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For those who love to DIY their way through life, learning how to age whiskey at home might sound like a fantasy. After all, you probably do not have loads of room for casks and other distillation equipment? The answer is no. Aging whiskey at home does not require fancy barrels, licenses, or even mastery in the art of crafting whiskey. All you need is an open mind and some creativity.
Table of Contents
- What Does It Mean to Age Whiskey?
- How Different Varieties of Whiskey Are Aged
- What Happens During Aging?
- How to Age Whiskey at Home
- How Long Does Oak Aging Take?
- Can You Only Age Whiskey With Oak?
- What Not To Do When Aging Whiskey at Home
- Whiskey Ages The Best at Home
What Does It Mean to Age Whiskey?
To age whiskey means to make it smoother and less alcoholic. To age whiskey, a charred wooden barrel is used.
Aging whiskey is a longstanding tradition, even though barrel aging is no longer a popular practice. Long ago, producers would put whiskey in casks and barrels for transportation. During that time, the whiskey aged so that the final product would have desired character and flavor when it finally arrived at its destination.
Early on, consumers found that barrel-aged whiskey was smoother and more delicious. Whiskey is now aged as a stand practice. You can find whiskey on the shelves that has been aged for mere months or for several decades.
How Different Varieties of Whiskey Are Aged
Whiskey is available in a number of styles. Some whiskeys are regionally named—looking at your Scotch—while others have unique regulations or ingredients. Distillation is also different, depending on the region and culture. Thus, whiskey is an alcohol with a variety of flavors. Here is a glimpse at how different whiskeys are aged and what that process does to the flavor:
Scotch and Irish Whiskey
Scotch is made with water and malted barley. Irish whiskey is a mash of barley, wheat, and corn, along with water. Although Scotch and Irish whiskey do differ in distillation practices, they both require aging to be at least 3 years.
In order for something to be classified as a Straight Bourbon whiskey, it must have undergone at least 2 years of aging. American bourbon is known for being sweeter; you can taste spices, caramel, and vanilla. Some of this is imparted during the distillation process and grains used, but the aging process also influences the bourbon.
If you want to age bourbon, make sure you are using a new oak barrel. Most distillers will send their used bourbon barrels off to Scotch distilleries.
Up until 2021, there were very few regulations concerning Japanese whiskey. You could get a variety of different whiskeys, some of them closer to moonshine than actual whiskey. In 2021, however, new laws were passed to ensure that Japanese whiskey has been aged at least 3 years before it can be sold. However, one of the more interesting and exciting parts of the law is that the distiller is not required to use oak. Thus, many Japanese whiskeys taste unique when compared to those from places with stricter regulations.
What Happens During Aging?
Barrel aging is a complex process that adds character and depth to the spirit. When whiskey undergoes aging, it is almost like a metamorphosis. The change in humidity and temperature will cause the alcohol in the whiskey to be drawn into the wood of the barrels. It is an ebb and flow that filters out impurities and rounds out the flavors of the whiskey.
Sometimes whiskey—generally the lighter variants—evaporates through the barrels, which is called “the angel’s share.” With the angel’s share comes the tannins and vanillins from the wooden barrel, adding unique flavors to what remains of the whiskey.
How to Age Whiskey at Home
For a while now, aging whiskey at home has become a popular topic. Numerous items have been launched to age whiskey at home more easily, including mini barrels, wooden chips, and oak bottles. Each of these DIY methods for aging whiskey has advantages and disadvantages to consider before making a selection.
Need more information about aging whiskey at home? Check out this entertaining video:
The Mason Jar and Coffee Filter Method
This is an idea that works for both whiskey and moonshine. If you have distilled your own whiskey, a mason jar is your best friend. Clean and sanitize your mason jar then pour enough whiskey in to fill about ¾ of the container. Cover the mouth with a coffee filter then screw on the mason jar ring to keep the coffee filter in place. The coffee filter will facilitate evaporation, helping pull some of the alcohol and impurities out. People who use this method report adequate aging after 24 hours.
If you want to accelerate aging, you can add in some wood staves, chips, spirals, or cubes to the whiskey.
Wood Staves and Chips
One of the more reasonably priced and accessible options out there is to age your whiskey with wood chips and shards. You can find many different products available online. For example, you can put American white oak chips in a mason jar and some whiskey. The easier option is to put a couple of wooden staves into the very bottle that your whiskey came in. The wood will interact with the alcohol inside the bottle or jar, accelerating the aging process.
With this method, the conservative route is the best. You do not want to add too much wood and accidentally over age it. Less is more when it comes to wood chips. Monitor the process; sample your whiskey every few days to make sure the changes are not too significant.
Place the whiskey in direct sunlight—yes, you read that right. Your whiskey should age within a week but make sure you are taste-testing it regularly.
There is one teeny-tiny issue with wood chips: lack of oxidation. For some forms of alcohol, like beer, you don’t want oxidation, but it is necessary for whiskey to develop the intensity that aging provides. Your whiskey will not taste spicy or minty without oxidation.
Different Varieties of Oak to Age Whiskey at Home
Did you know that there are different species of oak? White oak is not the only kind that exists, and it has its own distinct flavor and scent. If you want to still use oak but get something slightly unique, consider flavoring your bourbon or whiskey with another type.
- American White Oak: The most commonly used oak. Described with having an intense vanilla flavor and aroma, American white oak is used to add sweetness to whiskey. American white oak chips tend to release aromatic compounds like vanillic acid, aldehyde, and syringaldehyde faster than other forms of wood. You can age your whiskey in less time with this variety.
- Hungarian Oak: Influences the whiskey by adding stronger, bolder flavors, like dark or bittersweet chocolate, medium-roasted coffee, and black pepper.
- French Oak: Softer and spicier, French oak can be used to develop hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in your whiskey.
Homemade Charred Strips
Pre-made wooden staves are easy enough to get, but if you don’t like your options, why not get creative? Burn your own wooden strips. Cherry, oak, maple, and birch are excellent choices that are easier to char. Take the wood and cut it into strips that are about the size of the whiskey bottle. Barbecue or char the wood with a grill or a blowtorch until blackened.
Generally, 250-360℉ (121-182℃) is ideal for adding sweetness. If you want to incorporate some toasted notes, burn the wood at around 380-480℉ (193-249℃).
Cool your charred wooden strips with some water first. Wash ash away. After that, add your homemade charred strips of wood to the whiskey and let it age for as long as you want.
Store the mason jar of whiskey and wood somewhere dark but with temperature fluctuations. This is different from the pre-made strips. Letting the whiskey endure cool nights and warm days opens it up to more oxidation.
Larger distilleries have massive oak casks and barrels for the production of their whiskey. Because of that size, aging whiskey can take years. Imagine if the size of the barrel was reduced to 750 ml. A bottle made out of oak has a tremendous whiskey to surface ratio, meaning that aging could take place within hours, not days or months or years. Just hours. Furthermore, filling an oak bottle with whiskey and letting it sit is simple enough.
So what are the cons? Well, an oak bottle may not be made with whiskey in mind. Oxidation is also an issue here, being that the wooden bottle is not designed the same way as a barrel. Little to no air is going to get through. Lastly, once you fill the bottle up, you do not have much control over additional flavors.
The most obvious DIY method for aging whiskey at home is the barrel. You do not have to use a 53 gallon barrel. Smaller barrels—sometimes called mini barrels—are available. You can also find barrel aging kits online that range from 1 to 20 liters.
These little barrels are a fun addition to your home bar or basement. Plus, you can find a number of wooden varieties, ranging from the ever-popular white oak to hickory or even exotic samples. If you have access to an old barrel used for other spirits, that is an excellent option, too. You can do a lot of experimenting with mini barrels, since there is some room left for additives.
Before you go about filling your barrel with whiskey, consider adding water instead. Double check for any leaks. Otherwise, there are few downsides to aging whiskey in a mini barrel. Your whiskey ages faster and there is some oxidation.
Experimenting With Wooden Barrels
As mentioned earlier, the biggest benefit of using a barrel is being able to experiment. Welcome to the world of seasoning your whiskey. Prior to filling up the cask with your whiskey, try soaking the wood in a different alcohol or wine. Tequila, brandy, rum, beer, and a variety of wines can be used to jazz up the whiskey as it ages.
Keep track of the whiskey as it ages so that you can get the flavors you want.
How Long Does Oak Aging Take?
If you are using oak to age your whiskey, keep in mind that you do not have to commit to years of waiting for a delicious whiskey. You can achieve phenomenal results in a short amount of time. Why? Because the surface to liquid ratio is higher than it would be in a barrel. For most commercial whiskey, it is aged in a 53 gallon barrel. At home, you may be doing a single bottle.
Although it is far less efficient to try and age whiskey in small quantities, it does make the aging process faster. The more wood available, the faster you get the taste you want. What may usually take years in a 53 gallon barrel can take as little as a couple of days or weeks with a small barrel or wooden sticks.
However, you do run the risk of “over oaking” the whiskey. In order to prevent this from happening, draw a small sample of whiskey from the bottle or container every couple of days or weeks. Once your whiskey is the desired smoothness and strength, you can transfer it to a glass bottle for storage.
The Downside of Mini Barrels
You might think that a small barrel is the way to go. Wait for a moment. There is one significant issue worth addressing before you add a barrel to your online shopping cart. Remember that surface to spirit ratio? Well, a small barrel changes the rate of absorption.
In normal circumstances, where a whiskey might age for 30-50 years or longer, you cannot do this with a small barrel. Aging in an oak barrel (or something else) is intricate. You cannot predict how the wood, weather, and whiskey is going to interact. If you age your whiskey for too long under the wrong conditions, the end result is going to be nauseating.
Thus, there is a time limit on how long you can age whiskey in a small barrel. If you made whiskey at home and want to age it, this is essential to keep in mind. Small barrels cannot be used for more than two years. However, most effects on whiskey take far longer to develop—around 15 months to start. If you choose to age whiskey for longer in a mini barrel, it will either taste like straight ethanol or like “something is missing.”
Can You Only Age Whiskey With Oak?
Many people feel that oak is the only acceptable wood to use for aging whiskey, but that is not true. White oak is certainly the most common and preferred type of wood. That does not mean it is the only one. Maple and hickory are also very common choices for aging whiskey.
As you may know, there are some restrictions in place for Scotch and American bourbon. Those must be aged in white oak casks or barrels. However, other spirits do not have the same regulations. Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, and Japanese whiskey can be made in a variety of wooden barrels. It is also common for whiskey to be aged in barrels used for other forms of alcohol, including madeira, port, and sauternes. In this case, you will have to look at the original restrictions regarding the original alcohol or substance in the barrel.
Since you do not plan on selling your home-aged whiskey, these rules and regulations may not apply to you. That said, it is always best to double check. And if you want to make homemade whiskey, keep in mind that such regulations do exist.
What Not To Do When Aging Whiskey at Home
If you want to age whiskey at home, there is no lack of ways to go about it. Still, that does not mean you can throw caution to the wind. Check out this list of what not to do when trying to age your whiskey or bourbon or Scotch at home:
- Do not keep your whiskey in the bottle you bought it in. This is huge. Whiskey needs to breathe in order to age. Plus, if you just keep it tucked away in a shelf, it will remain as it has been. It will not get stronger or smoother, because there is nothing for interaction. Use wood chips, at least.
- Don’t wait too long to taste test your whiskey. Keep a record of how often you take a sample. For small amounts of whiskey (around 750 ml), you might get the desired smoothness you want in a day.
- Do not forget about the environment. Changing temperature and humidity lets your whiskey breathe!
Whiskey Ages The Best at Home
There are a number of ways to age whiskey at home, including adding wood chips to a mason jar, oak bottles, and small barrels designed for at-home aging. No matter which way you choose, it’s important to keep an eye on the process. Do not let your whiskey age for too long. Once you have the process down, you will have delicious, smooth, and flavorful whiskey again and again. Which method are you going to try first?
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