The 6 Best Aging Barrels
Since the initial publication of this wiki in December of 2016, there have been 21 edits to this page. Both fine wines and fine liquors get better over time, but the oldest ones tend to be somewhat pricey. Instead of buying expensive beverages from stores, you can age younger and cheaper drinks yourself at home in one of these barrels. Also, they make for excellent decorative pieces and unique wedding or anniversary gifts. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best aging barrel on Amazon.
A Brief History Of Barrel Use
They have stored and transported spirits, wine, beer, and so much more for millennia, and they remain a tried-and-true device to the modern day.
Few items channel the ethos of alcohol quite like a wooden cask. They have stored and transported spirits, wine, beer, and so much more for millennia, and they remain a tried-and-true device to the modern day. People discovered the effects barrel aging could have on the character of a spirit by accident, but the method proved popular enough to stand the test of time. Even after all these years, producers continue to innovate new flavors using the trusty old barrel.
Many experts credit the invention of the wooden barrel to the Gauls, a group of ancient Celtic people who lived in and around what is now modern-day France. They came into frequent contact with (and were eventually conquered by) Roman forces. Up until this point, the Roman army had been using cumbersome ceramic amphora vessels to transport their wares, which could be disastrous seeing as how they broke easily and were difficult to carry during extensive land travel.
They were aware that Mesopotamians used palm wood casks to collect wine from traders, but they were difficult to bend and thus laborious to work with. The Gauls, however, used pliable oak, and the Romans quickly followed suit. They put everything from olive oil and molasses to linens and seafood into them. Although they had adopted a clever new means of moving their goods, they had yet to realize how the barrel would affect their flavor. The average Roman drank wine mainly for its intoxicating effects, but in time they began to recognize that libations stored in barrels tended to taste better.
Oak barrels proved to be a superior mode of transport for a litany of reasons — they were watertight, sturdy, and relatively easy to manufacture, not to mention they could be rolled and stacked. They also weighed less than clay containers, so laborers could move more at once.
Producers used them well into the Middle Ages, where regions like Bordeaux in France made a handsome profit off wine exports. Because international demand was increasing, vintners needed their barrels to hold a larger capacity, and so created the tun. A tun could hold up to 950 liters of liquid and was the standard bulk transport unit in France.
Beer, wine, and liquor each have their own particular history of barrel aging. For example, fortified drinks like port were the result of merchants attempting to prolong their wine’s lifespan by adding brandy to prevent it from oxidizing during long voyages. In the 15th century, Cognac distillers stored their spirits in charred barrels and noticed they imparted a desirable flavor. Barrel aging is so ingrained into alcohol production that it's likely to endure for many more years.
What To Look For In An Aging Barrel
The two most widely sought after varieties of wood for aging are French and American oak. Of course, that's not to say that other materials aren't used in different parts of the world. There are some Asian beverages, such as Japanese sake, that use cedar, and Peruvian pisco is occasionally aged in earthenware. Certain whiskeys and wines can benefit from maple, chestnut, hickory, and cherry — but there are myriad reasons why oak is king. One compelling justification is that it imparts a lovely vanilla essence that softens the overall taste of whatever you put into it. If you're a newbie to this hobby, you're going to want to start off with American white oak.
This means an open flame has blackened the interior and left behind ashy residue, which seeps into the liquid and gives it a deeper hue.
If time is an issue, look for a barrel with a smaller capacity. They rapidly age spirits because they expose a greater wood surface area to their stored volume. For comparison, a cask that can hold a liter or two will age your favorite bourbon in just a few months, whereas an industry standard 52-gallon barrel takes about a year. Take care to monitor the process frequently though, as it’s easy to overage your libations and render them undrinkable.
You'll also want to get a container that's handcrafted in the traditional style by an expert cooper, so you can avoid adhesives and low-grade manufacturing materials. A quality handmade product is also less likely to have leaks or other defects down the line.
It's safe to assume your barrel will arrive brand new, so it's going to impart the bulk of its flavors during the first few uses. To make the most out of these precious opportunities, look for a charred option. This means an open flame has blackened the interior and left behind ashy residue, which seeps into the liquid and gives it a deeper hue. Burning wood also happens to caramelize its inherent sugars, so your spirit will take on a sweet, smooth taste.
What Happens Behind Closed Casks
If it weren’t for the palatable effects wooden barrels have on wine and spirits, liquor producers would probably cease using them altogether. When you introduce alcohol to an oak cask for a long period of time, a chemical reaction takes place and alters the beverage forever. Turns out, this process produces delicious results, and so the barrel business keeps booming. So, just what is happening to your whiskey inside that oaky refuge?
Where the wood comes from, how it's been toasted or charred, the size of the barrel, and the temperature around it are all vital components, not to mention the liquid inside.
Oak may make a watertight barrel, but that doesn't mean it's not porous. Over time, a stored spirit will release some of its water and ethanol content, leaving room for oxygen to creep in. Manufacturers refer to this dissipated portion as the "angel's share", and it can fluctuate depending on the level of humidity in the surrounding area. If humidity is low, more water evaporates, and vice versa.
Wood imparts its own distinct elements into its stored contents. Each type has its own combination of lignins, tannins, and other organic compounds. American white oak, for example, is high in vanillin, which is what accounts for the pleasant creaminess some drinkers report.
There are myriad factors that play into how and why a spirit ages the way it does. Where the wood comes from, how it's been toasted or charred, the size of the barrel, and the temperature around it are all vital components, not to mention the liquid inside. Beer, wine, and liquor all have their own precise science, and producers pride themselves on their extensive knowledge of the processes crucial to creating the best-tasting offerings available.
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