The using of used bourbon barrels for aging Whiskey has become a wide-spread and fairly recent occurrence. It stems from the difficulties found in sourcing sherry casks back in the days of the Spanish Civil War, around the late 1930’s. Used bourbon barrels go through an interesting life cycle.
Today, in the aging of Scotch Whiskey, anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 bourbon casks are used, which is a stark contrast to the Sherry casks, that were numbered at around 18,000. In spite of popular belief, there are very few whiskeys being aged exclusively using bourbon barrels. Most of the ex-bourbon aged malts you will find, have been vatted to varying degrees of percentages, with whiskey aged in ex-sherry barrels. Examples of these so-called ‘pure’ ex-bourbon aged whiskeys are Ardbeg 10, Laphroaig, Glenlivet 12, and Glemorangie.
Used bourbon barrels are deemed to have completed their ‘First Life’ once they have actually been used for aging the first batch of bourbon. Only then are they prepared to experience their ‘Second Life’, which is being used as vessels for aging whiskey.
The used bourbon barrels are broken up and divided into staves. Then they get shipped to Scotland. While in Scotland, there are coopers used for reassembling the staves and making them into used bourbon barrels for aging whiskey. Of course, the pleasure of drinking this whiskey will be had, only after the passing of time and the aging process is complete. All sherry casks, and a fair number of used bourbon barrels, are most usually shipped as whole casks, and never broken down into staves. It is fairly uncommon, but there are a few companies who actually ‘re-char’ their ex-bourbon whiskey barrels before they use them.
A cask has a working life of “4 Fills”. That means it is used to make 4 separate batches. In many cases, they are only used for a second or a third refill before being retired. There are also times when, after used bourbon barrels have lost their usefulness, or the spirits have taken away all the ‘good qualities’ of the wood, that a distiller will shave down their insides to get at the fresh wood beneath, and then re-char them.
Each distiller will have their own unique way of treating their ex-sherry casks once the whiskey distillers have had their hands on them. Most of them will usually ‘nose’ the cask, after they have emptied it and robbed it of any residual sherry, and then refill it with a brand new spirit. This ensures that the cask smells fresh. It is believed by Dave Robertson that nobody would ever char a fresh sherry cask unless it didn’t smell right. In that case they would either char it or reject it altogether.
Bourbon Barrels Life After Whiskey
Leave it to the Whiskey industry to come up with creative solutions. They have introduced a way of getting additional use out of barrels whose lives have reached an end. Instead of tossing them out, there is a company from Glasgow called ‘McKay Flooring’, that has designed a system of making flat boards out of the distinctive oak barrels. They make floor boards out of used bourbon barrels. Many of them still have the original branding and carry some of their unique smells along with them as well. These can be a great talking point for bars and lounges, and has drawn quite a bit of interest from Whiskey enthusiasts who love the idea of having that type of unique flooring in their whiskey dens.
If you like the idea of aging your whiskey at home in a used bourbon barrel then you can do it. All you do is start with one of our new charred oak barrels and age some bourbon in it. It doesn’t matter how long but when you are done just pour the bourbon our in to your bottle and then you can pour whiskey in it and age it in the used bourbon barrel. Very tasty.