Barrel-Aged Alcohol: How Does It Work?

by Amy Myers

From spirits to wine to even beer, brands love to boast the phrase “barrel-aged” on the label, but what exactly does this process entail?

Grab a glass – it’s time to get behind the barrel and find out how the process enhances the flavor of our favorite drinks.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s break down the process into basic terms. When we pour a glass of barrel-aged whiskey, those warm wooden flavors come through on the palate, adding complexity to the experience. In a sense, when the alcohol sits in barrels, it absorbs the flavors present in the wood. Whatever characteristics that the wood inhabits transfer over to the liquid.

Now, the specifics.

Wine and Spirits Undergo Similar Barrel-Aging Processes

Different types of barrel-aged alcohol don’t all react to the process in the same way, but regardless of the liquid, the change occurs at a chemical level. Barrel-aging is most popular in the production process for wine. For this type of alcohol, placing wine in the barrel is the last step in the equation before bottling. During the time that the wine spends in the barrel, it not only has a chance to absorb the flavors of the wood but also matures into its own personality.

As The Takeout describes it, this is “when the wine becomes a grown-up.”

The process for barrel-aged spirits isn’t too different. Just as for wine, the finished product depends on how much time the alcohol spends in the barrel and what type of wood the distiller chose for the spirit. Charred oak barrels will result in smokier flavors, while cherry wood might result in more floral tones.

The treatment of the wood barrels greatly defines which flavors will come through in the spirit. So, it’s extremely important that the distiller or winemaker takes extra care in choosing the right conditions for their product. A sweet red might not need floral flavors as the sugars may overpower this addition. Instead, using an aged oak barrel will add a balancing component that ensures a full-bodied experience for the sipper.

The Lesser-Known Barrel-Aged Alcohol

The barrel-aged process has even reached the brewing industry recently. According to HopCulture, the first brewery to mass-produce barrel-aged beer was Goose Island in 1992. Since then the trend has been slow to build but is nevertheless an important part of the industry.

Barrel-aging best complements imperial stouts, barley wines and similar, heavier varieties. For Goose Island’s inaugural Bourbon County Stout, the company seats their beer in bourbon barrels, implementing those warm flavors and smooth finish into their frothy beer.

Ultimately, no matter which barrel-aged alcohol you choose, you’re in for a more thoughtful and intentional experience. So, the next time you reached for an oak-aged wine or a whiskey with a cherry-barrel finish, be sure to savor that sip a little longer to enjoy the chemical process at work on your tastebuds.