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The trail of the barrel

The trail of the barrel

Unlike other whiskeys, bourbon is always aged in new white oak barrels. In the United States, there is actually a law saying that for any spirit to be called straight bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years in new oak containers. This is done because the new wood imparts distinct flavors and a great deal of color. The predominant flavors from the oak are vanilla and caramel. This woody flavor comes across as sweet and is one of the defining characteristics of the aroma and flavor of bourbon.

To make the barrel, wood is cut into staves that are heated, bent into an oval shape and then formed into a barrel. The barrel is then toasted to caramelize the wood’s sugar and then charred evenly to add a charcoal layer. Bourbon is then added to the barrel and aged for several years. During the aging process, the bourbon moves ¾ of an inch into and out of the 1-inch thick oak wood, which is why it is essential to have new barrels for each aging process to ensure consistency.

After the barrels have been used, they are either broken down into separate staves or left whole and then they are shipped to Canada or overseas where they are used again and again to making scotch and Irish whiskey. Canadian distillers feel that bourbon barrels are the best barrels for aging because it adds flavor and removes any harshness in their whisky. Currently nearly half a million bourbon barrels are shipped to Scotland to use in the aging process of Scotch whisky. Often these bourbon-barrel aged scotches are blended together with sherry-aged scotches.

Bourbon barrels are also used to age more than just whiskeys. Upscale bars have started purchasing used bourbon barrels and letting gin-based cocktails sit in the used, charred casks. The strong gin flavor is one of only a few non-whiskey liquors that can hold up against the strong char and whiskey characteristics. The finished product is a softened, more flavorful gin cocktail.

Winemakers and brew masters have noticed the importance of the bourbon oak barrels. Winemakers from the United States to Australia have begun using bourbon-aged barrels to impart unique flavors into their wine. When it comes to beer, the ale is typically aged in freshly decanted bourbon barrels to ensure the most flavors are imparted. This aging process provides subtle flavors of vanilla and oak that lead to a smooth and robust beer.

And bourbon barrels aren’t used just for other beverages. There is bourbon-Madagascar vanilla extract that is aged in bourbon barrels. This gives the vanilla a rich, aromatic and sweet flavor. Or try the bourbon barrel maple syrup, which is aged in 12-18 year old single barrel bourbon casks. The barrels are agitated during the aging process so that the most oak, vanilla and spice notes are imparted into the syrup.