Kate Palmer AVP of Craft Spirits and Head of Origin Beverage

The Science Behind Barrel Aging Spirits [Infographic]

Aging spirits in oak barrels is a long-established tradition that started from necessity and continues due to the intricate subtleties in flavor and taste. While many scientific processes are at work inside the barrel of an aged spirit, we put together the infographic below to highlight three key factors: Types of Wood, Char and Time.

History of Using Barrels

Before we jump into the infographic, let’s take a step back and understand the historical significance of barrel-aged spirits. Has it always been to mature and enhance the flavors of our favorite spirits? The truth is: not quite.

In the early days, liquor distributors needed to store spirits as they travelled long distances. Long before interstates and diesel-engine trucks, distributors travelled on horseback and ship. The natural solution to preserving the spirits across these long-distance travels was to store them in oak barrels.

Clever distillers understood the impact the wood had on their spirits’ flavors, and we have never looked back.

Wood, Char and Time

In our infographic below, “Barrel-Aged to Perfection: The Science Behind Barrel-Aged Spirits,” we highlight three major factors that affect the profiles of aged spirits.

1. Types of Wood

While different parts of the world have some unique wood types, the most common wood used in traditional spirit aging are American and French oak. 

With American oak, you’ll find the liquor has a fuller, oaky flavor as well as a sweeter profile, with hints of vanilla or caramel.

With French oak, your spirits have a more complex flavor, including hints of spices, and the spirits tend to have more tannins.

2. Char

The inside of barrels is often burned to produce char, which provides distinct flavors, depending on the level of char. Lightly charred woods are sweet and include a toasted flavor, while heavily charred woods produce spicy, smoky flavors.

3. Time

The amount of time a spirit spends in its oaken vessel works wonders on the final product. Why should this be the case though?

The distillation of any alcohol creates both good and bad byproducts. The good ones are more stable, while the bad ones (such as butane, methanol, hydrazines, etc.) are unstable and break down over time.

Aging spirits allows the good byproducts to remain and enhances the flavor.

Check out the infographic below to see an interesting chart about how the effectiveness of barrel-aging behaves across a decade of time.

See Barrel-Aging in Action

In Horizon Beverage’s “Meet the Maker” video series, we profile Brent Ryan, master distiller of Thomas Tew single-barrel rum. Watch the craft distiller at work.

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