel is the most crucial because the most amount of change occurs during this time. Over time, the aged spirits integrate into the natural flavours of the barrel and work in a harmonious manner to create a palatable liquor. For instance, Irish whiskies and single malt scotch must be aged for at least three years. In contrast, Añejo Tequila needs to be barrel aged for at least one year, but not longer than three years. 

It’s important to note that the more times a barrel is used for aging spirits, the less impact it has on the liquid inside. Used barrels are commonly put into service for aging cognac, Añejo Tequila, and Scotch whisky.

The environment also plays a role in the barrel aging process. Oxygenating the spirits is the primary goal as it releases volatiles and integrates the ethanol with the wood’s flavour and aroma compounds. Barrels naturally breathe, slowly oxidizing the spirits. Moving the barrels around will produce air bubbles, further breaking up the compounds, forcing spirit integration.

Barrel Aged Liquors at Spirit of York

Superior spirits don’t happen overnight. They are the result of hard work, patience, and tenacity. Thanks to Spirit of York’s perfected process of crafting and refining the spirits you know and love, it’s impossible not to taste the difference with just one sip.

Some fun ways you can try our

barrel aged whisky is by creating Manhattan’s for happy hour, date night whisky food pairings, or just on its own! Let us know what you think by tagging us on Instagram, we’d love to see your creations.

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