What gives a whisky its character? The barrel aging, of course!
Let Urban Barrel show you how it’s done.
A fine whisky stands out, commanding attention and satisfying the palate. What makes a fine whisky what it is, though? Any master distiller can tell you: it is the barrels, always the barrels in which you age the whisky.
An art in and of itself, barrel aging is the reason for the distinctive and unique flavors that you experience when you drink all your favorite spirits. If there is something in particular that you appreciate about some spirit, the odds are good that it is the barrel that you really appreciate. Instead of tasting the chemicals inside the spirit, chemicals that make spirits taste harsh or unpalatable, the barrel gives it a rich profile, one that you can revel in and look forward to, one that you can go back to again and again.
Aged whisky is special among spirits, holding a singular place not only in distillers’ hearts but in spirit enthusiasts’ hearts as well. We understand that at Urban Barrel, which is why we put so much time and effort toward doing barrel aging right.
So, how can you tell if a whisky has gone through barrel aging anyway? That part is simple: if a whisky is colored caramel, brown, or tan, then you know it is aged (since whisky comes out clear before it goes through barrel aging). While distillers may often use different ingredients in the whiskys that they intend to barrel age, it is the barrels that give them the darker complexion for which whiskys have become known – and in actuality, the ingredients are sometimes identical between clear and dark whiskys, the only difference the barrel aging process (i.e. the love that the distillers have shown each batch).
This probably brings up more questions than it answers. For instance, why do we age whisky at all? Why do we let it sit in barrels – why resist enjoying it the moment that it is “whisky,” clear or not? To answer this question, we need to look back into our history, to a time when most wine and spirits made their way around the world via ship. During this time, wooden barrels were a logistical necessity, and as consumers noticed (and came to expect) that barrel-aged taste, most people agreed: the barrels were doing a whole lot more than just transporting the spirits from one place to another. Rather, they serve to make whisky into something that is more than what it is when it is fresh and clear, more than what it could ever be otherwise.
During the barrel aging process, the barrels’ wood filters the spirit gradually and tenderly, the temperature, humidity, and pressure changing with each passing moment, giving the whisky a life and a personality all its own. The vanillin and tannin that the spirit extracts from the wood add to the spirit’s color and its flavor, crafting something that is much smoother and less caustic than the raw whisky product that went into the barrel in the first place. In this process, there is no cutting corners. The barrels do their work deliberately, slowly, with a grace that no laboratory process can replicate.
To age whisky right at home, you can buy or construct a white oak barrel of your own, filling it with warm water so that it swells and so that you don’t need to worry about any leaks once you fill it with your raw whisky product. Oak aging does not take nearly as long as you may expect if you are a first-timer: when you are aging your spirit at home, you can achieve impressive results quickly, the small scale saving you time (though costing relatively more because you are missing out on the cost-cutting that comes with larger volumes). Instead of months or years, you can expect to age your small batch of whisky is just days or weeks. Just be aware that a small amount will evaporate from each batch (and factor that amount into your cost), be cognizant that you never leave your barrel dry, and be careful not too “over oak” your whisky by leaving it in the barrel too long: give it a taste every few days to see how it feels and tastes to you, determining exactly the point at which it is perfect for you.
Serving Up! Make Your Own Perfect Barrel-Aged Cocktail with These Helpful Tips
1. Try a little seasoning!
Instead of serving your cocktail plain, give it a little something different by adding orange peel and vanilla-infused Oloroso sherry to it. This is your key to something magnificent and exotic, a truly vibrant whisky experience.
2. Don’t let leaks happen to you!
As your spirit sits inside your barrel, the temperature, humidity, and pressure are going to move up and down in succession, which can cause leaks over time. This is not something that you need to accept as a given. You can even add a little more flavor to your spirit by adding something like organic beeswax to the interior of your barrel: just spread it over any potentially leaky spots and then use a blowtorch to melt the beeswax onto the wood of the barrel. Beeswax and oak – yum!
3. Use your barrel over and over.
Every time you use your oak barrel, you are adding a little more character to it. Each barrel should last at least four or six batches, but you can push it even further, putting a little controlled oxidation into your cocktails via the barrels that aren’t suited for real aging anymore.
4. The Solera Process – a Spanish delicacy.
If you want a consistently fine barrel-aged cocktail, try out the Solera process for Spanish sherry bodegas. Just empty the barrel halfway, fill it up with half of another barrel, and keep on mixing, concocting something that is unlike anything else you will find on the market. This is a classic old Urban Barrel recipe!