You’ve seen them! The do-it-yourself gallon-sized whiskey barrel where you can age your own whiskey at home. It’s an intriguing idea that seems to sell very well during the holiday season… sadly, like love, vacations, and nude beaches, the fanciful notion in your imagination ends up being far better than the reality.
Can one really do a little homemade aging and improve your whiskey? Enter Beyond Barrels. Founded by Chris Harrigan, through a dedicated body of personal trial-and-error research, he learned to select particular types of grain, shape them, heat-treat them, and then offer them as “aging masts.” These take the form of cigar-like shaped pieces of wood; far more natural looking than dowels from the home improvement store, they look like the raw material of heart trees that aboriginals would carve into idols. These aging masts are meant to be immersed in the full bottle for 3-6 months with results that Harrigan promises are “spectacular.”
Why does this work? Harrigan has published a treatise on the subject, with highlights including:
- The thickness of the wood allows for a full spectrum of flavors
- The shape of the wood matches the 53-gallon barrel of liquor to wood ratio, optimal for flavor
- The mast is shaped for 17-times more side-grain than end-grain, avoiding the “brown paper bag” flavor
- He uses a “trade secret” non-char heating method to avoid firewood flavors
- The flavor is less bitter because the spirit is at bottling proof and rather than 120+ proof during the aging process
- It uses naturally weathered wood
- Only heartwood is used rather than toxic and foul-tasting bark
This is why you can’t (and we asked) just drop in a tree branch you recently pruned in your backyard or a handful of hickory seasoning chips for your bbq after a light toasting. It lacks the shape, the grain, the heat treatment, and the heartwood.
But look: science and research aside, we don’t age whiskey. We drink whiskey.
So we had a simpler question: Harrigan’s proposes that we buy a bottle of whiskey, buy an aging mast, and then let it sit somewhere 3-6 months before we drink it. A cynic might say: why on earth would one do this instead of just buying a nice bottle of whiskey and drinking immediately? Or, if you like, why would you try to turn a bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon into Booker’s Bourbon when you can just buy Booker’s?
After some pondering, we can think of a couple of reasons.
First, Harrigan raves about 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!
Second, the general consumer may not be into the waiting game… but you know who might be? High-end whiskey bars and specialty liquor stores. There’s been a big movement in special, single-barrel editions for bars and stores where they supposedly pick out a barrel from Heaven Hills or Buffalo Trace or some other distillery that’s special to that store alone. Knob Creek bottled exclusively for store X! Whatever. These aging masts, however, have the potential to allow specialty stores and bars to truly craft their individual whiskeys. That’s something we’d seek out and go buy where we scoff at the marketing ploy around specialty bottlings! Retail outlets would have the financial incentive, the patience, and the clientele to have a whole line of customized whiskey with different woods and methods.
So we’re going to test the aging masts on that basis. We picked out 4 whiskeys for different reasons and we’re going to let them go for 6 months and see what happens.
- 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 mast salvage it?
Into the bottle each of the aging masts went. They slipped in pretty easily and bobbed a bit (maybe they’ll sink over time). It was kind of sad to lay the bottles down in the basement to wait for winter. Hard actually (we consoled ourselves with some brandy to help bide the time). But now these bottles are at rest and Harrigan’s masts are beginning to work their magic.
See you at Christmas time, Chris!
Update: Harrigan contacted us on one correction. He offers two styles of aging masts: one in cherry wood and the other in French oak. The cherry should be aged 1-3 months or "possibly up to 6" while the French oak is 1 week to 1 month.
by Neal MacDonald, Editor
[Disclaimer: we received 4 pre-release individual aging masts free of charge for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]