Why You Should Char Your Whiskey Barrel (And How We Char Them)


Believe it or not, for a barrel to officially be a bourbon barrel it is required to be charred oak. There is a good reason for it and it is not to remove previous flavors inside the barrel or because France did it with their cognac distillers. The real reason charring started was because when wood became exposed to moisture, it would rot and attract insects. When barrels were charred it limited these hazards. 

We don’t really have to worry about insect infestations or rotting wood any longer – we deal with new barrels that can be treated and stored properly. So why do we still char our barrels? We have a different reason for charring them now, charring our barrels primes the wood and changes the flavor of the bourbon, whiskey, and anything else you want to flavor inside.


The Importance of Charred Barrels

The main thing that charring does now is make it easier for the bourbon to soak up different flavors. Chemically it does things to the wood that make other flavors stronger and sometimes more potent (like vanilla). Other flavors can also be tasted more intensely because of the chemical reactions that take place in the wood but any flavors can be added in during flavoring. While the bourbon or other liquor sits in the barrel, it absorbs the flavors and the wood during the aging and comes out as a delicious final product.

a glass of liquor next to a charred barrel

Char Levels

Different level of chars affect the way bourbon is flavored during aging. Higher chars can limit the amount of certain flavor that is passed to the liquor. Just as similarly lower chars have a different effect. Some other notes that are suppressed by higher chars are woody and coconut notes. Keep in mind that different liquors can also react differently with the char levels. Bourbon and whiskey are the most commonly aged but other liquors and spirits like wine and beer will react differently than them.

We like to use a medium char on all of our barrels. This generally brings out the best flavor profile. We do however do custom orders where we can do a lower char or higher char amount.

Generally the char types go as follows. The barrel is under a fire of about 500°F – 600°F and the time changes for each level:

  • Light char – Barrel fired for 15 seconds
  • Medium char – Barrel fired for 30 seconds
  • Heavy char – Barrel fired for 35 seconds
  • Extreme char – Barrel fired for 50 seconds

Char layers go anywhere from ⅛-¼ inch deep on the wood of the barrel.


Wood Type 

It should be obvious that different woods will react differently to being charred both physically and chemically. Since we only use brand new american oak barrels for charring, we won’t speak on any other barrels but know that changing your wood type will also change your flavoring profile. Charring oak makes flavors like vanilla, toffee, and caramel stronger while white french oak barrels have different flavors that end up more pronounced.

Difference in Toasting

Toasting oak barrels involve less extreme temperatures during a burn. Toasted barrels are typically used for other types of alcohol or spirits like wine, kombucha, and more. Using toasted barrels is less common so having bourbon or whiskey that’s been aged properly in a toasted barrel can be a rare treat. The process of toasting  the barrel involves the interior of the barrel to be lit with a smaller flame over longer periods of time. This allows the heat to penetrate deeper into the wood than the standard depths for char.

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