Craft Your Own Dram
An Experiment in Home Whiskey Aging
In the preceding weeks, we’ve reviewed a variety of whiskies from both sides of the Atlantic and the distillery of a recent review, Koval, represents the impressive growth of craft distilling. As with craft brewing, savvy consumers are becoming more knowledgeable, and interest in the distilling process has grown with that knowledge. Unlike brewing beer, distilling whiskey is a more dangerous and capital intensive process. However, whiskey making has two chief components: distillation and aging. The aging phase is much easier to replicate at home. Many kits have appeared on the market, and this week we’ll review our aging experiment from a kit created by Woodinville Whiskey Co.
The Woodinville kit is a nice and compact way to get hands-on experience with whiskey aging. The kit includes a 2 liter barrel, two bottles of unaged Woodinville whiskey and a funnel to help fill the barrel. The whiskey is a bourbon mash and the barrel has been freshly charred, so the kit will allow you to produce whiskey that is technically a bourbon. The instructions included with the kit are useful, as, for example, the bottles of unaged whiskey will not fill the barrel and addition water needs to be added. This will also bring the whiskey down from cask strength to something more like 40-45% alcohol.
From the point you begin to fill the barrel, the decisions you make will affect the flavor of the final whiskey. The time you let the whiskey age, the place where the barrel rests, the weather, and many other factors influence the amount that the whiskey interacts with the wood of the barrel and therefore changes the flavor. We were a bit intimidated by the whole process (along with our perfectionist nature) and so we did some research. One critical principal is that the smaller barrel will increase the contact between the liquid and the wood and effectively age the whiskey much faster. The kit and our research led us to believe our whiskey would age about 8-10 times faster than if it was stored in a regular sized bourbon barrel. So if we left the whiskey in the barrel for a year, it would have effectively aged 8-10 years.
When we were ready to go, we tried the unaged whiskey and took notes to give us a baseline to compare to. Over the weeks we would sample the whiskey as it matured. At first the changes were slight—a hint of the oak and a slight change in color. Around the 3 month mark, the whiskey started to rapidly transform. The harsh and brash flavor of the unaged spirit were quickly subdued and the liquid began to turn into a deep amber.
We continued to take samples and notes. Around the 6 month age mark, the transformation began to slow and our impatience grew. At this point we knew we had a whiskey that was of the character of a 5 year old bourbon. The flavor was interesting and we decided to bottle our product. You have probably heard of the notion of the Angel’s Share, the term for the portion of spirit that evaporates leaving a less than full barrel. After just under half a year, the two 750ml bottles of white whiskey plus ~500ml of water filled one and two thirds bottles worth of bourbon. That’s an astonishing 50% angel’s share. Our guess is that the dry conditions in our apartment induced a more rapid evaporation. Either way, we still had more than a bottle so let’s get to the tasting.
Batch 37K Bourbon
To give you a reference point, we taste tested the whiskey before storing it in the barrel and every couple of weeks thereafter. The unaged white whiskey was intensely sweet and potent. The flavor and color change was slow at first, but then hit an inflection point and things moved rapidly. After 6 months, the equivalent of 4-5 years, in the barrel, we felt our whiskey was ready. The whiskey was aged during a dry Chicago winter, near a kitchen, and we can only speculate as to how those elements factored into the flavor.
On the Eyes: At the time we bottled the spirit, it had turned a deep, dark copper color. Without any filtering, the whiskey has settled a bit over time with sediment not unlike that of an older red wine. The whiskey is also very viscous and rich with long, heavier legs in the glass.
On the Nose: The first scent we detected was predominantly that of brown sugar. Complimentary baking notes followed, with hints of banana bread, baking spices, and a hint of oakiness.
To the Taste: Our first sip greeted us with flavors of rich maple syrup and butterscotch. Later we tasted more of the brown sugar as well as cookie dough.
At the Finish: Towards the finish the dram built a little bit of heat that vanished quickly. Lingering sugary sweetness prevailed.
Overall we’re pleased with our whiskey aging experiment. The bourbon style turned out to be very drinkable and sweeter than a classic bourbon, without much of a hint of the charred wood taste you might expect. Unlike most of the whiskeys we have reviewed from various distilleries, Batch 37K is not very complex, but instead hits a few excellent notes that it plays over and over. In its simplicity, Batch 37K is refreshing and approachable, especially for those who do not prefer whiskeys that feature a lot of heat. The aging process turned out to be an insightful and surprisingly straightforward experience and we would recommend it to anyone who wants to gain personal experience with the whiskey-making process. We ended up using the barrel for two more aging runs, once with Koval White Rye and a third time with a wheat whiskey. All three turned out differently, but echoes of Batch 37K could be found within the Rye and Wheat, demonstrating just how important cask selection can be.