Wood aging has reached new levels. Whiskey now matures in ex-beer barrels, beer in former mezcal casks, bourbon barrels are holding cab sauv, and everything in between.
Has it gone too far? Do some barrel-aged products lose track of the original alcohol flavors? And what about combos — say, rye whiskey in former milk stout barrels — that don’t work but are released anyways?
These are helpful mistakes, argues Jane Bowie, Maker’s Mark maturation specialist. “Learning is always good,” she said during a panel on wood influence held Oct. 23 at Fine & Rare in NYC. “Innovation from a learning standpoint allows us to move forward.”
“People want more flavor,” she added. “Our palates are so much different now than they were 50 years ago. So we’ll keep pushing it because that’s what people want.”
Bowie believed “seasoning” wood was the most underrated part of barrel aging. Maker’s leaves wood outside for a full year so that these staves naturally dry. This pulls out tannins and highlights vanilla and spices, Bowie explained. Maker’s also chars barrels a lighter level than most distilleries, which they believe increases esters for more fruit and tertiary notes.
Bowie was joined onstage by Mollie Battenhouse MW, national director of wine education for Jackson Family Wines, Eric Brown, Brooklyn Brewery barrel manager, and John Paul Bourgeois, executive chef of Blue Smoke. Spirits authority Fred Minnick led the panel.
“There’s so much we still don’t know about wood influence, and we probably don’t want or need to know everything, but we’ll continue to look into it significantly,” said Bowie.
So look for more and more wood experiments. After all, with consumers now less brand loyal and more flavor-curious, producers must continually come out with new, creative releases that attract attention. That requires taking chances.
Brown recalled aging beers in casks that had previously held 12-year-old Laphroaig. “We had to cut that beer with unaged beer just to bring down all the peatiness and smokiness,” he said. “You could smell it as soon as you opened the barrel. It was too much.”
Other odd mixtures come together perfectly. Brown brought with him a wild ale aged in mezcal barrels. The forward notes of funk morphed wonderfully into smoky earthiness on the back end for a smooth, memorable transition of flavor.
“We don’t normally use a lot of mezcal barrels, because there’s not a lot of aging in making mezcal so that’s not as much barrel output,” Brown explained. “But with mezcal becoming bigger alongside tequila, aged mezcal is becoming more of a thing, so there’s probably going to be a lot more mezcal barrels available in the future.”
Ex-bourbon barrels are still the gold standard when it comes to used casks, said Brown. Besides their tasty whiskey flavors, they’re also cheaper that procuring new oak. But with the number of U.S. breweries at an all-time high — exceeding 5,000, many which make bourbon-aged beers — and with wineries and Scotch/Irish distilleries also looking to buy them, producers face more difficulty acquiring these vessels affordably.
“Because of that, people are seeking other spirits-and-oak combinations,” Brown added.
In wine, American oak remains standard for being flavor-neutral, allowing producers to char it to whatever flavors they prefer, and its airtightness. Nevertheless, aging wine in cement eggs has come back into fashion, Battenhouse observed, while plastic versions of these eggs have also increased in usage.
These more flexible options are trending in part because sometimes the chosen aging method “come down to what space is available,” Battenhouse said.
She also noted a rise in wines aged in cherry wood.
Of course, there is a price to pay for alcohol that does not age well in barrels, whether due to over-experimentation or poor handling. “We all have to answer to the marketing team,” said Bowie.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Why Age Whiskey at Sea?