Oak barrels have a long history of being used as storage kegs for various alcoholic spirits. As temperatures rise and fall, the contents of the barrel are absorbed and expelled repeatedly from the oak wood. This process allows the barrel to trap and filter contaminants from the alcohol, while also adding flavor to the finished product. The average oak barrel can only be used a few times before it is no longer effective in this role. This makes proper seasoning and storage important, so you can get the most out of each barrel.
Things You'll Need
- Cold water
- Barrel rack
Determine whether or not you require charcoal filtration in your barrels. If you are seasoning whiskey or other hard liquors, you will need the inside of your oak kegs to be burned so the resulting charcoal can filter impurities out of the liquor. If you are aging wine or other light spirits, you may opt for virgin oak barrels that have not been burned.
Perform a cold-water soak to swell the barrel, making sure it can hold liquid without leaking. Fill the barrel 1/3 full with cold water and allow it sit for four hours. Pour out and refill 2/3 full with cold water for an additional four hours. Follow up by filling the barrel completely and keeping it full until it seals itself and stops leaking.
Fill the oak keg with the alcohol being aged and seasoned. Seal the barrel and store it laying horizontally on a barrel rack. Wait seven days, then open the keg, refill it, and place it back on the rack. The wood absorbs a portion of the liquid during the first week of aging, so it is important to top the barrel off to keep all parts of the keg moist during storage.
Store the oak kegs and allow the alcohol to mature. The specific amount of time varies depending on the type of alcohol and recipe you are using. It is generally recommended to keep the kegs on barrel racks and to store them in an area where the seasonal temperature changes can be felt by the wood. This allows the barrel to breathe, as it draws liquid into the wood and then pushes it back into the barrel.
Rotate the barrel stock so that kegs are not overused. A charred oak barrel used for hard liquor is typically used for a single storage cycle lasting seven to 12 years. The keg will not be an effective filter for a second use beyond this. Uncharred oak barrels used as wine kegs can usually be used three times before they lose the ability to contribute to the flavor and body of the wine. Changing barrels on a regular basis is an important part of creating a quality beverage.
Tips & Warnings
- If barrels are stored dry for lengthy periods, they can be protected from spoilage agents by burning a sulphur stick inside the barrel. Light the stick and place it in a fireproof container. Suspend the container by string so that it is hanging in the middle of the barrel, then close the lid so that the smoke fills the inside. This treatment should be repeated once for every six weeks of dry storage.
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