Age Your Own Whiskey, Moonshine, and Other Spirits


Posted by Jeff on 3rd February 2014

 
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So, you want to age your own whiskey, huh? No matter if you made it yourself (having
obtained the appropriate permits, of course), got it from a friend who made it, or bought some white whiskey at the store, I would certainly highly recommend aging your own! Aging any whiskey, moonshine, brandy, or other spirits can add a lot of flavor, complexity, depth, and smoothness to the final spirit. Not to mention that having a barrel sitting on your bar counter is a great conversation piece! However, there may be a lot more to aging your own whiskey than you think. Believe it or not, whiskey (and any distilled spirit, for that matter) comes out of the still clear as an ice cold mountain stream. All of that beautiful color that the spirit in your glass has is the result of something that happened after it was distilled. It can pick up these colors from oak, charred oak, fruits, and botanicals. So let’s start there, with the pure unadulterated white whiskey.

White Whiskey

White whiskey has many nicknames including moonshine, white dog, hooch, white lightning, and mountain dew, just to name a few. Yes, these are all terms for the distilled spirit that we all know and love. We are going to stick to white whiskey, however, because even if you have never heard the term, you can pretty easily guess what it is. But why is it called whiskey? It sure doesn’t taste like whiskey! Actually, it does. It tastes like whiskey with everything that had been added by the oak removed, and without all these other flavors to get in the way you will be able to get the full effect of the grain bill that the whiskey mash was made with. Be warned, because it will be a little harsher on the throat since it is often served very young before the spirit has had time to mellow and smooth out. We will come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on.

Barrel Aged Whiskey

Age your own whiskey

As mentioned before, the whiskey comes out of the still crystal clear. All of the golden/amber hues you see on the whiskey shelf in the liquor store are the result of the barrel aging process. Just like the grain bill or type of yeast used, the barrel aging process can add a wide variety of character that can help distinguish one spirit from another. Barrel aging started out of necessity. The producers of beer, wine, and spirits needed some way to store and transport their products. Over time, however, the consumers began to notice that the longer these alcohol beverages had been stored for, the better they tasted! So, this is why wooden barrels are still used today when plastic or metal containers would be much cheaper. How serendipitous!

What Happens During Aging?

Putting whiskey in a barrel is like you going to your closest spa and getting a facial. It makes it happy! It also removes a bunch of bad stuff and adds a bunch of good stuff. There are a vast number of processes that go on during the barrel aging, but we will only cover the most important ones at a very basic level. The first process is the addition of flavors, aromas, and sugars. As oak is heated, different compounds begin to develop (like vanilla and toasty or chocolate flavors). When the oak barrels are created, they are heated (usually with flame) on the inside. As that heat works its way into the wood, you get a temperature difference (hottest on the inside where it is actually charred, coldest on the outside), which creates a spectrum of different flavors. As the spirit works its way into the porous wood, it extracts each of these different flavors. Temperature changes, which can be seasonal or artificially created, cause a natural expansion and contraction that force the spirit into and out of the wood, helping it extract even more flavor. The second process is the removal of some of the harsher, nastier compounds. As the spirit works its way through the layer of charred oak on the inside of the barrel, some of the larger molecules are actually trapped in small pores (just like activated carbon). Additionally, some of the more volatile compounds actually evaporate through the walls of the barrel. Lastly, some of the unwanted compounds actually oxidize with time. The cumulative effect of all these processes is a final product that has more flavor and complexity with less bite.

How to Age Your Own Whiskey

With small-scale distillers, there are two common ways of barrel aging spirits; in a small (usually 2-20 liter) barrel, or, with toasted oak chips. Oak chips are by far the easiest and least expensive method. All you need to do is simply add some toasted oak chips to a jar of spirits (i find that 40 grams per quart sized mason jar is just about right) and let it sit until it tastes the way you want it to. There are two downsides to this method. The first is that you don’t get the same spectrum of flavors because all of the chips are toasted at the same temperature instead of getting the heat differential as described above. The second is that none of the unwanted compounds get removed. You can remove some of the volatile compounds by opening the lid every day and circulating some fresh air into the jar, but this won’t come close to the job the barrel does. On the other hand, using a barrel is sure to give you great results, but it will cost you a little bit more. You get what you pay for, right? And my whiskey ain’t going in nothing but the best! We will be writing a whole different post on how to barrel age your whiskey, but we will be sure to link to it from here once we write it.

How long does it take to make whiskey?

This is a tricky question to answer, as it can take anywhere from 2 weeks to several years. However, small batch distillers definitely have the advantage here. When you are making moonshine whiskey in smaller batches, excellent results only take a fraction of the time they would at larger commercial distilleries. This is due to the larger surface area of charred oak to volume of spirits that can fit inside. The larger the barrel, the smaller that ratio gets and the more time the whiskey will need in that barrel. For example, a whiskey aged in our 2L barrel will probably only take a couple weeks, whereas whiskey aged in our 10L barrel will probably take a couple months, and a commercial whiskey in a 53 gallon barrel takes 2 years.

As with everything in distilling, there are a lot of variables, but only one matters in the end: the taste of your final product! Believe it or not, if you leave it for too long, you can impart too much wood flavor into the whiskey. It is generally best to draw a small sample from the barrel every week or two so you can see how it is aging. Once it has the color and taste you are looking for, you can transfer it to a glass jar or bottle for longer storage.

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17 thoughts on “Age Your Own Whiskey, Moonshine, and Other Spirits

  1. Pingback: Curing Your New Charred Oak Barrel

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  3. Brian Kokir

    Hi , I’m disappointed with the last paragraph because I have these big plans to make my own white whiskey and age it in a 10L barrel for for a good 10 years for when my sons grow up , but from what your saying it will not be good , I thought when a bottle says 30 year on it that it is aged in the barrel for 30 years ?

    Reply
    1. Jeff Post author

      Sometimes it has, but those are often 50 gallon barrels (or larger). As the size goes up the ratio of the surface area to the volume of liquid inside goes way down, which makes it hard to over-oak the spirit.

      Reply
  4. Bruce M

    For the last few years I’ve been using 5 liter and 5 gallon barrels that age my whiskey but don’t feel I’m getting enough color and flavor a friend recently turned me onto the use of toasted Oak chips does anyone out there have a proportion of chips to liquor ratio either by weight or by volume

    Reply
    1. Jeff Post author

      I typically use about 30g of oak chips per quart of spirits, but it is really all preference! I would maybe start with 30g, but try a little more and try a little less to see what you like.

      Reply
    1. Jeff Post author

      All of the smaller barrels can be used multiple times, yes. The smaller the barrel, the higher the surface area to volume ratio, so the more times you can use it. Back when I was using 10L barrels, I could use them 2-3 times for whiskey and then several more times for products that do not require as strong an oak flavor (rum, scotch, etc).

      Reply
  5. me not you

    They say that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”
    But that is all I have, so I experiment.

    I started with a alcotec rum mix which I fermented for 14 days instead of the recommended 7 days.
    After distillation I started with 4lt alcohol in a glass jar and used 1 of the clean empty 750ml molasses jar. filled it by 2/3 with some 2mm thick slices of clean seasoned english oak and topped it up with alcohol.
    Standing the jar in a pyrex jug full of hot water from the tap which heats the alcohol and oak slices.
    Kept that going for a couple of hours shaking the jar (and loosening the lid to release any pressure) at 15-20 minute intervals. tipped the contents back into the 4lt jar and left it to sit for 2 weeks. After which I run it through a paper filter and bottled.

    My point is that if you were using whisky barrel chippings ageing wouldn’t have to take a long time.

    It done the trick for me !!!

    Reply
  6. Fred Wilesmith

    how many times can I use my wood chips ? and could I reburn the chips after they dry ? in short …..I distill water and sugar to obtain the alcohol …..find out the alcohol percent if its over 40% …Aistralian standard I dilute it with water to 40% then filter it approx 4 times then add 2 small bottles of whiskey “flavour ” to two one gallon jars and put a handfull of chips in each of “whiskey flavoued” oak chips in the jars an wait for about two weeks , pour and strain the contents into a plastic drum with tap then start filling up the “whiskey bottles”…….I can`t get the oak taste …I get a reasonable taste but not what I`m after …….could you help me on this please

    Reply
    1. Jeff Post author

      Typically, I only recommend using woodchips once. Since they are so thin, all the flavor gets absorbed out of them pretty quickly. If you add them to a second batch, you will get fewer of the nice flavoring compounds that dissolve very quickly and a lot more of the harsher compounds that dissolve out more slowly.

      I am also not sure what quantity of woodchips a “handful” is. I typically recommend 30g of chips per quart of distillate. However, I would experiment, as everyone’s preferences are different!

      Reply
  7. David - TN

    I use a 20L barrel. 1 staging is Waaaaay better than the second after standing for 1 year. Everything I’ve read says don’t use them more than twice… but that’s your preference.

    Upon dilution (to 40% abv) I have noticed that the Whiskey can develop a cloudiness to it (Awesome taste BTW) and I bottle the whiskey for myself and friends. I have read that cloudiness is normal but it sure makes it look ugly when it settles in the bottom of a clear bottle! I’m reading that people use fish-bladder as a filter aide (like bear brewing). Any good suggestions on this and/or other products for filtration OTHER THAN COLD-FILTERING? (I don’t want to go this route with my whiskey). Coffee filters simply aren’t fine enough for a good filter. I’d appreciate your input. Next batch is ready in Jul/Aug next year so I have time to prep.

    Reply
  8. Paul Ritter

    is it cloudy before you. It it to 40%? I believe I read someplace that the cloudiness can come from the minerals in tap water and distilled water should be used to cut the spirit to drinking proof.

    Reply
    1. Jeff Post author

      I live in an area with very pure water, so I have never had issues with minerals. In my experience it is always the tails that get cloudy due to fusel oil content.

      Reply
  9. Paul Ritter

    I’ve been considering an idea and wanted to see if anybody here had any thoughts on it. I want to get a single 53 gallon barrel and spend a year going hog wild with the still to fill it. Once it’s full I want to make 20 liters once a year, I’d take 20 liters out of the barrel for drinking and add the new batch. That would mean changing out about 10% of the aging spirit once a year with new. Would each subsequent year’s draw get better?

    Reply
    1. Jim

      I don’t think that is a bad idea. A 30 gallon barrel might be better. Of course you will need to park it in a permanent place that gets good seasonal variation in temperature.

      Reply
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