There are two ways to age whiskey at home. The first is by adding oak wood sticks to a bottle of white whiskey and the other is by aging it in your own oak barrel. Both methods are fairly easy and much quicker than the average two to eight years or more that professional distillers take, and within months or sometime even weeks, your whiskey can be ready for drinking.
There are also two reasons why you would want to age whiskey at home. The first is because there are several variables in the aging process that effects the whiskey’s flavor, all of which, when you age whiskey at home, are completely in your control, and you have the flexibility to experiment and create as many of your own flavors as you like.
The second reason you’d want to age whiskey at home is because a well-meaning friend or relative has bought you a DIY whiskey aging kit or an oak barrel thinking it would be a great present – presumably their logic was, if you like drinking it you’d obviously like making it – and you don’t want to disappoint them.
Just don’t forget to buy them a sewing kit in return.
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Age Whiskey at Home: Things to Know Before Starting
There are four things you have to know before starting this project.
- An overview of the entire whiskey making process.
- Why whiskey is aged in barrels.
- That differences in the whiskey making process cause differences in flavor.
- The flavor-effecting variables in your control when you age whiskey at home.
An Overview of the Entire Whiskey Making Process
Whiskey is made by taking a grain, cooking it to extract the sugars and adding yeast to cause fermentation and the conversion of the sugars into alcohol. The resultant beer like liquid has about 7% – 10% ABV, so it requires distilling to achieve anything from 60% – 90% ABV.
(Most people do not do this part themselves as it is illegal to distil your own alcohol without a distiller’s license or permit and you need special equipment.)
At this point what you have is raw, unaged or white whiskey, though it won’t look or taste like the finished product (it’s as clear as water and still has its original flavors). It’s then placed in barrels for an extended period of time, at the end of which it becomes … aged whiskey or as otherwise known by the experts and everyone else … whiskey.
Why Whiskey Is Aged in Barrels
If you’re wondering why whiskey is aged, and in barrels the answer is because that’s where whiskey gets almost 80% of its flavor. As a side note, the, ‘because it tastes better’ answer works for many whiskey questions.
How aging whiskey in barrels gives it its flavor is relatively simple.
While whiskey is stored in barrels, changes in temperature and humidity cause it to seep into the wood and then back out again picking up all sorts of chemicals (wood sugars, vanillin, lactones, tannins and other compounds) in the process. The more this occurs the more the wood of the barrel transmits different intricate flavors to the whiskey.
At the same time the chemicals remove some of the unpleasant sulphury notes and some of the lighter and more volatile compounds evaporate through the barrel walls – otherwise known as the angel’s share.
The upshot of all this is that some of the whiskey’s harshness is removed, making it smoother, while plenty of flavor is added, giving it much of its character.
Differences in the Whiskey Making Process Cause Differences in Flavor
The whiskey making process is more or less the same everywhere, but it is those very more or lessnesses that cause the taste of whiskeys to differ.
The differences in the whiskey making process include (but are not limited to) the type of grain the whiskey is made from, the water used in extracting the sugars (the taste of water can vary even within one country), the type of wood the barrels used to age the whiskey are made from and where they’re stored, as wood is porous so over time will take in air from the surrounding environment.
The Flavor-Effecting Variables in Your Control When You Age Whiskey at Home
Since the whole point of aging whiskey at home is to be in control of the final flavors, it’s important to be aware of all the factors that may affect its taste.
- The particular white whiskey you use. As well as a wide range to choose from, you can in some instances, mix them or even add essences to flavor it.
Bourbon Bitters Bundle
- The amount of alcohol in the whiskey. If it’s too high you get too much out of the barrel and it doesn’t taste good. If it’s too little it won’t absorb much of the flavors. Whiskey is best aged at 55% ABV the traditional American standard or 62% ABV the traditional Scotch standard. Within this range, a higher proof tends to extract more tanins and you’ll end up with a sharper taste, whereas a lower proof tends to extract more vanillis and has a softer taste.
- The type of wood your barrel is made from. American White Oak is what’s commonly used but you can try other species of oak or other types of wood such as Maple, Cherry or Birch. Just make sure it’s a non-poisonous, chemical free wood.
- Whether the wood is toasted or charred. Toasted is when the wood is heated, and charring is when you burn the wood with an open flame until it becomes black. This is all done to release the flavor compounds so they can enter the whiskey when the whiskey is absorbed by the wood.Charred barrels have more ash residue which gives the whiskey a darker color. The carbon in the ash acts as a filter for the harsher elements so your whiskey will taste smoother and more mellow. It also imparts sweeter flavors because the wood sugars are caramelized when heavily burned.
Toasted barrels having no ash residue don’t impart as much color, resulting in a lighter shade of whiskey. They add a more vanilla flavor to the whiskey and because they’re heated much more gently and the sugars haven’t had time to caramelize, the whiskey will be a bit sharper.
Of course, the exact temperature the wood is heated to and the length of time it’s heated for, will also affect the whiskey.
- The length of time it’s aged. The longer the aging process the smoother it will become (because more volatile compounds will evaporate) and more flavors will be transmitted to the whiskey. However, this doesn’t mean you can leave whiskey in a barrel forever. With the smaller size barrels used to age whiskey at home, you may overoak your whiskey if you leave it for more than a year. The whiskey will become too woody and have an overpowering oak taste.
- The environment / location you’re leaving your whiskey to age in. Since it’s temperature and humidity that cause the whiskey to seep in and out of the wood in the first place, any environmental changes and differences will affect the whole process.
Now we’ve looked at an overview of the whiskey making process, explained why whiskey is aged in barrels, that differences in the whiskey making process cause differences in the flavor and the six flavor-effecting variables when you age whiskey at home, we’re ready to look at the two methods in detail.
Age Whiskey at Home: Method 1 – Using White Oak Sticks
Take your chosen white whiskey and pour it into a mason jar if you can’t use the bottle it comes in. Dilute it to your preferred ABV and add some whiskey flavoring essences if you wish.
Add oak (or other type of) wood sticks. As a rule of thumb, one oak stick will age one 750ml bottle of whiskey in one week, by about five years.
Make sure the jar or bottle is sealed tight.
Now, aging whiskey at home is a Do It Yourself activity but as with any DIY activity the amount of ‘Y’ varies.
So, you can get some oak, split it into thin sticks (the wood expands during the aging process) and shorten it so that it will fit inside the bottle you’re aging your whiskey in. You can char the wood yourself with a blowtorch or grill, wait for it to cool, rinse it with lukewarm water and wipe it down to get rid of ash and other debris.
Or you can buy a DIY age your own whiskey kit that comes with a charred oak stick.
Oak Infusion Spirals
Yes, it’s a little less ‘Y’ than … well doing it yourself, but since at the end of the day you are doing quite a bit, it still counts as aging your own whiskey.
Store away from direct sunlight but in a place where the bottle will experience changes in temperature. When the temperature rises the wood expands and the whiskey is absorbed into the wood and when the temperature falls the wood contracts and expels the whiskey, and the magic of flavor transfer can occur. The more of these temperature changes there are, the quicker the aging process.
Of course, you should not store it in a place that’s too cold as that will slow the aging process down, or too hot – as that will increase evaporation. You can also change locations frequently by putting it outside for a few days and then bringing it back inside.
This method lets the charred wood absorb and release the whiskey so that the process of flavor transmission will occur, but it does not let the volatile compounds escape as they do when barrel aging. Apparently, these volatile compounds find it more difficult to force their way through solid glass containers than the spaces between the staves of a barrel. It’s important therefore, to regularly open and close your jar or bottle to allow them to escape.
You will need to monitor your whiskey and test it regularly. That means every week or two. And you should probably make a note of the flavor, burn and color, so that you can compare the results of different batches at every stage with or without slight changes to any of the flavor-enhancing variables, and replicate your favorite.
When you’re happy with your whiskey’s flavor, you’ll need to remove the oak stick, so your whiskey won’t continue to age and become ruined.
Don’t forget to strain your whiskey before drinking. You want the wood to add flavor to your whiskey not flecks of wood to your drink.
Age Whiskey at Home: Method 2 – Using a Barrel
The second method to age whiskey at home is pretty much the same as the first, except you’ll be using a barrel and not oak sticks.
Once again, how much DIY you want this to be is up to you. You can make your own barrel or procure a used one and char the inside yourself or buy a specially made 1 – 10 liter home aging barrel.
Oak Aging Barrel
If it’s a new barrel, you’ll have to prepare it in a process called curing, first. This is because barrels are held together by pressure, not glue or nails, so without curing it, the whiskey you fill it with will leak between the staves.
Curing a barrel is very simple process. Place the barrel on something or somewhere you don’t mind it leaking. Close the spout of your barrel and remove the bung. Put a funnel in the bung hole and pour in hot tap water until the barrel is completely full, so that all the wood swells and the barrel becomes water-tight. This may take a few hours, a few days or it may not leak at all. When the barrel has stopped leaking you know it’s ready and you can pour the water back out.
Pour in your whiskey. You’ll want the barrel to be completely full during the aging process so that all the wood is touching liquid, but you may want to add water to cut the alcohol’s ABV down. You can also add any flavoring at this point.
Make sure the bung completely seals the barrel. Some whiskey evaporates – the angel’s share – but there’s no need to give them any more than absolutely necessary.
Store, monitor and test as above.
A one liter barrel will take no more than a few weeks to age and a ten liter barrel will take a few months.
When you’re happy with your whiskey’s flavor, you’ll need to pour it into a bottle, otherwise it will continue to age and become ruined. Strain it as you do so to leave wood chips and sediment behind.
Why Home-Aged Methods Have Quick Results
These two methods to age whiskey at home bring quicker results than professional distillers because of the higher ratio of liquid to surface area of flavor-imparting wood.
Since you’re probably not going to be using the commercially standard 53-gallon barrel but a more modest sized one, or a small container with oak sticks, the amount of wood touching the whiskey will be four or five times higher. This means more flavor will be imparted at one time so of course the aging process will be quicker.
Aging Fully Mature Whiskey at Home
Barrel-finishing or secondary maturation is something professional distillers do. They take their fully mature whiskey and give it some extra time (maybe a year) in a different barrel, one that has previously held something interesting, for example sherry or port. The hope is that some of the flavor of the previously stored liquid that has been absorbed into the walls of the barrel will, like flavor from the wood itself, seep into the whiskey and improve it.
This means that aging whiskey at home is not only for unaged whiskey, it’s for fully mature whiskey too. You can take a bottle of your favorite whiskey and finish it. I mean in an aging barrel … not by drinking it.
If you’ve already used your barrel, you will need to clean it with citric acid and warm water to return the wood to neutral. Then add whatever wine or spirit you think will go well with your whiskey and let it condition the wood for a few weeks.
Pour out the wine or spirit and replace it with the aged whiskey of your choice.
Leave for five to ten days. Once again, monitor and test, and when you’re happy with the new flavor, transfer it to a bottle and drink.
The two ways to age whiskey at home are by adding oak wood sticks to a bottle of white whiskey or aging the whiskey in a barrel. Either way the wood imparts its flavor to the whiskey.
The two methods mentioned are very easy and you will see results much quicker than professional distillers. This is because when you age whiskey in smaller volumes, although it’s not materially efficient you will have a higher flavor-imparting-wood to whiskey ratio.
Not only can you age unaged whiskeys at home, you can also barrel-finish fully mature whiskeys at home, by conditioning your barrel with another spirit of your choice.
Although it’s relatively quick and unrelatively easy to age whiskey at home, there’s a large scope for experimentation by mixing and matching all the different flavor-effecting variables. This means you will find an endless variety of flavors that will keep you busy forever.