...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Final Barrel Experiment, Part IV: Lessons learned

(Monday, Part 1, link)
(Tuesday, Part 2, link)
(Wednesday, Part 3, link)

Part 4 of 4

No matter how they resulted, all of my barrel experiments were fun.  There was a lot of joy in the anticipation each time, marking the calendar, weighing, nosing, drinking, guessing.  And I learned a number of things, the hard way:
  • A spirit does not taste the same fresh out of the barrel as it does after resting in a bottle for a week (or more) afterwards.  That has been true for every spirit I aged in my barrel.  Knowing this would make me a little concerned if I was selecting single casks for paying customers.
    • The Rye Storm was palatable when first bottled, but grew increasingly harsh and astringent in the matter of a couple of weeks. 
    • The Eagle Morning continues to change; the oak and rye notes have grown much stronger over time.
    • The Ron Matusalem rum that I'd used to season the barrel seemed to have changed little when I poured it back into the bottle, but less than a month later it was a sawdust-riddled sulphuric mess.  I've dumped a half bottle down the sink.
    • The whisky blend's palate went from being so-so to almost undrinkable in a week.
  • By suffocating the barrel and cutting off oxidation, maturation is severely altered. There's actual chemistry involved in aging spirits.  A shortcut is a guess and probably a bad idea.
  • One of the major whisky companies really should do a rye-finished single malt.  But...
  • Rye-finished single malts need very little time in the rye barrel because rye is STRONG stuff.  I wonder if rye-finishes have been tried and wound up unsuccessful.  Still...a brief finish in a Rittenhouse barrel shouldn't be too abusive.
  • Malted rye spirit is probably not the best thing to age if you're new to at-home spirit maturation.  Its flavors are much different than the unmalted rye most of us are used to.  I would recommend aging a regular rye spirit (and with some corn in the mash bill) before trying something more experimental.
  • My home is probably too warm to gracefully mature spirits.
  • Milliliters are not the same as grams, no matter what the kitchen scale says.  Density matters.
  • If you're doing spirit infusions, cinnamon sticks and orange peel are elements that require very little time in the liquor. I recommend tasting the infusion after four days, and then testing again each succeeding day.
  • Also, per Alex in yesterday's comments, the cinnamon sticks we Americans see in stores tend to be cassia bark, rather than true Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia tends to be hotter and spicier, while ceylon cinnamon tends to be subtler, fruitier, and pricier!
  • Infusions are an entertaining way to salvage crummy whisk(e)y.

These exercises have often been humbling, as I went into each with a just enough naïveté to mess with the results.  But even if I discount my inexperience, this little barrel was a mystery.  I never knew the char level nor the quality of the cooperage.  Now, if a business offered mini barrels with charring and oak options, I'd recommend it to those who want to do some spirt maturation at home.  But I don't think anyone is offering those options at the moment.  So it's difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend buying a mini-barrel.

I don't foresee me getting a new barrel any time soon, either.  A 2-liter mystery barrel can cost $80-$100.  My three experiments cost $350-$400, not including the barrel (which had been wonderfully gifted to me).  The important result of those expenditures wasn't the weird brown fluids that emerged at the finish line.  What I really received was many months of anticipation, lots of blog content, and an education on how not to mature spirits.  That's been wonderful, but my next set of quirky ideas needs to be cheaper than $500.

Right now I'm much more interested in working on infusions and perfecting brandied fruits.  And I'm even more interested in drinking well made spirits fashioned by those who know what they're doing.  Again, my adventures aren't over.  They're just going to be a little different going forward.


  1. You should chat if you have a chance with a craft distiller. These guys use 40L barrels all the time, no? There may be even smaller ones but larger than 2L (10L?) Maybe they have some to spare, or can point you in the right direction. Professional grade barrel is key. Also, based on your first experiment I commented with some calculations that show that the evaporation rate is sky-high (as you observed) in a small barrel due to the surface/volume ratio. With a 10L barrel you can even keep some whisky though it will be trickier to fill. You probably don't need to keep it 100% full, plenty of barrels out there aging half-full. Three handles of Speyburn 10yo would do the job. Fun stuff, keep up the mad scientist work!

    1. Thanks! You're right about that tiny barrel surface area issue which likely leads to quicker evaporation. When we have a garage (with ventilation) there will be all sorts of hijinks. By the time that happens, the whisky bubble will have burst and then reformed again.

      On a related subject, I spoke with a craft distiller who's making single malt and he's having a lot of issues getting his hands on used bourbon barrels. First, the prices doubled between 2012 and 2013. Then, this year many of his potential suppliers already sold all of their barrels. The difference between he and I, other than the fact that he's actually distilling his spirit, is that I would be looking for smaller barrels and would be willing to take a new one, used one, or even a recharred one if I knew the barrel's history/lineage/charring.

  2. An awesome post and a fascinating line of inquiry. I notice that the vast majority of examples you list tasted better fresh out of the barrel than they did after a period of time in glass. That's pretty interesting given that many have noted that whisky directly from the barrel is uniquely delicious. I wonder of the act of airtight seal closes off the palate (until you pour and air your drams)?

    1. Hey Josh! I'm getting increasingly fascinated by how much whiskies change from barrel to bottle, and then within an bottle, and then in the glass. While they're more stable than wine, they're not static. In addition to an airtight seal being necessary, I would think/hope that the bottling process is as airtight as possible allowing as little oxidation as possible.

      Then there's the gradual bottle-aging that I've found in a couple old blends and you've found more so in all of those fun old bourbons of yours. That's why I like to personify my whiskies and refer to them as living things. Also I'm nuts, but that heightens my enjoyment.