Meet the New Whiskeys, Part 2 (Secondary Barrel Finishing)

Recently we sampled some of the new arrivals for The Number Ten American Whiskey List and we focused on second barreling, a growing trend in American whiskey, when the bourbon or rye is dumped from the original barrel after aging, into another one—typically, used—to impart specific flavor notes. Angel Envy Bourbon, finished in port barrels, is a well-known example, alongside Angel Envy Rye, finished in Caribbean Rum barrels.

Secondary Barrel Finishing

Secondary barrel finishing is a growing trend in the American whiskey industry, and, simply stated, the practice of barrel finishing is that of using an additional barrel, just like it sounds—most often a used barrel—to further age an already mature, straight whiskey. Such finishing expands the character of the whiskey, although one challenge is to avoid the characteristics imparted by the second barrel overtaking the whiskey’s flavor.

American distillers are hopping on this bandwagon, although long commandeered by their Scottish peers, as they experiment with new types of wood, finishing length, and barrels that previously held a totally different spirit (there is at least one whiskey aged in anejo tequila barrels).

Can bourbons and ryes finished in a secondary barrel be called bourbon or rye? In the U.S., according to the United States Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, these whiskeys are known as distilled spirits specialties (https://www.ttb.gov/images/pdfs/spirits_bam/chapter4.pdf), which generally encompass any type of spirits that contain or are treated with flavors, colors, or nonstandard materials or processes. This therefore excludes bourbons and straight American whiskeys that are finished or partly matured in a secondary barrel that is not, such as a sherry, port, or rum casks, new charred oak. Although these products often use words like “whiskey,” “bourbon,” and “rye” prominently on the label, and may bear the names of famous distilleries, none of them are straight whiskey.

Does it matter, really? No, not a whit. Even if the TTB’s definition does matter, this federal agency that regulates alcohol has reportedly made recent changes about how cask-finished whiskey should be categorized, from “Whiskey Specialty” or “Distilled Spirit Specialty” modifying the definition to allow the secondary maturation to be included as part of the whiskey’s age statement, as long as it’s differentiated, such as four years in new charred oak and one year in a sherry cask.

Kyle Henderson, from Angel Envy, which was one of the first American whiskeys to use secondary barreling, reportedly claimed “I’d say 98% of sherry-finished whiskey, that [specific] sherry on its own is not drinkable. It’s used specifically for barrels and to give them different profiles.”

Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon is finished in a second oak barrel–oak from Oregon, that it. A few of us put this at the top of this particular tasting, liking the sweet front palate and its move toward dry in the finish, but the majority of tasters went with other of the selections.

High West makes unusual whiskey in their Utah distillery, oftentimes practicing blending of different sourced whiskeys with some of their own newer distillate, and then the whole batch—in the case of one of their rye expressions—goes into former vermouth and Syrah barrels. Bellemeade’s Honey Cask Bourbon makes it literal, finishing its barrel strength bourbon in casks used to store honey. WhistlePig’s Boss Hog series finishes with ex-Calvados barrels. The 2016 annual release of Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection was the first American whiskey to be finished in American brandy casks that added two years in that cooperage, an exceptionally long secondary finishing period. Maple Cask Rye from Hudson (Tuthilltown Spirits) takes its own used bourbon barrels, puts Vermont maple syrup in them, and then dumps the syrup and puts their whiskey in for finishing (while selling the bourbon-finished syrup, of course); several Northeast distillers do something with maple syrup barrel finishing. –

Critics of secondary finishing argue that it’s a pointless process that affects the flavor in a negative way, altering the true character of the liquid to cover up flaws or imperfections. Unfortunately, there are examples of secondary finishing that make this point, as a finish can become overpowering or even unpalatable when it isn’t done right.

Wine Enthusiast (https://www.winemag.com/2018/09/04/how-wine-barrel-affects-whiskey/) ran an interesting article on wine barrel finishing, interviewing several distillers, including Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery and WhistlePig, where sherry, port, and madeira casks are widely used as finishes.

“Historically, [casks from] fortified wines and high residual sugar content wines have been used for finishing whiskey,” Pickerell points out, referencing the mid-twentieth century start of this practice with The Balvenie DoubleWood 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky, but that experiments with non-fortified wines, like those at Hillrock, which has released Cabernet Sauvignon- and Pinot Noir-finished bourbons, are a more recent development.

Pickerell says that wine finishes should “supplement the taste of the underlying whiskey, not supplant it.” Here, pulled from this article, are seven wine categories, fortified and otherwise, that whiskey producers are working with right now, and a guide to how their flavors affect a wine-finished whiskey:

Cabernet Sauvignon Look for “berries, cherries and currants” in Cab-finished Bourbons, says Pickerell. As a result, some of these whiskeys taste almost like a Manhattan or Old-Fashioned cocktail. Example: Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon Napa Cabernet Finished; $100, 90 points.

 Madeira This fortified wine enriches whiskey with layers of honey and sweet spice or hints of stone fruit. It can produce a delicious spice cake-like effect. Example: Tullamore Dew Single Malt 18 Years Old; $110, 94 points. (finished in a quartet of casks: Bourbon, Sherry, Port and Madeira).

 Pinot Noir Grown in regions like France, Germany, California and Oregon, this wine tends to contribute subtle fruit and tannic structure to a whiskey’s finish, which makes its influence one of the harder to detect. Example: Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon Pinot Noir Finished; $100, 93 points.

 Port Although this finish can change depending on what style of Port is used, Pickerell points to tawny Port as a popular choice to add notes that can range from dark chocolate to lush “winter fruit.” Example: Isaac Bowman Port-Finished Bourbon Whiskey; $40, 92 points.

 Sauternes This finish of this French dessert wine is easy to identify, as it offers golden raisin, honey, stone fruit and orange blossom notes. Pickerell favors it as a rye whiskey finish, though it adds elegance to Highland Scotch as well. Example: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey Old World Series: Sauternes; $118, 92 points.

 Sherry You’ll find no shortage of Sherry-finished whiskeys. The practice has been in use for centuries, particularly to add nutty richness to Scotch, and it’s employed widely across all whiskey types. But what it adds to your dram depends on which style of Sherry was used… Pickerell says: “Manzanilla Sherry adds a fun minerality as well as winter fruits to whiskey. Oloroso Sherry adds top notes of nuttiness and dry fruitiness. Pedro Ximénez adds a rich plum or fig note.” Example: The Macallan Sherry Oak 12; $65,

 Syrah Not seen very often as a whiskey finish, this complex, savory red can add a measure of earthy red fruit and peppery spice. Example: High West Yippee Ki-Yay; $65, 96 points.

Our Tasting Selections

There are plenty of secondary barrel finished whiskey to choose from The Number Ten American Whiskey List, but below are four of the newest ones added to the list this spring. Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon is an example of secondary barrel finishes that look to wood, not wine or other previously used barrels. (On our list is also Jim Beam’s Double Oak and Basil Hayden’s Toast, both examples of wood-oriented secondary barreling.) The other wood-only selection was Daviess County in French Oak, while the other two selections we tasted are indeed wine barrel-based secondary finishes, including the other from Daviess County, a brand produced by NDP Lux Row Distillery, which, despite its mane, sources the whiskey and then secondary barrels them.

Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon

Producer: Eastside Distilling
Mashbill: Corn: 75%, Rye: 10%, Barley: 15%
Age Statement: 4 Year, plus additional months in second barreling
Proof: 84
Tasting Notes: Nose is vanilla, oak, caramel, all spice, dried cherries; Palette continues oak, caramel, cinnamon and all spice; Finish is long, lingers with spice, smooth.
Retail price: ~$40.00

Daviess County, Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished In French Oak Casks Limited Edition

Producer: Lux Row Distillers (sourced)
Mashbill: N/A (rumored mix of wheated and rye bourbon mashbills)
Age Statement: 4 Year, plus 6 Month in secondary barrel finish
Proof: 96
Tasting Notes: Nose has grape, custard, and with some musty oak; Palate brings spice forward with notes of pear, chocolate and grain; Finish is long, with some spice, honey, malt, and oak.
Retail price: ~$54.00

Daviess County, Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished In Cabernet Sauvignon Casks Limited Edition

Producer: Lux Row Distillers (sourced)
Mashbill: N/A (rumored mix of wheated and rye bourbon mashbills)
Age Statement: 4 Year, plus 6 Month in secondary barrel finish
Proof: 96
Tasting Notes: Nose presents dark fruit, honey, and vanilla, with some leather, rye toast, oak, and light spice; Palate continues and elevates dried dark fruit, with leather and oak, plus caramel, cocoa, and spice; Finish is medium-long but staying with oak, dark fruit, and spice.
Retail price: ~$54.00

Rough Rider Double Casked Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Producer: Long Island Spirits Distillery
Mashbill: Corn: 60%; Rye: 35%; Barley: 5%
Age Statement: N/A; secondary aging in Merlot and Chardonnay casks from Long Island wines post barrel wash with a local Long Island brandy.
Proof: 90
Tasting Notes: (Batch 24) Nose: It begins with sweet, warm butterscotch, and mellows into a toasted oak and tannic; Palate continues wood, but brings up toasty butterscotch, blackberries, and a light woodiness and dark cherry for a complex taste; Finish stays dark cherry but sneaks in port and brandy flavors aren’t immediately apparent, but they snuck up during the finish.
Retail price: ~$50.00

Results? Mixed in the Barrel

There were some surprises and tasters’ preferences were mixed. One interesting element is that the selected whiskeys were likely all around 4 years old, plus whatever bit might have been added in the secondary finish, and that is known from the labels or other information sources in the case of three of the selection, and from the taste, I’d bet that Rough Rider Double Casked Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a three or four year old bourbon. None of these whiskeys was a clear hit, although none were going to  be shunned after the tasting, if I had to guess.

Another Daviess County bourbon was finished in cabernet sauvignon casks for six months, resulting in some fruit notes, but unexpectedly bland overall.
A new line of bourbons–sourced–but finished and bottled by ND)P Lux Row Distillers, included several Daviess County lines. We tasted two, including the bourbon finished in barrels of French Oak, which, as was expected, added some floral notes.

In addition to common age statements and these whiskeys all having second finishes, proofs were all in the same ballpark, with Burnside coming in at 84 proof, Rough Rider at 90 proof, and the two Daviess County

at 96 proof. I thought that this might help focus the tasting on the secondary barrel effect, without too wide a range in proofs adding to the confusion.

Another interesting point was that two of the whiskeys were not from Kentucky, but rather Oregon and New York, respectively, and both part of the local grain-to-whiskey trend, where grains farmed nearby (and typically non-GMO) make up the mashbill. Furthermore, in the case of Burnside, the secondary barrel was made from local (well, at least intra-state) wood, and Rough Ride claims New York vineyard wine barrel sourcing for its secondary finishing.

Personally—and close to solely—I liked Burnside the best, with its sweet front palate and moderately smooth finish, but some others felt that both the nose and finish was hot, despite this being the lowest proof whiskey. I suspect that Burnside could come across this way as a double wood finished whiskey, with the Oregon Oak new barrel imparting more wood-derived spice than the used wine barrels common among the other two. What is at odds with this theory is that the Daviess County, Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished In French Oak Casks Limited Edition selection didn’t carry much spice from the extra wood barrel aging, but was more floral, which is often the mark of French Oak, or so I’m told.  If there was a front runner from this tasting, it was French Oak finish from Daviess, but by a nose-and-a-half at best, mainly because many of the tasters saw this as the more complex whiskey.

The Daviess County, Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey finished In Cabernet Sauvignon Casks Limited Edition was generally considered as something as a letdown, with the largely missing promise of the cabernet sauvignon secondary barreling coming as a surprise: the effects of this finish just wasn’t clear. Sure, the whiskey came across with an added hint of sweet and fruit, but not nearly enough to keep many of the tasters wondering if they were only imagining this.

Rough Rider Double Casked Straight Bourbon Whiskey had its fan and I put this second in my list, while some of the other tasters found this overly sweet but confusingly hot, which got me wondering if Rough Rider might in fact be putting out a younger whiskey than the others. The whiskey carried more flavors from the secondary barreling than Daviess County’s Cabernet finished whiskey, but the finish was a problem for some tasters.

Whiskey Over a Barrel

This tasting was hardly definitive as an answer to the secondary barrel aging debate, especially since there are more and more higher-end (read, older) whiskeys taking on this process. Whether or not this secondary barreling will turn out to be a fade—the limited edition nature of the two Daviess County selections might be a hint—the fade is hardly likely to be fleeting, and brands like Angel Envy have clearly shown staying power.

Long Island, New York-based Rough Rider, a distillery relatively new to the scene, keeps everything close to home, including in the use of merlot and chardonney barrelsa from L. I. wineries.

We will have to have another secondary barrel finished whiskey tasting, with some of the higher end whiskeys I can think of already, but this may have to wait until the list expands yet again.

While I expect that this trend will continue to expand for a while, especially as new distilleries come into market, I also think that the debate about secondary barreling being a way of covering for too-young or too-unskillfully made whiskey will continue, too. Exhibit No. 1: Dad’s Hat Vermouth-Finished Rye Whiskey, an early instance of secondary barrel finishing, but, in my opinion, a whiskey dumped from the first barrel far too soon: less than a year in the first barrel—far too early for a rye, unless you like spunky grass notes—and then aged in vermouth barrels for three-to-six months in 15 gallon Quady’s Vya Sweet Vermouth barrels. I happen to love Vya Sweet Vermouth, but even a great vermouth can’t cover up rye that is way too young.

One Comment on “Meet the New Whiskeys, Part 2 (Secondary Barrel Finishing)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.