I think we’ve all seen the commercials where they say “barrel aged” for so and so many years. “Aged in the finest casks” or whatever their marketing slogan might be. So what’s the real deal? Well, almost all whiskey is aged, so is it that big of a deal? Yes. The length of time something is aged in a barrel, or a cask, does make a difference. So let’s learn a little bit more about it.
The Barrel Aging Process
Per Wikipedia: “Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been bottled for many years may have a rarity value, but are not “older” and not necessarily “better” than a more recent whisky that matured in wood for a similar time. After a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel does not necessarily improve a whisky.
While aging in wooden casks, especially American oak and French oak casks, whisky undergoes six processes that contribute to its final flavor: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration, and colouration. Extraction in particular results in whisky acquiring a number of compounds, including aldehydes and acids such as vanillin, vanillic acid, and syringaldehyde.Distillers will sometimes age their whiskey in barrels previously used to age other spirits, such as rum or sherry, to impart particular flavours.”
The best way to explain this process would have to be that it “mellows” out the flavor. I think we have all had a cheap liquor here or there. They usually don’t spend as much time crafting it as a more expensive liquor, and this is true for most liquors. Whether it’s ingredients, distilling process, aging process, or whatever it may be, you can always tell when someone cuts a corner.
Aging a barrel of whiskey takes that rough edge off of the taste. In its place it gives nice mellow flavors of the type of barrel it was aged in. In most cases that would be american oak, but there are different varieties. Another trick they use is to sometimes use a barrel that has been used before to age another type of alcohol like Brandy. This will imbue the whiskey with not only the flavors of the barrel but also the flavor profiles of the previous liquor as well.
That is how the process is done on a large scale. The big distillers use large casks and base their aging more on volume than anything else. They of course want to make a quality product but the size of the cask makes a difference in how long it takes to mature the whiskey. The cool thing is that they now have aging kits that you can do yourself at home.
Home Whiskey Aging Kits
It’s a new craze, but oh man is it an awesome one. You can now buy a home whiskey aging kit. They set you up with all you need to get started. And here is the kicker, they give you a small barrell. Here is why that’s important. Whiskey ages much, much faster in a small barrell. They say you can even age a drinkable whiskey in 2 to 4 weeks. In most cases though you are probably looking at 3 to 6 months to mature a good tasting whiskey.
The best part about these kits is they give you everything you need to get started. The only thing you need to do is pick out what kind and follow the directions. They have single malt, blended whiskey, rye, and even bourbon. The spirits are already distilled for you. All you have to do is assemble a few pieces on the barrel, add the spirits, and let the aging process begin.
Here is what typically comes in a kit:
Handmade American White Oak barrel. The virgin oak barrel means that your first fill will be very powerful in terms of oak influence on the flavor. You can re-use a new barrel at least 2 more times before the influence of oak starts to weaken.
New Distilled Spirits. There are different varieties, rye spirit, bourbon, malted barley and blended spirits. Plenty of different whisky styles to choose from.
A tap and stand for the barrel.
(optional) Sometimes a whiskey essence is offered as well to help with the taste.
One of the coolest features of these home kits is that they have a tap. That means you can pour just a small amount to taste it and see how your whiskey is coming along. Of course doing this too often can lead to a quick shortage on the goods, so do this at your own risk!
Tips And Tricks For Home Ageing
I’m sure we’ve all learned by now that things don’t always work out the way they are supposed to in the end. When you’re dealing with something as easy as a home kit, the chances are slim but there is still the chance that things won’t go as smoothly as advertised. So here are some tips to make sure that things go as well as can be expected.
Make sure the seals are tight. If you notice any leakage when filling it, add some hot water to the barrel which will help the wood to expand and become more water tight.
Make sure all of the hardware is in good working condition before adding the spirits. Check the tap, the bung, even the stand to make sure all are in good working order.
Ensure the bung and tap have a proper seal.