HOW CAN A BOURBON BE AGED IN SHERRY BARRELS?
Bourbon is famous for its rules. At least 51% corn. New charred oak casks. Distilled in the United States. So how is it that some of Barrell Craft Spirits’ releases are made from bourbon finished in other kinds of casks? Fan-favorite Dovetail, for example, is made from bourbon finished in Dunn Cabernet, toasted french oak, Port, and black strap molasses casks. Isn’t that breaking the rules?
Not exactly. You can do anything you like with bourbon–finish it in sherry barrels, filter it through charcoal to remove all of its color, even sweeten it and flavor it with faux green apple. It’s just that, once you’ve done those things, it stops being bourbon and becomes something else. If you take a look at that Dovetail bottle, you’ll see it’s called “whiskey,” not bourbon.
To us, sherry cask finishing (or any kind of cask finishing) is a pretty clear violation of the rule that bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak casks and contain no additional flavoring or coloring. But that doesn't mean we think it’s a bad idea.
We’ve finished bourbons in a plethora of different cask types, from oloroso sherry casks and Cabernet wine casks, to barrels that once held fortified wine, pear brandy, rum, or Sicilian amaro. But we always label the results as “whiskey,” rather than bourbon, to stay true to the strict regulations around bourbon. In other words, bourbon is an ingredient in those whiskeys–and a critical one–but the final blend doesn’t meet every criteria of straight bourbon.
LET’S BACK UP. WHAT IS SHERRY?
Sherry is a fortified Spanish wine. There are many different styles of sherry, ranging from the salty, toasty, bone-dry fino to opulently sweet Pedro Ximenez. But the one thing all sherries have in common is that they spend some length of time in oak barrels.
At one time, sherry was so popular in England that it was delivered via the boatload, filled to the brim with barrels of sherry. Only after arrival was it filled into bottles, and the leftover barrels were passed on to distilleries that used them to age Scotch whisky. But the supply of these transport barrels dried up when sherry fell out of favor, and stopped altogether when new Spanish laws were passed that required sherry be bottled before it left spain.
The trouble was, whisky producers had fallen in love with what sherry casks did to their whisky. That little bit of sherry left in the wood gave whisky delicious new flavors like toasted nuts, dried fruit, bittersweet chocolate, and warm spices. So rather than give up that wonderful character, they decided to reverse-engineer sherry barrels by asking major sherry producers, like Bodegas Lustau, to “season” casks with sherry and then send them to Scotland empty just for whisky maturation.
BUT WHAT ABOUT BOURBON?
American producers don’t have the same historical tradition of maturing whiskey in sherry casks that the Scots do. Bourbon barrels are required by law to be made from new oak–typically American white oak–and deeply charred on the inside. But that rule doesn’t mean American drinkers don’t love the rich, nutty flavor of sherry finished whiskey.
You can put Barrell Craft spirits squarely in that sherry-loving camp. We’ve been experimenting with finishing bourbon and other American whiskeys in sherry casks for years, including our award winning Single Barrels, Barrell Private Release Whiskeys, and Small Batch Whiskeys. The combination of rich, spicy American whiskey and rich, fruity sherry is over-the-top hedonistic in a way we just can’t get enough of.
Only we don’t call it bourbon. Because it’s not, technically–not anymore. It’s American whiskey made from bourbon finished in sherry casks. OK, so it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. That’s just the price we’re willing to pay for being purists.