It’s the final and arguably most important step of whiskey production, but maturation in oak also provides an element of unpredictability and even magic. And yet, the only part of the process that is easily emulated is aging whiskey at home.
You don’t need licenses, in-depth distilling knowledge or massive amounts of funds. Some imagination, creativity and patience will get you very far.
There’s a litany of options out there for the curious whiskey drinker, ranging from very straightforward to the ones that leave room for some creativity.
Aging whiskey at home isn’t an inexpensive shortcut and you won’t easily be improving a subpar liquid to premium status. Instead, it offers a learning experience and the opportunity to experiment with different finishes and wood types.
Are you fed up with the strict regulations from the Scotch Whisky Association regarding oak, and you’d love to see the impact of mulberry or chestnut on your favorite tipple? Nobody’s stopping you! This is all about the journey and less about the destination.
Although, with some practice you might indeed be able to add interesting new layers to some of your beloved (or less-beloved) whiskeys.
Over the years a number of products have been launched for the home aging enthusiast, starting with smaller size barrels, but evolving into chips, staves and even oak bottles. Each of these has its pros and cons for aging whiskey at home, which we’ll discuss below.
- 1 Wood Chips & Staves
- 2 Oak Barrel and Oak Spirals Aging Spirits
- 3 Aging Homemade Whiskey – A Complete Guide To Making Your Own
- 4 Barrel Ageing | FAQ
- 4.1 What does medium char mean?
- 4.2 Are glues or nails used to make the barrel?
- 4.3 My barrel has been delivered with loose hoops, what can I do?
- 4.4 What is curing?
- 4.5 How do I cure the barrel?
- 4.6 How long will my barrel last?
- 4.7 Why is my barrel leaking?
- 4.8 I have a big leak, what can I do?
- 4.9 What can I age in an oak barrel?
- 5 Aging Moonshine With Oak Chips
- 6 All About Aging Spirits — Eight Oaks
Wood Chips & Staves
Probably the most affordable option to play around with for aging whiskey at home is by using wood chips and staves. There is a variety of types available from different producers. For instance, you could just add American white oak sticks or shavings to a jar with whiskey.
Or, even easier, add them to the bottle your whiskey came in. Once inside the container, the wood will interact with the spirit, absorbing and then releasing it. Be conservative and don’t add too many chips at once; less is more. Also regularly monitor progress, maybe as often as daily.
You’ll notice significant changes within a week.
Toasted oak chips /Photo Credit: Moonshine Distiller
One important downside to using wood chips and staves is the lack of oxidation.
This natural element of aging spirits increases complexity and intensity of flavors and is largely responsible for fruity, minty and spicy notes.
Whiskey can breathe inside a barrel, which is liquid-tight but porous, allowing oxygen to enter through its staves. Obviously, the same can’t be said for whatever glass container you add chips or staves to.
The size of the vessel has a marked influence on its contents. A small octave cask of 50 liters has a higher spirit-to-surface ratio, resulting in increased interaction with the oak compared to inside a 500-liter butt. Now imagine if your cask could hold just 750ml. Maturation wouldn’t just be a matter of months or even years, but a few hours might already be enough.
Oak bottle /Photo Credit: Oak Bottle Shop
Oak Barrel and Oak Spirals Aging Spirits
Oak barrel for aging whiskey at home
Using Oak Barrels to flavor and color whisky, bourbon, rum, and other spirits.
There are several ways to age your spirits with oak. All methods will bring an oak flavor and a warm caramel color to your whisky, bourbon, etc. Here are a few ways to age spirits.
- Aging using an oak barrel
- Aging using oak chips
- Aging through oak swish bags (shavings of oak barrels in a bag)
- Infusion oak spirals and oaks sticks
First you need to make some moonshine with a copper still or a moonshine still so you have some hooch to fill your oak cask with.
Aging Your Whiskey With An Oak Barrel:
You can buy oak barrels in a variety of sizes. If you’re curious as to what size you’ll need, take note on how much your still outputs every run and use your best judgement for your size.
If you have an 8 gallon boiler that’s capable of producing about 3 quarts of distillate, perhaps, you might want to stick with a smaller 1 gallon barrel.
Oak barrels from Mile Hi Distilling also come in a 3 Gallon, a 5 Gallon, and a 10 Gallon.
The first step into aging is the preparation of the oak barrel. You’ll need to fill your barrel with warm water, soaking the oak until it swells the oak staves to prevent your spirit from seeping out. Keep the barrel in a shaded place away from the sun and wait as the wood becomes darker from the water soaking.
Check the ridges in the barrel occasionally to make sure no water is leaking through. I usually condition my oak barrel or oak cask in the evening and let it sit overnight then drain in the morning and fill with spirits. I always collect the charred oak pieces that come out with the water and put back in before I fill with spirits.
These charred pieces are good for aging and mellowing out the spirit so suggest to leave them in.
Aging Homemade Whiskey – A Complete Guide To Making Your Own
Almost 80% of the flavor contained within whiskey or bourbon comes from the barrels they’re aged in. This is why oaking your homemade moonshine is such an important step that shouldn’t be skipped.
Don’t think because you don’t have an oak barrel means you can’t age your moonshine, there are simple and cheap alternatives that will give you amazing results.
In this article we’ll discuss the four variables that affect the end flavor of your spirit and how to age your moonshine with either oak cubes, chips or oak barrels.
Four Variables Affecting Flavor
- Species of oak wood chips or barrel used
- Amount of wood toasting and charring used
- Amount of time wood is left to soak in the spirit
- Proof or % abv you are aging your whiskey at
1. What Species of Oak Wood Chips or Barrel Should I Use?
Oak commonly infuses hints of caramel, toasty, nutty or vanilla notes into the alcohol it comes in contact with. Different species of Oak will give different flavor profiles. So some experimenting is necessary to achieve the desired flavor. Below is a list of the most common oak species used in flavoring bourbon and whisky and an explanation of what flavor you can expect from each.
- American White Oak – By far the most commonly used often described as having an intense oak flavor with high vanilla and aromatic compounds. These compounds include aldehydes and acids such as vanillin, vanillic acid and syringaldehyde. American white oak chips release these aromatics faster then other species so the wood needs less contact time with the alcohol.
- French Oak – Imparts a much softer oak flavor then the American White Oak. You’ll notice a sweet spice flavor with hints of allspice and cinnamon. French Oak chips have more flavor compounds and tannin’s then American white oak.
- Hungarian Oak Chips – Imparts a more pronounced oak flavor then American White Oak. You’ll notice hints of black pepper, roasted coffee, bittersweet chocolate and vanillin
For more on these flavor profiles here’s a good article that I came across online: An in depth look at aging and oaking alcohol. It goes in depth into the types of Oak, talks about chips vs cubes vs staves and get’s into the science a little more.
Where to Buy Oak chips and Cubes?
I’d recommend purchasing several different bags of oak chips or cubes from your local brew shop stick to the “medium toast” to get started. If you don’t have a brew shop near you. Purchasing online might be your best bet, here’s a few that I’d recommend:
One last thing to mention about the species of wood, you don’t have to use oak! There are a number of other species that will give your moonshine a wide array of interesting flavors including: Cherry, Hickory, Hard Maple, Soft Maple, Read Oak, White Ash and Yellow Birch.
These woods can be hard to find in your local home brew shop. You may purchase them online or try making them at home.
To help you in the process of toasting your own wood chips I’ve writing this article:”Toasting and Charring Wood Chips At Home – Get Unique flavors not available in stores”(just writing this article be up soon)
2. How Toasting and Charring Wood Impacts Flavor of Moonshine?
Barrel Ageing | FAQ
Ageing spirits can be a bewildering hobby. There are many aspects to consider when ageing spirits, and a few new things to learn.
We've compiled a barrel ageing FAQ that will answer your questions and keep you informed.
All our barrels are made from high quality American White Oak.
American white oak imbues a mellow, vanilla and caramel flavouring. This is most commonly used for ageing whiskies.
What does medium char mean?
Oak barrels get burned on the inside to toast or char the surface. This opens up the surface and creates vanilla and caramel flavours from the sugars in the oak. The carbon in the charred wood acts as a filter to mellow the alcohol for a smoother drink.
There are 7 levels of charring, relating to the length of time the barrel is subject to the flames. Charring causes different chemical changes in the wood sugars. The grade of charring offers different qualities to the ageing process.
Our medium charred barrels are level 4, meaning they burn for around 55 seconds. A no. 4 char is known as an “alligator char” due to the surface resembling an alligator’s skin. This is a common universal char level. Most distilleries will use a char level of 1 to 4.
Char levels 6 and 7 are rarely used.
Are glues or nails used to make the barrel?
No glue, paraffin, or nails are used in our handmade barrels. Glue and paraffin could affect the flavours imbued by the wood. Nails could pierce the wood and cause leaks. When a barrel is cured, the swollen wood holds the parts together tightly, so there is no need for nails or screws.
My barrel has been delivered with loose hoops, what can I do?
Don’t worry, this can happen in transit. This is why you need to cure the barrel. Curing causes the wood to expand, seal up gaps and hold everything together.
What is curing?
Curing is preparing your barrel for use by soaking the wood. Barrels get cured for 2 important reasons. If your barrel is dry it will absorb your precious spirit, so letting it absorb water first reduces this loss. When the wood is soaked it expands, sealing any leaks and holding the barrel together.
How do I cure the barrel?
Curing your barrel involves filling it with water for up to a week, and monitoring it for leaks. Please see our Oak Barrel Curing Guide for more information.
How long will my barrel last?
If you look after your barrel, it could last for 8 to 10 years. Never let your barrel dry out, and follow our Oak Barrel Care Guide for full details.
Why is my barrel leaking?
A leaking barrel is normal. The curing process takes up to a week, and is essential to identify any leaks. When you find a leak in your barrel, apply some barrel wax to seal the hole. As the wood absorbs water during curing it will expand and naturally seal most gaps.
I have a big leak, what can I do?
Curing the barrel before use is very important to remove any leaks. If you find any large leaks during ageing you might have to re-cure the barrel and start again. See our Barrel Curing Guide for more information. Small leaks can be sealed with barrel wax.
What can I age in an oak barrel?
Aging Moonshine With Oak Chips
Not all moonshiners can buy or keep and oak barrel for maturing their beverages. This problem can be solved by infusing the distillate with bought oak chips or homemade woodchips that imitate soaking and heat-treatment of a barrel. We’ll look over both variants.
You can use any grain, fruit or sugar moonshine. Hardening agents, which are contained in core and wood, turn into eco-friendly clear materials upon contact with ethanol. They change the color, taste, and smell of even the most common moonshine. Depending on the time of maturing it can obtain notes of fruits, vanilla, flowers, and chocolate.
Oak Chips Moonshine (Soft Infusion)
This is a simple and fast way of refining the distillate that doesn’t require great time or financial expenses. You’ll get a soft infusion with a distinct cognac smell.
• Moonshine (45-50%) – 0.8 gl/3 liters• Oak Chips – 3 tablespoons• Honey – 1 tablespoon• Cloves – 5 knops• Allspice – 10 peas• Tutsan – 1 tablespoon• Marjoram – 1 tablespoon
• Vanillin and coriander – a pinch
All About Aging Spirits — Eight Oaks
Aging spirits is done to achieve the desired flavor and taste from the liquor. After distillation, the raw spirit needs to be refined. This is done through the wood barrel.
The goal of aging is to remove harsh flavors from the raw alcohol, while adding specific flavor characteristics found in the wood barrel.
Aging does allow for some of the undesired flavors to “burn off”, but mainly barrel aging gives time for the ethanol itself to break down the charred wood sugar, which imparts the smokiness and sweetness in aged spirits.
It’s easy to taste the difference between a spirit that has only aged 5 years and one that has been aged 20. At Eight Oaks, we age a minimum of two years, with barrels set aside for four year vintages. Eventually we'll have six and eight year vintages.
At two years old you can have a dark whiskey with tons of flavor, it just doesn’t have the depth of flavor or mouth feel that an older vintage would have.
However, much of the taste profiles come from the types of barrels used in the aging process and EVERY BARREL is different.
The Many Kinds of Barrels
The mighty Oak – not only a beautiful tree – but it is the primary wood for the creation of barrels, or casks. American White Oak and French Oak are the most commonly used in the aging process – each of these have their own distinct flavor profiles. In fact, many distillers enjoy experimenting with different types of barrels to find new and interesting flavor notes for their spirits.
Barrels can also be reused. It is common for some spirits to be aged in barrels previously used for wine or sherry. These barrels can give the spirit a sweeter flavor.
However, Bourbon and Rye Whiskey cannot be aged in a barrel that was previously used – only new charred oak barrels can be used in the creation of bourbon and Rye Whiskey. Why charred? Toasting or charring an oak cask changes the wood’s chemistry. The charing creates new elements in the wood for the spirit to extract during the aging process.
What Effect Does Aging Have on the Spirit?
When the alcohol enters the barrel it’s clear and has little flavor outside of heavy grain flavors and unfavorable burning finish. After sitting in the barrel, the spirit takes on the color and flavor of the barrel. This is why aged liquors are more amber or golden brown, while unaged liquors are clear.
There are three main ways spirits change during the aging process:
Subtractive – meaning that lesser valued flavors are actually removed from the spirit
Additive – this is where the colors and flavors are added into the spirit from the barrel
Interactive – the spirit reacts with the wood, oxygen, and with the char of the barrel
How Long Do Spirits Need to Be Aged?
The amount of aging time depends on the particular spirit. Some spirits have requirements for aging, while others have fewer limitations and therefore the aging time is left up to the distiller.
Añejo tequila must be aged for at least one year but no more than three years (after three years, it is considered an extra Añejo).
Single malt scotch and Irish whiskeys must all be aged for a minimum of 3 years.
Bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years to be considered straight bourbon. This is also true for rye whiskey to be considered straight rye whiskey.
- Bonded Whiskey, or anything labeled “bottled in bond”, is required to be aged at least 4 years, up to 20 years.
- We do not sample a barrel unless it’s two years old, so all of our Bourbon and Rye is considered Straight.
- Other spirits, such as rum, vodka, and gin have no requirement for aging and are typically unaged (although Aged Gin is gaining in popularity).
Other Aging Considerations
Location. Location. Location. Not just in real estate, but in the aging process as well. The climate where the barrels are stored has a big effect on the aging process.
Humid climates, such as the carribean where most rum is aged, typically takes less time to age than spirits aged in dry climates.
For example, if Rum is prepared in New England it will take 2-3 years longer to age than the rum prepared in the Carribean region.
Of course, these days, there are also warehouses that are kept at certain levels of humidity and temperature control to assure the proper aging environment.
Due to the nature of the environment and the barrel, you naturally lose a percentage of your spirit to evaporation. Typically it’s 10% in the year, and 2% after that, which is called, “The Angel’s Share.” This is why the older vintages are much more expensive because you get out a lot less than what you started with.
At Eight Oaks we use a variety of barrels, depending on the spirit we’re aging. Learn more about our spirits.