Bottom Line at the Top: we see two people who would find aging staves appealing. The first is committed whiskey drinkers and "mixologists" who love to mess around with different flavors. They'll keep meticulous notes, try different spirits, and happily post away on blogs and articles with other liquor geeks forever chasing that elusive perfect sip. For these, the chase is the game and the price well worth it. (Here's an example just such a venture at Modern Thirst.) These staves don't work well in every setting but it's a lot of fun to try. The second group are those people who don't know much about liquor but are looking to buy a present for a whiskey person. For all the weirdo crap out there—the whiskey stones, the frozen shot glasses, the aerators, and so forth—this is a gift that actually makes sense and would be a welcome addition. If we had to guess, we think these staves will sell like crazy in the holiday season... and that's a good thing.
We’ve waited patiently for 2 months after receiving some aging staves to try out from Chris Harrigan of Beyond Barrels. Actually, that was the plan. The staves were forgotten in our basement so it ended up being 3 months… but this works out nicely in our opinion because this is a highly plausible outcome if a person were to try this out. Out of sight, out of mind... after all, who among the cocktail enthusiasts of the world haven't started pulling odd, dusty, and long-forgotten bottles out of the cabinet?
These shaped, staves of cherry wood are designed to fit inside a whiskey bottle and give it an additional aging and flavor… in theory, turning mediocre or even good whiskey into great whiskey (or, we hope, miraculous whiskey). We said it last time and we’ll say it again now that we’re tasting the results: we’re hoping that we don’t just turn Jim Beam into something better than we can buy… we want to turn Jim Beam into something we can’t buy. We want the special edition whiskeys. We want the limited edition whiskeys. We want the ultra-expensive whiskey!! Turning a $15 whiskey into a $50 whiskey isn’t that great if you have to wait 6 months to do it. But if you can turn a $15 whiskey into a $500 or a $1,500 whiskey… well, now we’re starting to feel a tingle deep down inside!
We originally thought to run the experiment for 6 months but Harrigan assured us that 2 months was the proper aging for cherry wood. We used:
- Jim Beam Bourbon: a decent enough bourbon you can get anywhere… can we make it spectacular?
- Buffalo Trace Bourbon: this is a fine, fine whiskey already… can it become something approaching Pappy’s that you’d normally have to chase the delivery truck or win a lottery to find?
- Cody Road Rye Whiskey: this is a craft whiskey that we thought perfectly-crafted but could’ve used some more age. Will this give it that special something to propel it to excellence?
- JK Williams Young Buck Bourbon: same thing… this is a whiskey that’s actually very disappointing when you taste it. Can the aging stave salvage it?
Results with Jim Beam
Color: The “sticked” bourbon is immediately noticeable as darker. Several shades darker. Substantial. With the regulator bourbon, we start from a pale, luminous gold of J-Lo highlights going towards caramel with the sticked. On the nose, it’s bourbon… very much like a corn whiskey. The nose on the darker sticked is, indeed, a little more woody... not like smelling a 2x4 at Home Depot but rather split firewood on an autumn day.
Taste: the normal Jim Beam is decent enough but it has a rather bitter, astringent flavor on the finish. We guess this is a characteristic of young bourbon. The sticked version, for all its aromatics, tastes sweeter and more robust on the front end of the palate but fails entirely to fix the back-end astringency. “It tastes like a dusty old hardware store floor,” announced one of our number. That’s a shame, really, because that’s on Beam and not the fault of the stick! A little ice pulls out more of the extra wood in the sticked but… well… we still don’t want to drink it.
Would we bother to do it?: no… resounding no. Nothing that happened here makes us want to try and repeat the experiment. In this sense, aging staves do not help. Judgment? Aging staves can affect mediocre whiskey but can’t really help mediocre whiskey.
Results with Buffalo Trace
Color: the sticked version is darker. Much darker. We think it’s established that the staves do indeed darken the spirit. There’s a decided cherry note on the nose… that makes sense since it’s cherry wood but still a lot of cherry. “Smells like the designer imposter of Buffalo Trace,” said one. “It smells like the Yankee Candle version of bourbon,” said another. Clearly, the scent of the stave envelopes the traditional bourbon.
Taste: this is a vastly superior bourbon to the Beam in every possible way. Smoother, nicer, more caramel… and easier despite being at 90 proof vs 80. With the stick, the mouthfeel is different. The profile is thinner and the front-end taste deeper. The caramel is gone but a cherry wood (one might mistake it for sherry-cask) note envelopes. “It’s almost on the verge of cedar!” The problem: everything that made the Trace bourbon—the caramel, the vanilla, all of it—is gone. It’s a different whiskey now. It’s not bad… but it’s not bourbon any longer. For some of us, this made the whiskey far worse; for others, far better. Quite the split decision.
Bonus: does this turn Buffalo Trace into Blanton’s? No. Just no. Not even close. We put them side by side and it was like comparing a used cherry Popsicle stick to fresh, meadow-harvested honey.
Would we bother to do it (to Buffalo Trace, that is)?: a minority opinion agreed that they might separate the bottle and “do this” to a bottle of Trace. The rest? No. Why would someone want to do this to a bourbon that’s already good. Most of the time, we wouldn’t. In this sense, aging staves do not turn good whiskey into great whiskey.
Results with Cody Road Rye
Color: darker of course. On the nose, though, nicer. Better. Where the original smells and reminds a bit like an emaciated banjo player, for the sticked we think of jolly old fat St Nick with a sack of bananas. That's better for anyone who lives outside of banjo country.
Taste: the Cody Road, as we mentioned before, is a defect-free but young whiskey. The sticked version introduces (on the front-end, naturally) a spicy, slate taste. There’s a light, spearmint-acetone fade. This is better: it’s more complex. “A whiskey worthy of the Four Season’s London Bar.”
Would we bother to do it?: interestingly, yes! When we get a bottle of well-executed but otherwise under-aged whiskey, the stick helps a lot! We’re not sure that we would go out and buy this intentionally but if you end up with a craft something-or-other that you take a shot on and needs some help, then throwing a $3 stick in is wise. For underage whiskey, the aging staves do help.
Results with JK Williams Young Buck
Color: darker, duh. But this is a darker bourbon to begin with, which is really weird for such young stuff and we wonder if they’ve done some accelerating (chipping or whatnot). The nose on the original is all corn whiskey moonshine. And this equals gag reflex. Just young, rough stuff. Comments were not kind: “Is there moss growing on this thing?” “Did you mix this with the pond water?” “It’s like moldy banana laffy taffy.” The stick improves the aroma but doesn’t overcome it entirely. Maybe an introduction of chamomile. We’re still having trouble with the nose under either case.
Taste: the taste is all young, hot whiskey. For 80 proof, it’s just way too hot. Otherwise, the flavors are there but dominated by corn. In every sense and in every way, it’s just young and overly simplified. It’s not ready for the market. The stick helps this thing a lot! We’re not sure it entirely fixed it but now there’s a fruit note. The stick has added a complexity to the front end that blends with the corn. The problem is the whiskey is still too hot! It just simply shouldn’t be this hot for 80 proof. If this were barrel proof, we’d giddily add ice and smile. Here, we add water (and this helps) but it shouldn’t have to happen. The finish is wrong… you can almost like it until, at the 7-second mark, it falls apart. So close.
Would we bother to do it?: only out of desperation. Presented with an underage whiskey, like with the Cody Road, we’d give a shot with a stick to see if it can improve. Otherwise, we don’t go out of our way.
Should You Do This?
Bottom line, if you’re a whiskey enthusiast it’s a good idea that you have a few of these things around. The reason being, you’re bound to find some younger and underage whiskeys, either accidentally or as gifts, finding their way into your home bar. Don’t waste them on bad whiskey (it won’t help) but it can put some age on an otherwise immature spirit. Even here it won’t salvage completely but it will help, make something drinkable, and otherwise make a more pleasing experience out of something that would otherwise only collect dust.
A couple of interesting things happened after the 3-month tasting mark: we found that the aging stave swells in the liquid and we could not remove it from the bottle of Buffalo Trace so left it in. And upon further review, we ended up strangely liking the bourbon. The cherry wood is sort of addictive in a way that we didn't appreciate at the first trial. It worked especially well in Manhattan cocktails, where the cherry mixed with the sweet vermouth beautifully and elevated the entire drink. This is striking because we don't especially like Manhattan cocktails in the first place but found ourselves drinking it in casual, informal settings! Was it the same for others? We left the stave in the JK Buck and wondered if the extra-aging would help. It did not. As above, the cherry wood flavors intensified but it can’t overcome the whiskey itself.
But importantly, we can recommend these aging staves enthusiastically for those who prize Manhattan cocktails and even those who have a favorite bourbons that they like to tinker with.
by: Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received 4 pre-release individual aging staves free of charge for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]