Updated: Feb 11
Ever think about making whiskey but didn't want to mess with all the sticky legal issues that accompany distilling your own? First we have to really know what makes a whiskey. Well, as a general definition, Whiskey is an alcohol fermented and distilled from grains, which can be malted (a process where the grain is sprouted and then dried to stop the sprouting) some say it must be at least 51% corn but other grains are barely and rye. After fermenting the grains it is distilled and placed in wooden barrels, which is where whiskey gets its' signature flavor. While many parts of the process contribute to the whiskeys' taste there is much to say about the aging process. So we'll take a few minutes to discuss.
Wood Barrel Aging:
First we will cover the barrel type. There are many woods that can/have been used for aging whiskey, such as hickory and Maple wood, French Oak, Redwood, Walnut, Cherry, and Chestnut but overwhelmingly American White Oak takes the cake. The American White Oak is the most widely used barrel wood for wine and whiskey, mainly due to the preferred flavor from the wood. American White Oak contains several types of Vanillan compounds, which are the same chemicals that give vanilla its' worldwide popularity. This is becoming widely known to the point that there are companies looking to synthesize vanilla from oak due to the vanilla extract prices. In the end, American White Oak wins the barrel debate because it gives a smooth vanilla taste to the liquor, but you can always experiment.
Now that we know the wood lets talk taste. There are many companies that char their barrel insides before aging whiskey in them, in fact some require it. A Bourbon must be aged in a charred barrel to get its name. Why you might ask? Many claim the carbon layer created from the burning creates a "charcoal filter" that the whiskey ages in. While the barrel sits in aging it breathes in and out from heat/humidity changes, during this the alcohol goes into the wood and back out, trapping the less desirable chemicals in the wood leaving the booze cleaner and tastier. Not all people advocate for completely burning the barrel but to instead toast it. Heating it up to different temps to get different tastes. Toasted oak tends to have more vanilla and spice tastes to it. I can personally tell by taste if the barrel was toasted or charred...but I like both. I'll tell you how to make your own "Whiskey" at home without all the equipment.
I think it's best if I give it to you from my journey as I've tried a few different methods. I'll cover some basics then give a more precise overview. First you need to have booze. This could be a vodka or something stronger like ever-clear. What we're after is flavorless here. I would suggest ever-clear if you can buy it because barrel aging always results in some variability in end proof...plus you can cut it to be stronger. The second thing to know about aging whiskey is the wood to alcohol ratio. No, we're not going to do math here. You just have to understand that the more wood there is to alcohol volume the faster it will pick up these flavors. Trust me, you can over do this. I speak from experience. You can imagine that while oak has vanilla like flavors we talked about, it also has 'woody' flavors that are bitter and good in small amounts but can render your alcohol barely drinkable when overdone. The most fun part is that you get to experiment and you can do this in small jars if desired to get different results and find what you really like. While the large barrels take years to impart their flavors on the alcohol smaller barrels or high wood/alcohol ratios will do this faster, and there is literally an arms race out there trying to find 'speed aging' techniques due to increased demand. Companies struggle keeping up with demand and have taken drastic measures to adjust, even watering down whiskey, much to consumers dismay. A favorite story of mine from 2013 was Makers Mark catching fire for trying to water down their whiskey (story) which got a lot of backlash. Some attribute this surge in popularity to TV shows and the issue is that when your whiskey is aged for several years it is hard to adjust for demand increases. So we all want a faster way to achieve the results of a good aged whiskey. I am a firm believer in the purifying effect of barrel aging and think that there are some things you can't do to fast, however, you can start with something as pure as vodka and quickly give it the flavors and aromas that come with barrel aged whiskey.
There are several products you can use to do this. Starting from the bottom you can buy food grade oak chips and toast them yourself or buy them toasted. You can buy oak sticks made for aging, or you can buy a mini barrel to age you liquor in. I'll cover each of these and if you feel like experimenting, please support by following the link to get the supplies!
So there are plenty of options for oak chips on Amazon that you can use to get started in this project. I personally have done this with surprising results. I have purchased a 1lb bag of medium toast oak chips from Amazon for this and it will last you forever-ish. For this I got a quart mason jar and placed around 1/2 cup of toasted oak chip in the bottom. Then I topped it off with high grain alcohol. The higher the alcohol content the faster it will absorb the flavors, but I was using 50%/100 Proof. I left this for a few days and it already had the color of any normal whiskey I may buy. I have left this mix in several different tests ranging from 1 week to 6 weeks. I will say that even though it may get color in the early stages the flavor is not there. You can definitely push the weeks on this and get better and better results. The ratio you fight here is that the more oak present the sooner you must pull it before bitterness sets in. This is why I have seen that with 1 quart alcohol and 1/2 cup oak you can leave it for quite some time. If you want to leave it for 3 months or more I would use even less oak around 1/8 cup as it will have time to really soak. You can also further toast these oak chips in the oven to get different flavor levels.
A diagram I have used many times in the past is seen to the left and gives you an idea of the flavor profiles that come out of oak when you bake it to different temps. As you bake it the natural wood sugars caramelize creating different flavor profiles. This adds another layer of complexity and creativity to you experimenting. If you buy medium toast oak chips then they are most likely already balanced between sweet and vanilla in this diagram. I have personally tested different variants of this and go no further than 450 degrees for my taste.
This portion will cover pre-made oak sticks for flavoring. These are great honestly, I have used Time Oak brand sticks to flavor clear alcohol but they even work great when buying a cheaper whiskey that you want to let mature in some glass for a while. They have cuts in the wood to optimize wood to alcohol surface ratio. I have given them as gifts to guys who claim they improved the taste of their whiskey greatly. They are simple and measured. You can easily slip on of these into a jar of bought alcohol and let it sit until you like the color. Open up and smell/taste your alcohol to see where it is in the process. I left mine in clear alcohol for around a week and a half with decent results. The only thought I have on these is they advise not to leave them in for more than two weeks but my guess is that they are worried about splintering or wood fibers in the alcohol which is easily solved by filtering with a coffee filter or similar which you should be doing anytime you're adding oak to alcohol anyway.
Aging your alcohol in a mini-barrel is another method I have tried and believe to be a great at home project. The other thing I like about this is it definitely can add to your man-cave or party. There's something about having whiskey barrels that you can tap for your friends that makes a great conversation piece. These are simple and reusable and sold in many sizes.
I personally bought the 2 liter barrel and lightly charred the inside with a propane torch. When you get these barrels they are almost ready to use out of the box with one exception. They are dry! If you poured your liquor in it would leak through all the cracks. All wooden barrels are made to stay wet to remain sealed. I took mine out of the box, set it in the sink and removed the cork. Then I just ran warm water into it which of course poured out between the staves at first. After a while it slowly seals up and leaks less at which point I turn the water off and leave it in the sink to continue to swell shut. Periodically I would walk by and top it off. Leave it over night like this and top it off in the morning. If it's not leaking then it has sealed up. After this I just pour the water out and refill with liquor. The reason I suggested higher proof liquor is that after you've soaked the barrel there is obviously water in the wood. As the liquor turns to whiskey some of the alcohol will replace the water in the wood and your end content (ABV) will go down some. I personally filled my mini barrel with clear liquor and left it for 3 months before tasting it, which it had definitely gotten it's whiskey flavor. I then left it and checked it at the 6 month time frame and it was much better so I transferred it to a decanter. Then I was able to fill the barrel back up and let it do another batch. Generally you can use these small barrels 3-4 times before they start to impart noticeably less flavor to the clear liquors. At that point the barrel is great for putting an existing whiskey into and using it for pouring drinks and improving the flavor of a cheap whiskey. If you don't refill the barrel it will dry and you will have to soak it again before pouring alcohol into it.
In the end, all three are easy and fun to do at home for anyone wanting to experiment with improving the flavor of a whiskey or getting that whiskey flavor into a clear liquor. Hopefully this gave you some ideas! I will be posting similar blogs around other liquors in the future.