How Aging Spirits Improves Their Flavor

If you’ve ever drunk Bourbon or Scotch, you’ve enjoyed an aged spirit. Like many things in life, these alcoholic drinks improve with time, and aging them in wooden barrels can enhance their flavor and aroma. Barrel aging is an ancient practice that started with wine. Soon enough, people discovered it worked for spirits too, and the rest is ancient history.
What is Barrel Aging and How Does It Work?
Barrel aging involves letting alcohol mature in wooden barrels for a few years before bottling it. Distilleries store these barrels in rickhouses, often repositioning them throughout the aging period. The point of barrel aging is to mellow the harsh alcoholic taste and infuse new flavors into spirits, drawing them out of the wood and suspending them in the liquid. This process is only possible because wood is breathable and allows air into the barrel.
Aging also often gives spirits a richer color. All distillates start clear, but after spending time in a wooden barrel, they may end up with an amber hue, most notably in whiskey and brandy. Natural color compounds from the wood break down when in contact with alcohol for a long period, gently dispersing throughout the drink.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. Some white rums, for example, go through the aging process only to be charcoal-filtered back to their clear color.
Barrel Aging Works Best With Specific Spirits
Why are cognacs, brandies, bourbons, and Scotch whiskies aged for decades, but vodkas and gins are not? The answer comes down to where and how a spirit was distilled. Spirits created through pot distillation (the oldest method) are typically better suited to barrel aging.
This distillation method leaves chemical compounds called congeners in the final drink. Aging spirits like these in barrels influence the congeners’ characteristics, changing the drink’s final flavor profile. Conversely, column distillation generally removes extra compounds from spirits, so barrel aging won’t make much of a difference to their taste.
The climate also significantly influences whether a spirit should be barrel aged. Warmer, more humid weather tends to speed up the aging process, which is why rums from the Caribbean take less time to mature than whisky from Scotland.
How Distilleries Use Barrel Aging to Harness Specific Flavors
Good distillers pay careful attention to the type of barrels, plus their timing and placement, to produce liquor with a robust and appealing flavor.

  1. Choosing Wood Wisely
    Most barrels are made from oakwood because it contains gallic acid, which can enhance a spirit’s flavor. White Oak is the most common type of wood used for aging barrels, but you can use Maple, Chestnut, French Oak, and other types to change the spirit’s flavor.

  3. Charred Barrels
    Some distillers lightly char the inside of an oak barrel with flames to impart a toasted flavor to the spirit. This practice releases natural sugars from the wood, caramelizing the tannins in the alcohol to make it slightly sweeter with vanilla undertones.

  5. “Finishing” a Spirit
    To create even more robust flavors, distillers often transfer spirits from one barrel into another towards the end of the aging process. This practice is called finishing and can impart unexpected flavors into the liquor. Most finishing barrels once contained a different spirit and trapped hints of that flavor in the wood.

Create Unique Flavor Infusions With Advanced Biotech
Adding molasses, honey, or coffee distillate to your finishing barrel can help you craft unique spirits with rich flavor profiles. Explore Advanced Biotech’s wide range of premium distillates, or contact us for more information.