Aging Spirits and Wines in a Barrel
What Happens To Liquor When It Is Aged In An Oak Barrel?
Most bottles of high-end liquor will brag about some sort of aging process. The aging process might even be built right into the name, such as Macallen 12. The longer the aging process the more expensive the bottle of liquor, but why? Well, there is an abundance of things that happen to the liquid when it is aged in an oak barrel, the most common vessel for aging a spirit. These processes can take year, but can also take just a few weeks with a small at-home barrel.
The barrel needs to be placed in a humid space where the temperature will change throughout the day. Expansion and contraction of the liquor is important to the aging process. The liquor needs to expand into the wood of the barrel. The liquid is capable of penetrating almost half way through the barrel’s edge. Then, when the temperatures cool off, the liquid retreats and brings with it a bunch of flavor that the barrel itself is responsible for.
People talk of tannins in wine. Tannins are especially evident in the taste of red wines and are believed to be from the skins and stems of the grape. If the wine has been aged in an oak barrel then some of the tannins have been drawn from the wood itself.
Another key part of the aging process is the infusion of wood sugars into the spirit. Wood sugars are especially evident from a charred oak barrel because the heating process draws these natural elements out of the wood and into the liquor. Wood sugars give the liquor a depth of flavor and a slight sweetness. Overall, oak barrel aging gives the liquid a vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and butterscotch flavor. It also makes the liquid a lot more smooth for a different mouth feel.