The Changing Dynamics of Bespoke Used BarrelsBy Guest Contributor,
Noah Steingraeber of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel
We all like to be different, to stand out amongst the crowd and be noticed. This sentiment holds true for the beverages we choose to both consume and produce – particularly when it comes to spirits.
So how does one bourbon stand out among a crowd of other bourbons? Or a scotch, whiskey, or rum for that matter? Luckily within the infinite wizardry of distillation, there are many ways to produce a unique product in a segment. A primary way of differentiation is through the distiller’s selection of barrels. The barrels utilized (new, previously filled, etc) for overall maturation and finishing a spirit sets each product apart from the rest.
Traditionally, spirit maturation has centered around the use of oak barrels with various char levels and wood seasoning duration. However, many distillers also finish (or even fully mature) in previously filled barrels that held fortified, dessert style wines or spirits such as sherry, port, madeira, rum, cognac, and brandy. These used barrels contribute to the sweetness, spice, floral and fruit notes desired by consumers in a spirit’s final character, without the need for undesired or regulated additives such as caramel coloring or sugar. As such, these finishing barrels continue to be the most requested used barrels we procure for clients.
Identifying and reaching a desired profile is an art we achieve by partnering with our clients. We work with distillers and blenders one-on-one to find the most appropriate used barrels to suit their needs – whether it be a more focused, concentrated profile of lactones versus esters, or reduced phenols and heavier aldehydes, or other varied nuances.
Ultimately, it depends on what is being put into a barrel, so distillers are seeking to get a little bit of both profiles from the original distillation barrel, as well as from the maturation or finishing barrel. We (distillers) achieve these profiles by playing around with different production and maturation methods in overall aging. As one example, you can seek to obtain more heavy esters and character from a (used) Agricole rhum barrel to further elevate the ester profile within your whiskey. Or we might take two high-proofed whiskeys that are blended in with a low-proof whiskey, which already had some flavors and oxidization from being finished in a Madeira wine barrel. Then we’ll take that tri-blended whiskey product to be further aged and finished within a cognac cask for additional time. Certain spirit profiles play better together, so you have to be cognizant as to what each tweak will have on the final spirit.”
(Talk about barrel inception)
Today, some producers are seeking even more exotic previously filled barrels than sherry or cognac. We have assisted clients in procuring many of these unique options for finishing – from French Agricole rhum, pineau de charente, sochu, gin, tokai, orange curacao, chartreuse, mezcal and tequila, to even sauces and sweets (hot sauce, mead, bitters, honey, or maple syrup.)
Like chefs in a spice market, distillers will continue to seek out the proverbial “golden ticket” of new, complimenting extractives from a combination of new and previously filled barrels and wood to further elevate their unique lineup of offerings. Like spice market brokers, we work alongside distillers to seek out these previously filled finishing gems to help set their product apart from the rest because ultimately, we love to enjoy these rich, unique tastes too.