Whiskey is booming in popularity and distillers are choosing to use inventive techniques in their whiskey making. It’s an exciting time for whiskey and one of the terms we’re hearing a lot of lately is “_______ barrel finished.” Now a finished whiskey is a one that has been aged in standard oak (new-charred if it’s a bourbon) barrels then ‘finished’ for however long in used barrels previously containing something else (wine, maple, etc.) There is no certain amount of time a whiskey needs to spend in another barrel to be considered finished but the longer it stays the more flavor it picks up. This is done to help add more flavor profiles and complexity to the whiskey.
My concern with this method is that it is sometimes used to masked premature whiskey or cover up a mediocre whiskey and slap a trendy “barrel finished” label on it. Craft distillers don’t have the luxury of having whiskey stock aged 5, 10, 12 years and they don’t have time to let their stock age for that long. So we are seeing some distilleries release whiskey that hasn’t had time to fully mature and just masked with a certain finish. But don’t get me wrong there are certainly good craft distilleries out there. This is just a concern I bring up to help you evaluate the market of “barrel finished” whiskeys.
Now finished whiskeys are not a new thing, many scotch distillers have used ex-bourbon or ex-sherry barrels for some time now. It just here in America, the bourbon producers seem to now be getting into the game. Angel’s Envy made a big splash with their port wine finished bourbon. And they are soon to be the first (correct me if I’m wrong) finished rye producers on the market. Parker’s Heritage, the highly respected limited series collection from Heaven Hill, released a cognac finished bourbon in 2011. New Holland, the maker’s of Dragon’s Milk Barrel Aged Beer, have made a bourbon aged in barrels used for Dragon’s Milk in effect creating a cycle with their beer and bourbon.
There are also other craft distillers using previously used barrels for aging and finishing but this is not a technique reserved solely for the little guys. Maker’s Mark who is owned by Beam Inc. also put a twist on their bourbon. Maker’s 46 which launched a couple of years ago was the company’s first off shoot product in its 50+ year existence. What Maker’s decided to do rather than come up with an entirely new product, was to use already matured standard Maker’s Mark. When it was dumped from the barrel, seared french oak staves were inserted in the barrel then the Maker’s was dumped back in and allowed to age for a few more months. This type of finishing process is what gives Maker’s 46 its distinct flavor.
inserting seared oak staves in the barrel / Courtesy of Makersmark.com
Woodford Reserve also put a twist to the finishing process with their Double Oaked Bourbon. Woodford like Maker’s used already matured standard WR. Then it is placed in another barrel that is toasted for twice as long as the first barrel but is charred only slightly. Again after a few months in this second barrel the bourbon comes out with a distinct flavor that is different from the standard WR. Woodford has also been dabbling in standard finishing techniques. Their annual master collection has seen them release a maple finished bourbon and this past year’s release ‘Four Wood’ Four Wood contained bourbon aged in standard American Oak barrels then finished in, sherry, port and maple barrels. A very experimental process undertaken by WR master distiller Chris Morris.
So as you can see there are many different ways you can go about ‘finishing’ whiskeys and I for one enjoy some of these very much. I am a fan of ‘finished’ whiskeys when it is done right. Again if it is just to cover up defects or hide the youth of the whiskey the outcome can be disastrous and the consumers can tell. Like I said it’s an exciting time for whiskey, especially here in the States and I can’t wait to see what other inventive whiskeys will hit the market.