View Full Version : Re-barreling question

08-12-2008, 18:57
I was looking at a website that sells new American white oak barrels as small as 1 gallon. You can choose "toasted", for wine, or "char" for whiskey.

I've often thought it would be fun to buy some inexpensive (that is, young) whiskey and put it in one of these barrels and see what the changes would be from the added time on the oak.

I know that the large surface area to volume ratio in a one or two gallon barrel will make for a very rapid "ageing" of the bourbon, at least for the first batch. Each subsequent batch would take longer to impart oakiness to the whiskey because the previous batch(es) would have sucked some of the character out of the barrel.

My question is this:
The website says when you first receive the barrel you should fill it with hot water and leave it for 5 days or so to swell the staves and make for a nice tight water (whiskey) proof barrel. This makes sense.

What I'm wondering is, when you dump that water and fill with whiskey, wouldn't you lose a lot of the original char to the water that first filled the barrel? Do bourbon makers fill there new charred oak barrels with water first?

Thanks for any advice you can give.

08-12-2008, 19:03
My thoughts are that the water step is important to prevent leakage. You want the wood (white oak) properly dried to avoid piney resins entering the whiskey. You don't want a leaky vessel, however, so water swelling into the frame makes sense. I don't know if distillers ensure this is done but I would think the barrel is treated in this way, or a similar way, before being taken into inventory by the distiller. I wouldn't worry about loss of char. Not enough can leave the barrel and the all-important red layer (the caramelised wood behind the char) will be unaffected by just a few days water entry. I'd had a number of re-aged bourbons and I'd stress the importance to start with a perfectly dried barrel before the water entry.


08-12-2008, 19:11
How would drying the oak first prevent resins from entering the whiskey? If there were undesirable resins in the wood, and you dried the wood, water would leave the wood but the resin chemicals would still be in the wood, wouldn't they? Re-hydrating the wood would make the resins available to the whiskey.

While typing this I couldn't help but think of the old "how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood" thing. :^)

08-13-2008, 01:31
I meant that the wood should be dried sufficiently not by yourself but before you buy it when the barrel is made, I would simply ask the supplier if it is sufficiently dry to hold spirits or wines for this purpose. Just my thinking having read of others' experiments.


08-13-2008, 05:09
Just to elaborate on my thinking, in traditional bourbon production, the staves used to make barrels needed to be well-dried. Initially this process was done outdoors, i.e., naturally. (My feeling is this must have resulted in wood that would add more complexity to spirit than kiln-dried wood, but that is a separate point). Later, kiln-drying was used for the same purpose. Today, some distilleries require barrels made from wood dried outdoors and others use the kiln-dried wood.

The reason for the drying was to reduce the amount of wet resins and other aromatics in the wood. If the wood was too wet (albeit charred) when filled with whiskey, some of that piney resin would get into the whiskey and affect its palate in a way not thought correct for bourbon and rye.

In the drying process, I assume that some of the resin simply evaporates or becomes less intense in flavor, possibly simply because it becomes more of a solid. I mean, I just don't know - but I do know that drying the wood to a certain point is considered essential.

If it was me trying this experiment, I would ask my supplier if he knew whether the barrel maker had ensured that the staves for the wood had received the type of drying that is used for barrels intended to hold whiskey.

Maybe staves of all barrels of whatever size when made to hold spirits or wine receive the same drying. Maybe this is not the case, though, and if this was me again I'd ask about this.

In tasting some whiskeys that had been re-barrelled by members of this board, I noted in some (not all) a piney-like note that I thought may derive from a barrel that perhaps hadn't been dried in the way I am explaining. I can't be sure, maybe those notes came simply from the fact that the barrels held the whiskey for only a few months or a year or so. Anyway, something (perhaps) to think about.


08-13-2008, 06:50
An historical note from practical distiller Charlie Thomason, writing in the 1960's:

"Timber for barrels is cut only in the winter, when the sap is down, is then split into staves, ricked in squre ricks so the air can circulate through and around each stave. They are left to air-dry this way for eight to twelve months then are kiln dried before they are used, as there must not be any sap left in the wood".

I think in practice surely there will be some residual sap, but not enough to affect the palate of the whiskey.


08-14-2008, 17:37
I think the main reason to cure the wood before making barrels is to prevent it from cracking as it dries. Cured wood is more stable and will last longer.