Try This at Home: Barrel-Finished Whisky

Even when a whisky is already fully mature and perfectly delicious, some distillers decide to give it extra time in a different barrel. The practice is called finishing, also sometimes known as secondary maturation. While it’s commonly done today in Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., and elsewhere, it first began in 1983 when Balvenie master distiller David Stewart put some fully-aged whisky into sherry butts for around a year. The result was Balvenie Classic, now known as DoubleWood. Starting in the 1998 at Glenmorangie, Dr. Bill Lumsden used his love of wine to become one of the biggest innovators in finishing: He’s gone so far as to re-toast barrels with Douro Valley table wine still in them in order to caramelize the sugars.

Today, whiskies on both sides of the pond are being finished in everything from sherry butts and port casks to sauternes hogsheads and rum barrels, even with gold bars. The phenomenon has inspired DIY-minded whisky lovers to try their hand at it. Some are taking things to the next level, utilizing tiny barrels to experiment with unique finishes they think (or hope!) might improve an already-bottled whisky.

Like most at-home experimentation, discussion has gained steam through blogs and online forums like Reddit. Reddit user Looney_Bin tried to make a “poor man’s” A Midwinter Night’s Dram (High West’s port- and French-oak finished rye) by aging Rittenhouse Rye in 1-liter oak barrels he had conditioned with ruby port. High West—a master producer of blended and finished whiskeys like A Midwinter Night’s Dram and Yippee-Ki-Yay, which is rye finished in vermouth and syrah barrels—was likewise my inspiration for an at-home finish, though I wanted to try something even more ambitious.

There are already plenty of great wine-finished whiskies on the market. Why not do a finish the professionals haven’t even dared? In addition to its standard line-up of wine barrel-finished whiskeys, High West has done special maturations of ryes in barrels that once aged the distillery’s bottled Manhattan. Similarly, I decided to age a standard whisky in a cocktail-conditioned cask—but not a whisky cocktail. I already had a barrel-aged Negroni experiment going on in my 2-liter Top Shelf barrel, and that’s what I would finish my whisky in.

Higher-proof spirits are better and quicker at extracting barrel character, so I opted for Old Grand-Dad 114. At around $30 a bottle, it’s a great value sipper, though it still retains some rough edges I hoped my finishing could improve. I drained the remaining Negroni—slightly oxidized, but quite good!—and added the bourbon. I rolled the barrel a bit, then left it to sit for a week before my first taste.

Out of the barrel, the finished whiskey was already much darker than my control bottle, nearly the color of an old penny. The added fruity sweetness hit my nose the second I turned the spigot and started draining the barrel, with the slightly oxidized vermouth notes coming through strong. Unadulterated Old Grand-Dad tastes like caramel and cinnamon backed by a spicy punch. With a Negroni finish, it became a cocktail unto itself—though not necessarily a great one.

The botanical notes from the gin made the pour exceedingly complex, but too piney—not necessarily a flavor you want in a whiskey. That perfumey bitterness was compounded by the Campari as well. The mouthfeel had become luscious, but the finish was now saccharine sweet. Close, but no cigar.

I was onto something, but I’d have to make some adjustments before I nailed it. Certainly less time in the barrel, perhaps a less wildly contrasting finish as well. That was a good lesson: Sometimes you’re not going to want to finish what you just finished. Maybe I should have started with training wheels first before hopping on a rocket-powered motorcycle.

I cleaned the barrel with citric acid and warm water to return the wood to neutral. This time, I added an XO cognac and let it sit for 5 days. As cognac can be a little sweet, I thought a spicy rye might work best here, opting for Wild Turkey 101 Rye. This time I let it sit in the barrel for only 5 days, hoping for just a little kiss of cognac influence.

It worked! Out of the barrel, the once-minty and fiery rye had been slightly tamed, its nose more fruity and aromatic. Likewise, the cinnamon sting of the rye’s finish had been replaced with a softer, dessert-like note. Suddenly, a “value shelf” bottle tasted like something refined, decadent, and…expensive.

I’d call that a positive finish!

Try Your Own DIY Barrel Finish

  1. Procure a 1- or 2-liter barrel online from a vendor like Top Shelf Barrel, Deep South Barrels, Thousands Oaks Barrel Co., or other retailers.
  2. Fill with water and empty it several times to clear out any wood debris. Then fill with hot water and leave it to sit, swelling the wood, until there are no leaks (this could take hours or days).
  3. Condition the wood for a few weeks with another spirit, wine, or cocktail. Choose something you don’t mind drinking—no need to waste!
  4. After dumping (and hopefully drinking) the liquid in the barrel, add your whisky of choice. The higher the proof, the more flavors it will extract.
  5. Carefully monitor the progress of the whisky day-to-day. This will involve sampling it regularly, a burden you’ll just have to bear.
  6. After 5 to 10 days, you’ll have a finished whiskey. If you’ve chosen your component parts wisely, it should taste like nothing else you’ve ever had. And if you haven’t—why not try finishing the finished whisky?

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