Unlike many other spirits, American oak barrels for wine are toasted, not charred. The level of toasting affects what you taste in your glass, from vanilla and spice to coconut and coffee. Although some white wines, such as Chardonnay, are aged in barrels, most barrels are used to age red wines from a range of 3 months to 3 years. Winemakers can control the oak influence in wine through a number of methods, including the amount of time spent in barrel, using new vs. used barrels, and the toast level.
“American oak is crucial to what our fans know and love about Silver Oak. Grapegrowing and winemaking are the foundational and structural elements of our wine style, but American oak adds flair and finish to what ultimately sits in your glass. I’m convinced that oak provides some of the critical nuance that makes our wines so interesting at 10, 20 and 30 years of age.” -Nate Weis, Silver Oak
American oak is commonly used for whiskey aging. The barrels are charred 5-10mm deep, giving bourbon its distinctive brown color. Common taste profiles for whiskey are sweet caramel, smoky spice, vanilla, and butterscotch. The speed at which whiskey is aged has a lot to do with the climate in which it’s being stored. The aging process can vary from a few years to 20+ years.
Bourbon is a special type of whiskey that by law must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels. Similar to the whiskey process, the charring gives bourbon its amber coloring. Bourbon is aged for a minimum of two years, yet often for many more.
“Our use of American oak maintains consistency in our taste profile. We have done extensive research on extended aging in American oak barrels, and have found that about 50% of the flavor comes from the barrel.” -Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace
Beer aged in barrels takes on oak characteristics, and adopts flavors from the barrel’s previous occupant – possibly a wine or bourbon. Barrel aging is best suited for beers with strong flavors and high alcohol content, like imperial stouts and strong ales. Aging beer for 6-12 months allows the beer to fully soak into the staves and take on vanilla and coconut character.
“Oak brings a depth of character to almost any style of beer; the key is considering the flavor potential of a particular cask, and how long your beer will need to stay in oak for the desired effect. Our beers aged in new American oak barrels tend to exhibit flavors and aromas of vanilla, coconut and caramel.” -Ben Kehs, Deschutes Brewery
The Barrel Lifecycle
Once a barrel has been used for approximately five years, the oak has fully imparted its flavoring into the wine or spirits. Most re-used barrels are used for scotch, rum, tequila, beer and sodas. When barrels have reached the end of their lifespan, you might see them cut in half as planters, used to make furniture or art, or broken-down as reclaimed building materials.