DO WHISKEY BARRELS GET REUSED?
DO WHISKEY BARRELS GET REUSED?
In the world of whiskey, barrels are so much more than a container. They’re also one of the spirit’s most important ingredients, imparting color, flavor, and aroma over many years of maturation. Without them, whiskey would be crystal clear, and taste and smell nothing like the delicious, aromatic spirit we all love.
American rules about bourbon are famous for requiring producers to use bourbon casks just one time. But that doesn’t mean these are single-use products. Whiskey barrels, including (and, in fact, especially) bourbon barrels absolutely get reused. It’s just that they don’t get reused for making bourbon.
Outside of the United States, previously used casks are widespread in the spirits industry. Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, rum, reposado and anejo tequila, and even barrel-aged gins and genevers are commonly aged in used barrels.
At Barrell Craft Spirits, we’ve used ex-Islay whisky casks to age rum and finished Kentucky whiskey in rye casks. Our releases draw from a plethora of barrel types, from the Cabernet wine, Late Bottled Vintage Port, and blackstrap molasses rum casks used for our award-winning Dovetail release, to the pear brandy, rum, and Sicilian amaro casks used to produce Armida.
From a global perspective, ex-bourbon casks are hugely desirable, since the rules that restrict bourbon producers to using barrels just once means there’s plenty of flavor left for those who come after.
Borrowing an analogy from another corner of the beverage world, think of a barrel as a pot of strongly flavored tea leaves. The first steep produces the most potent brew, but the leaves still have plenty of oomph left for another steeping or two. The same goes for used bourbon barrels, although it fails to capture some of the more complex facets of maturation like evaporation and oxidation.
In other words, aged spirit makers around the world are clamoring for bourbon producers once-used charred American white oak barrels. And it’s a good thing. If they weren’t, American distillers would have a problem on their hands: a never-ending supply of barrels they can’t re-use.
And it’s not just distillers who covet casks. Brewers have long valued the sweet vanilla notes that American oak barrels give to stouts, porters, and barleywines, and cidermakers are following their lead. Even winemakers are experimenting with using ex-bourbon barrels to mature full-bodied red wines.
Outside the beverage industry, the rise of bourbon aged maple syrups, honeys, hot sauces, and pretty much anything else you can think of has led to even more possibilities. (Fun fact: Tabasco is aged exclusively in ex-Jack Daniels casks.)
But even after every last drop of flavor’s been wrung out of the oak, a barrel still has options. In Scotland, ex-whisky casks are often broken down into chips and used to smoke salmon or other seafood. Crafty carpenters in Kentucky and elsewhere are hard at work exploring the many kinds of porch chairs, candleholders, and wall hangings that can be made from used barrel staves.
And, of course, when all else fails, there’s always the ultimate fallback plan: cut it in half, fill it with soil, and fill it with petunias.