Creeping Bourbon Effect
Don’t like vanilla, caramel, and oak flavors in your Cabernet, Calvados, or Cognac? Too bad.
By Susannah Skiver Barton
When Goose Island Brewery put a stout into a bourbon barrel in 1992, the resulting style was so new and innovative that the Great American Beer Festival didn’t even have a category for — and wouldn’t for several more years. (There are now six wood-aged beer categories at the annual event.) Over the next three decades, Goose Island Bourbon County Brand cemented its status as a leader among growing legions of barrel-aged beers, nearly all of them using bourbon barrels from the likes of Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace.
So when Goose Island submitted a federal label approval for bourbon-barrel-aged hard seltzer in the spring of 2021, it was—sort of—a continuation of the brewery’s established legacy. Except of course that hard seltzer, an almost substance-less beverage that trades on its neutrality and blandness, is about the last thing any actual bourbon or beer drinker would want to draw from a barrel. That hardly seems to matter, though, because bourbon-barrel aging—of anything, from seltzer to sweets—now serves as a flavor signal designed to draw in fans of vanilla, caramel, and above all oak.
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Think of any alcoholic beverage—scotch, rum, tequila, gin, cognac, wine—and you can find at least one example aged in a once-used bourbon barrel. For many of these styles, maturation in ex-bourbon barrels is an established part of their process. But in the last few years there’s been a growing contingent of beverages adopting bourbon-barrel aging for the first time, some even using new charred oak barrels. For example:
Ardbeg Alligator, a peated single malt scotch partly aged in heavily charred new oak casks
Martell Blue Swift, a “spirit drink” made by the cognac house that’s partly matured in bourbon barrels and thus falls outside the brandy’s classification
Boulard Double Barrel Cask Finish X.O., an eau-de-vie de cidre finished in both ex-bourbon and ex-rye casks
1,000 Stories, Cooper & Thief, Apothic Inferno, and many more wines, all aged in whiskey barrels
The Real McCoy 10-Year-Old Virgin Oak Rum, aged in ex-bourbon and new oak barrels
Herradura Legend, aged for 14 months in new charred oak barrels
Corazón tequilas aged in George T. Stagg, W.L. Weller, and Elmer T. Lee bourbon barrels
I call this phenomenon Creeping Bourbon Effect. Some of these products are quite clearly trading on the popularity of bourbon and American whiskey generally, touting their links with brands (including Brand Bourbon) to entice existing fans. But others are deliberately layering bourbon-esque flavors atop more traditional profiles, fundamentally changing the character of the beverage. As PM Spirits founder Nicolas Palazzi said in this newsletter a few months ago, about the type of Armagnac that’s gained popularity among American collectors: “it’s not very different than the whiskey that people are drinking.”
Why is this happening? The bourbon boom, of course, has everyone scrambling for a piece of the pie. But more insidious, and powerful, is the changing palate of the bourbon drinker, which now demands more robust flavor (and often concurrent higher proof) than that which was offered in the past. This may be part of a broader shift toward more flavorful food and beverages generally, reflected in the 21st-century ubiquity of foods that would have been unusual by most Americans’ standards even a generation ago: sriracha, queso, kale chips.
But bourbon drinkers have an additional incitement for bolder, more barrel-driven flavors: the craft whiskey boom. As craft whiskey distilleries have sprouted across the country, many are often only funded enough to get them through a few months’ or a year or two’s worth of aging—far short of the four-plus years practiced by every major bourbon producer. As a result, some attempt to wring as much flavor out of the requisite new charred oak as quickly as they can, employing small barrels, adding wood spirals, chips, or honeycomb staves, or simply charring their casks to a higher degree.
What’s happening in this short-term aging is primarily extraction, when the spirit acts as a solvent for compounds in the oak, pulling out color, tannins, and broad primary flavors such as vanilla, spice, sweetness, and (especially in more heavily charred barrels) smoke. If left to age more, particularly in larger vessels like the standard 53-gallon bourbon barrel, oxygenation would create longer chains of molecules and yield more complex flavors in the whiskey. But many new bourbon drinkers of the last ten years have come to the style through craft whiskey, and I believe that has primed them to not only accept but demand oak-forward flavor profiles.
“That’s the expectation now,” says Cordell Lawrence, director of global marketing and strategy at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., which launched a Double Oaked bourbon in September. That release is less capitalizing on a trend than simply making use of bourbons whose original casks had leaked, resulting in a re-rack into a second new charred oak barrel. But Lawrence acknowledges that the nomenclature holds appeal for certain drinkers.
Other, larger distillers cater to them too; witness the cavalcade of “double oaked”, “double barreled”, and “heavy char” bourbons and ryes put out by the likes of Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill, and Old Forester in the last ten years. Throw in the growing number of whiskeys aged or finished in toasted barrels (which offer a slightly different but no less wood-forward cask influence) and just about every major distillery has skin in this game.
It’s no wonder, then, that tequila, rum, brandy, and even wine would want in on it. Though at what cost? If their offerings resemble whiskey more and more, what would motivate a consumer to choose them instead? “If the only thing you’re comfortable with drinking is something like a vanilla-bomb bourbon, just drink bourbon,” says rum expert and author Matt Pietrek. “Don’t go ‘I love rum too’ when you’re really just drinking a rum that tastes flavored via the barrel the same way that a bourbon is…There are ways to do it well and there are ways where you can be pandering.”
The arms race for ever-oakier whiskey and other spirits will have to end somewhere, and I suspect it will be a slow fade as palate fatigue sets in. “Extremely woody” is simply an exhausting type of flavor profile. It appeals to new drinkers because it’s easy to grasp, just like jammy California Cabs or heavily sherried scotch: The flavors are primary, and detectable to even the most novice taster. But as people’s palates evolve, and they realize how much nuance and complexity they can discover beyond the barrel’s influence, my guess is that they’ll move away from the oak bombs and start exploring whiskeys with more subtlety.
Or bourbon-barrel aging will become so entrenched that it cements itself as part of the traditions of these other beverages. Bourbon-barrel stouts, after all, are now fixed within the beer canon.
Time will tell. For now, if you’re looking for an oak-forward aged rum, gin, or scotch where the barrel complements the spirit character, read on.
Oaky Spirits That Aren’t Bourbon But Are Worth A Try
Mount Gay Black Barrel
Master blender Trudiann Branker reformulated the recipe for this blend of pot and column still rums a couple of years ago, lengthening its finishing time in new charred oak from four weeks to six months. The result is a well-integrated, sweet but bold character, as Branker’s deft hand keeps woodier notes in check.
Tommyrotter Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin
Nine to twelve months in new charred oak barrels give this gin plenty of extractive notes, but they’re well complemented by the botanicals, creating a cozy blanket of winter spices. At 61% ABV, it has great flexibility as a cocktail component—but honestly tastes great just on the rocks.
Deanston Virgin Oak
This distillery, barely in the Highlands, produces spirit that’s waxy and honeyed, with an outstanding structure that takes to new toasted oak barrels with delicate ease. An underappreciated (and very affordable, at about $30) single malt scotch whose use of the virgin cask sets a high bar for others.
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I lived through the craft beer years (pumpkin, hemp, rye grass, plums(!!), etc., whatever MIGHT ferment and create a wort) and weathered the spotty resurgence of rye whiskies (whatever happened to Pennsylvania ryes???? Dad's Hat excepted, of course). My basement stash is cluttered with "finished" American whiskies, beers, wines, and brandies. Is why I came back to bourbon, classic rye, and well-known brandy/cognac/armagnac. The majors have been making the basics for several hundred years collectively. There's a reason they've endured. I'm too old to hunt for unicorns. Oak aging gives me caramel, some dark fruit spice (think Bing cherries, cinnamon, Allspice), and a soft sweetness that I miss when I order sweet tea which just hits me in the face. No wonder the other distillers are trying to capture the depth and complexity one finds in a bourbon/rye aged eight to ten years. My mouth is "Pavlovaning" as I type this.