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 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
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 for aging moonshine 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! Check out this post about oak barrel aging and the benefits of charred oak barrels.
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. We recommend aging whiskey in small barrels if you’re new to distilling.
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.