Casual whiskey fans will know, according to U.S. law, a whiskey must mature in an oak barrel to call itself whiskey. Whiskey enthusiasts might pipe up and remind them that the barrels must be new and charred — a process by which a cooper fires the barrels with literal flames for a minute or so (the burn time depends on the desired char level). But it's only the whiskey nerds (and perhaps the distillers themselves) who can talk toasted barrels, and it's the whiskey nerds that want to buy bourbon made using them.
Where a char is a 40 to 60 second burn of the interior of a barrel, a toast is, well, a toast. The barrels are subjected to less extreme temperatures for longer durations than a barrel char. The charred interior of a barrel acts as a filter during maturation, destroying unwanted parts of the new whiskey, while also bringing flavors of its own. Most of the vanilla flavor in whiskey, for example, comes from the breakdown of lignin in oak barrels, which is expedited by charring. Caramel-like flavors, too, are largely the result of a good char, as hemicellulose (part of most plant cell walls) breaks down into sugar when fired.
Toasting is less common by default. Because it isn't a requirement, distillers that toast barrels are adding cost to their production process to bring out different flavors. Most recently, Heaven Hill Distillery released its first toasted barrel whiskey under the Elijah Craig line. It's the same whiskey as its massively popular, $30 small batch offering, but will be available on a limited basis for $50. What does the extra step do to the whiskey? Grab one of these toasted barrel whiskey and find out.
Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel
The classic, 94 proof Elijah Craig Small Batch, but finished in a toasted barrel. Heaven Hill collaborated with the coopers at Independent Stave Company to create a new barrel to dump fully matured Small Batch whiskey into. Available in September, the bottle will be available in limited quantities.
Michter's Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon
Michter's was an early adopter of the toasted barrel finished whiskey. This, combined with the brand's popularity on whiskey's grey markets, has made its toasted barrel whiskeys hard to come by.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford is a gateway brand for many bourbon enthusiasts, which means it's not a part of many whiskey nerd discussions. Its Double Oaked expression is an exception to that rule. The whiskey inside is Woodford's Distiller's Select line that enjoys a secondary maturation in a heavily toasted, lightly charred barrel. Its demand is so high the distillery released a more extreme variant, dubbed Double Double Oaked.
Wilderness Trail Kentucky Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond
Popular among the bourbon cognoscenti, Wilderness Trail's straight bourbon, single barrel, Bottled-in-Bond expression also happens to be matured in a toasted barrel. Unlike most toasted barrel whiskeys, it isn't finished in one – the barrels it ages in are toasted for almost 45 minutes before getting an alligator char.
Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whisky
Brown-Forman, the company that owns Old Forester (and Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve, etc.), are the only major distillery with an in-house cooperage, allowing its brands to more freely experiment with various maturation techniques, toasted barrels included. Old Fine Whisky is a recreation of whiskey that survived a bottling line fire in, would you look at that, 1910. The mature whiskey is finished in a barrel that's been lightly toasted and charred "nearly to the point of incineration."
Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Heritage Barrel
Another Brown-Forman barrel toasted whiskey, this JD bottling could very well be the most extreme test of toasted barrel flavor influence. It's Jack's banana-rich whiskey aged in a barrel that's toasted low-and-slow and bottled at 100 proof.
Barrell Dovetail Whiskey
You'd be forgiven if you taste Dovetail and can't pinpoint where the toasted barrel comes in. It's a blend of 10-year-old whiskey finished in Cabernet barrels, 11-year-old bourbon finished in blackstrap rum casks and it's all eventually blended and finished in toasted French oak barrels. Put it all together and you've got a completely unique, award-getting whiskey.