Experimenting with Beyond Barrels Bottle Aging Staves

cherry_1024x1024Beyond Barrels doesn’t exactly have a new idea: Take whiskey you don’t quite like as is, add a small piece of wood to the bottle, wait a few weeks, then presto, you’ve got extra-aged whiskey for just a few extra bucks. So-called “whiskey sticks” are everywhere these days.

Sounds good, but does this all work quite that easy in the real world?

To find out, I tested a wide range of bourbons with both of Beyond Barrels’ whiskey aging staves, and I’m here to tell you the blunt truth about how well it went.

For starters, the staves arrived without a whole lot of instruction. There are two varieties: French oak and cherry oak. They are remarkably different products that have a much different impact on your whiskey, so purchase very carefully.

I charged ahead with only a bit of guidance from the company, starting with a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey, a spirit that I felt could have used a bit of extra time in barrel when I first reviewed it. Experiment #1 involved trying out this whiskey with a French oak stave and a month of bottle time. (All experiments were tasted against a control; details follow.)

Wyoming Whiskey @ 1 month French oak stave – This was a bit of a disaster. The oak is extracted to the hilt, giving a youthful whiskey that is already redolent with wood so much more of it it has no idea what to do with itself. The oak stave handily also destroyed any nuance left in the spirit, washing away the fruit and grain notes in short order. In Beyond Barrels’ defense, I was (later) told that the French oak staves are best used to age bottles for only 1 to 2 weeks and that a month is likely too long. C-

Whoops. OK, back to the drawing board. This time I took a bottle of Amador Double Barrel and tried the French oak stave for just one week, then sampled it again at the two-week mark.

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 1 week French oak stave – After a mere 7 days, the whiskey is immediately lumber-heavy on the nose, with a huge note of raw wood and sawdust, significantly overpowering anything else on the palate. The delicate cinnamon character in standard Amador DB (which is already wood-forward) is washed away here, replaced by a dusky clove note and, of course an epic amount of wood. C

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 2 weeks French oak stave – Still on a steep decline, with overpowering wood notes that taste like chewing on freshly cut lumber. No fruit left at all except for a hint right on the tip of the first sip. D+

OK, those didn’t go so well, so what about the cherry staves? These rods have a more subtle influence on your whiskey, imbuing it less with raw wood and more with fruity overtones. Beyond Barrels was kind enough to supply me with five samples of cherry stave-aged bourbons that it had doctored itself. I tasted all five of these blind, then compared them to the closest analogue I had by way of a control. I didn’t always have a perfect match, but you can check out my comparatives in each writeup below.

Blanton’s @ 3 months cherry stave – Quite fruity on the nose, very sweet on the tongue. Cherry notes are prominent, along with some bubblegum notes and baking spice. A bit sweet for my tastes, but not a bad sipper. B

Vs. Blanton’s Single Barrel Private Selection – I had no rack version of Blanton’s available but pitted it against a private selection we recently reviewed. I had a pronounced and dramatic preference for the standard bottling, which was less hot, more balanced, and much less candylike on the finish.

Four Roses Single Barrel @ 3 months cherry stave – Strong wood influence on the nose gives this the first impression of age. As it develops on the palate it reveals significant spice (cloves and allspice), some caramel corn notes, and a sweeter side. A bit out of balance, but also worthwhile. B

Vs. Four Roses Single Barrel (Distillery Bottling) – The wood is much too harsh on the doctored bottling, which throws this delicate whiskey out of balance, numbing its spice profile.

Four Roses Small Batch @ 3 months cherry stave – Restrained on the nose, with only some rough alcohol notes to show. On the palate it feels youthful and dialed back, without a lot going on. A slight chocolate and barrel char influence are about all I get from this one. Mostly harmless. B

Vs. Four Roses Small Batch (Distillery Bottling) – I have a standard bottling of this that we dip into from time to time for comparative purposes, though oddly we’ve never formally reviewed it (hence no link). 4R Small Batch has always been “entry level” Four Roses for me, and here I found the two samples closer than any of the others in this experiment. I nonetheless prefer the undoctored version, which has more prominent (and fun) chocolate notes. The stave deadens those a bit in the doctored sample.

Evan Williams Black Label @ 4 months cherry stave – Popcorn is heavy on the nose (perhaps it’s quite young?), with burnt caramel and significant barrel influence underlying it. A touch vegetal on the tongue, it opens up with time to reveal a mingling of cotton candy and cloves. Caramel is huge, but there’s lots of wood influence on this one. B+

No comparison bottle – I had no EW Black Label on hand to compare to here, and pitting this against one of the Single Barrels would be unfair to the point of cruelty. Surprising though that this cheap bottling was my favorite of the bunch. Or, perhaps not surprising.

Maker’s Mark @ 2.5 months cherry stave – Initially rough on the nose, heavy with alcohol influence and a big punch of wood. The palate is milder and moderately sweet, with notes of tobacco, spearmint, and cloves. The finish is a bit of an unfortunate letdown, though. B

Vs. Maker’s Mark – Again, the standard Maker’s is considerably better, its spice elements are more present and the various flavors are more in alignment and better balanced. Maker’s is a soft whiskey and while Maker’s 46 is a fine product, Maker’s is not a whisky that I would normally think additional wood influence would improve. Seems to be the case here.

So, what did I learn in all of this? Well, the quick and dirty takeaway is that in every comparative review I undertook, I preferred the original, non-doctored version of the spirit to the stave-aged one. Now, perhaps I never struck on the perfect combination — and some of my preferences were only slight. That said, it seems to me that if I were to continue down this road, doctoring a relatively cheap (mass-produced, not craft) bourbon with a cherry stave for a few months might very well be the best way to go. After all, there’s no point trying to touch the sun and improve a whiskey that’s already at the top of its game. However, when faced with a budget bottling and a low level of investment, I wouldn’t mind dropping a few cherry staves into bottles just to see what comes out the other end. (Note: These can also be used to make barrel-aged cocktails.)

Have you played with aging staves? Sound off in the comments!

$11 each (staves are reusable) / beyondbarrels.com

What To Do with Leftover Whisky? Blend Your Own Bottle

null whiskey blends

Whiskey samples are a way of life at Drinkhacker HQ, and when you’re in this business for awhile (we’re approaching 9 years and 5000 posts), those samples start to stack up.

Sometimes samples come as full 750ml bottles. Often they arrive in the form of 50ml or 100ml minis. I give away more mostly-full bottles of hooch in a year than you will probably drink in your lifetime. But what do I do with the miniatures that are largely empty, but not quite gone? The mediocre stuff gets thrown out, sure, but with 20-plus year old spirits that cost four figures, I feel bad pouring the leftovers — even if it’s just half an ounce — down the drain. The result: I have had hundreds and hundreds of largely empty vials of whiskey sitting around, though I know I’ll never consume them. When would I ever have the chance to do so?

A few months ago storage space was becoming an issue so I made a decision I wish I’d made at the start of Drinkhacker: To make my own bespoke blends, drawn from the best of the best of my leftover stock, just for kicks.

It didn’t take long to fill a bottle, to the point where I now have three of them going, in various stages of fullness — two vattings of single malts and one bourbon blend. I did not keep track of what went into each bottle; that would ruin the fun.

These have all been marinating and marrying for awhile, with each bottle having room for 30 to 40 whiskies in it. Today, I finally decided I’d give them all a semi-formal review as if they were actual releases.

Without further ado, let’s see how good various blends of a bunch of random — yet all very good — whiskies can be. Most of the whiskies in these blends are cask strength releases, but I have no formal proof data, of course. All, of course, will continue to evolve as new samples find their way into the mix.

Drinkhacker Single Malt Blend #1 – This contains lots of SMWS castoffs, Diageo Special Releases, Exclusive Malts leftovers, and other high-end single malts. The malts are heavy on the Highlands, but there’s a bit of everything in here, including a significant amount of Islay malt. I didn’t think there was that much peated whisky here, but the solid smoke and iodine on the nose showcases how just a bit of Islay can go a long way. The palate offers honey and caramel notes, but it’s hidden beneath considerable peat. The finish folds sherry and chocolate with a bit of maraschino cherry character, but ends up squarely on the smoke. Water helps coax out more of the fruit, and while it’s not a bad dram, on the whole the blend is a relatively unbalanced disappointment. Hopefully as old whisky goes out and new whiskies go in it may find its footing. B

Drinkhacker Single Malt Blend #2 – Similar to blend #1, except there’s almost no peat in this one (save for incidental peat in Highland whiskies) — and going forward this will be my “non-peated” blend. This is a younger vatting of only about 20 whiskies to date, but it is already drinking better, likely thanks to the closer homogeneity of the components therein. Lots of honey and nougat give this blend structure, but it’s also quite restrained — with sweet vanilla and some lightly savory spices offering nuance. Baking spice and citrus notes hit on the back end. I’d say it was a classic, sherry-finished Highland malt, if I didn’t know better. By far a better blend, it isn’t entirely complex, but it offers balance, exuberance, and drinkability. I’d put this up against almost any 16 to 18 year old Speyside bottling. A-

Drinkhacker Bourbon Blend #1 – Mostly composed of various Buffalo Trace experiments (only really good ones) and Antique Collection leftovers, which means there’s a bit of rye in this. Immediately odd: Lots of licorice up front, plus cloves and barrel char (though not so much lumberyard/sawdust). As the body opens up (water isn’t wrong here), it showcases more of a salted caramel character with the dense wood notes underpinning it. The ultimate impression is one of surprisingly old bourbon — which goes to show how a splash of very well-aged stuff like the George T. Stagg in this blend can go a long way. That said, it’s still worthwhile and fun to sip on. In fact, it’s especially fun because I keep it in a novelty decanter that Jim Beam sent me with my name and photo on it. Nutty Kentuckians. B+

Here’s How To Make 20 Year Old Rum in One Week!

My piece on Bryan Davis and Lost Spirits just hit Wired this morning. Check it out!

Davis has come up with a method of producing spirits that taste like they’ve been aging in the barrel for 20 years, but his process only takes six days. Davis doesn’t accelerate the aging process like so many of the methods that have been tried in the past. Rather, he shortcuts it by taking new distillate and running it through his proprietary chemical reactor. Davis’s device forces the creation of the same key chemical compounds that give a well-aged spirit its unique character. Give him a week, and Davis says he can create a booze that tastes decades old.

Whisky From Space?

Space whisky? Not exactly, but Ardbeg is releasing an homage to a grand experiment going on with space-based whisky maturation in this limited-edition bottling. Read on for the full press release.

Ardbeg Galileo launched to celebrate Scottish distillery’s “world first” experiment in space

Limited Edition of legendary Islay Distillery pays tribute to Galileo, the father of modern astronomy

NEW YORK, Sept. 1, 2012 — Ardbeg Distillery on the island of Islay today announces the release of Ardbeg Galileo, a limited edition 12 Years Old Single Malt Whisky – a special celebration of its “world first” space maturation experiment, previously announced at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April 2012.

Ardbeg Galileo is a special vatting of different styles of Ardbeg laid down in 1999, all married together to give a sweet, smoky texture. The heart of this limited edition Ardbeg is spirit matured in ex-Marsala wine casks from Sicily that is combined with hallmark Ardbeg matured in first and second fill ex-Bourbon casks. The ex-Marsala casks add fruity aromas and textures to Ardbeg’s famed peaty, smoky house style. Bottled at 49% and non chill-filtered it is being made available on allocation to Ardbeg’s focus markets.

The whisky, named after Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, celebrates the first ever experiment undertaken by Ardbeg Distillery (or any other distillery for that matter) when Ardbeg was invited in late 2011 by US based space research company NanoRacks LLC, based in Houston Texas, to take part in a two year experiment to test micro-organic compounds drawn from the distillery’s production on Islay. This maturation experiment (the inter-action of these compounds with charred oak) between normal gravity on Earth and micro-gravity in space, is currently taking place far up in space on the International Space Station.

The vials that were launched by Soyuz rocket from Baikanor in Kazakhstan in late 2011 contain a class of compounds known as “terpenes,” a set of chemicals which are very widespread in nature and often very aromatic and flavour active. The experiment could explain the workings of these large, complex molecules as they will remain on the International Space Station for at least two years and help uncover new truths about the change that these molecules undergo in this near ‘zero gravity’ environment. It also should help Ardbeg find new chemical building blocks in their own flavour spectrum.

The experiment will have applications for a variety of commercial and research products, including, one day maybe, future generations of Ardbeg.

Working in close collaboration with the Ardbeg Distillery team in Scotland, NanoRacks will closely monitor the experiment against control samples here on earth; both in Houston, Texas at the NanoRacks’ facility and more familiarly, in Warehouse 3 at Ardbeg Distillery on Islay!

Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks at The Glenmorangie Company said:  “So far so good – the experiment went live in January when the scientists broke the separating wall between the two components; Ardbeg new make spirit straight from our still on Islay and shards of charred oak cut out of some of our barrels from the warehouse. We will not know the results for another year or so but in the meantime we thought we would celebrate the experiment by the introduction of Ardbeg Galileo – our own earthly tribute to the scientific experiment taking place far up in space!”

Ardbeg Galileo will be made available to Ardbeg and Islay whisky aficionados in specialist malt whisky shops and liquor stores in Ardbeg’s focus markets.

Hamish Torrie for Ardbeg commented: “Each year we have brought out a limited edition of Ardbeg as a supplement to our core range – and although Ardbeg Galileo in no way resembles the actual experiment going on in space nevertheless we thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the experiment, and our partnership with NanoRacks in Houston, with a whisky which Bill and the team on Islay laid down way back in 1999 shortly after we bought Ardbeg Distillery. There are only a few thousand cases available and as ever with Ardbeg we expect demand to be brisk.”

The Angel’s Share, Illustrated

Last year I filled a 1.5-liter micro-barrel with Woodinville’s white whiskey, all part of its “age your own” whiskey kit. I’ve sampled it every couple of months but largely it’s been left untouched since July 2011.

Today I bottled what was left. The photo below illustrates what two full bottles of white dog turned into after 13 months in cask in chilly San Francisco.

(For the record, the company says you should probably bottle your hooch after a couple of months or a bit longer.)

angel's share in action

Hands on With Miller’s “Punch Top” Can

miller lite punch topFirst came the wide mouth. Now comes the punch top.

By now you’ve seen the ads touting Miller’s newest beer can technology: A little hole opposite the can’s mouth designed to prevent the “glug” effect, caused by air rushing into the can to replace the outgoing beer through the same orifice that the beer’s coming out of. Give air another way in — the way you do when you punch a hole in a can of tomato sauce or Hawaiian Punch (ah, the old days…) — and things go a lot smoother.

I tried out the can and it works as advertised. Don’t punch the hole and beer glugs out the way you expect it would. Punch it and the pour is smooth… and faster. You can see it for yourself in Miller’s own video (below). There’s no video trickery there. It really pours much more smoothly. The only real trick is figuring out how to punch the hole (Miller sent me a special device to do it but suggests you can use just about anything, even a carefully folded dollar bill if you’re in a pinch).

Now why would Miller do such a thing? Because they want you to have a cleaner pour of your beer, smoother, faster, and less messy. They absolutely, categorically, positively do not want to make it easier for these cans to be shotgunned. Period.