Beyond Angels And Devils: Alternatives To Barrels And New-Age Aging

For centuries, the barrel has been the vessel of choice for aging wine, stout, whiskey, bourbon and rum – until recently.

Now our options are seemingly endless, and for traditionalists, controversial.

Barrel Innovation: Virtue or Vice?

Regardless of vessel, aging is essentially how your spirit interacts with its environment over time. The product matures inside the barrel by circulating through the grain of the wood. The wood transfers the flavor and color found in the natural wood and from wood treatment. The product inside the barrel takes on some of the tannins which leads to the astringent quality of whiskey; aldehydes add character, and esters leads to fruity or flowery aromas.

Artificial augmentation of this barrel-effect has become a popular choice for the experimental distillery, brewery, or winery. Some producers will also include additives or wood chips for extra flavor, or even use other containers to age their spirits, and add charred oak sticks or chips to simulate the barrel environment.

The results are debatable, and will be different, but both can leave you with a wonderfully unique and flavorful product. The approach you choose ultimately depends on the resources available to you, and whether you consider your operation traditional or modern. For example, using barrel alternatives will saturate your product with charred oak flavor more quickly, allowing a faster aging process. Traditionalists may argue that a barrel-aged product using age-old practices results in more subtle, deeper flavors.

Aging inside a barrel also involves varying degrees of micro-oxygenation depending on the climate. Today, artificial micro-oxidation in wine has become its own niche among producers, a practice in which purists don’t partake. A wood barrel is porous, allowing the alcohol inside to “breathe.” A micro-oxidation device, commonly used with wine, will accelerate this process just like a barrel alternatives alter flavor.

There are many different factors that affect your yield, and choosing which route to go will depend on variables like the resources you have available to you, but also, climate.

Climate is the sometimes overlooked environmental factor that affects your yield significantly during the aging process. Barrels seasoned in a shore climate will have a very specific aromatic characteristic. Irish whiskey producers even claim that much of their product’s special flavor comes from seasoning their wood and aging their whiskey by the sea.

The Sacrificial Portion

Sometimes as much as 2% per year, may evaporate from the barrel. Known as the angel’s share, this is more common in warmer climates, and is a hallmark of Cognac production, where the warehouses are coated by a specific mold caused by Cognac’s angel’s share. Using vessels other than barrels will prevent this loss, the reduction of the product also increases smoothness and mouth feel. The porous wood of the barrel is what allows the liquid inside to extract its benefits like flavor and color. Attempts at reducing loss from a barrel will therefore also affect quality. That’s where working in oak alternatives can be a feasible solution.

Some product is also lost during aging because it is absorbed into the barrel, which is known as the devil’s cut. Keeping the barrel in humid conditions can help avoid the devil’s cut, but in some cases, this is a desirable effect, as producers of other products not regulated by the spirit industry purchase and reuse these barrels to add depth of flavor to their own product.

Being aware of these interactions allow you to use them to your advantage during the aging process. The main environmental factor your product interacts with is, of course, the wood, which makes the type and treatment of barrel or barrel substitutes and additives you use one of the most important tools to carefully consider when planning the development of the product you hope to achieve.

Wondering which additives can work for your products? Our inventory experts can guide you in picking sticks, grains, chips, or answer any questions you might have about your barrel specs. Let’s chat.

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