Making whiskey is closer to designing clothes than building the new iPhone. The whiskey of today is more varied, more plentiful and likely of a higher quality than it has ever been, but it is still whiskey. The years-long process required to create whiskey means innovation comes slow, but when distilleries latch on to something new, they go all-in.
In recent years, that something new is barrel finishing, the practice of dumping mature whiskey into new barrels for a short period of time with the intent of imbuing the whiskey with touches of something different. The technique is not unique to one type of whiskey or one type of distiller (though it is somewhat more popular with craft distillers) and mashbill, maturation and barrel type matching is essentially endless. But, like any experiment, not all turn out for the better. From rum to Syrah to orange curaçao, here are recent examples that hit the mark.
Chivas Regal Mizunara
Mizunara oak grows at half the pace and covers much less ground than its American or French counterparts, and it’s much more porous (and therefore prone to leaking). This adds up to an extremely expensive barrel (in 2018, Wine Enthusiast reported a single barrel costs more than $6,000). Chivas’ scotch finished for a few months in Mizunara is still predominantly scotch, but its hints of coconut and sandalwood only come from one place.
High West Yippee Ki-Yay
High West makes weird whiskey. The Utah distillery uses rye whiskeys from two to 16 years of age in this blend, and finished the whole batch in former vermouth and Syrah barrels. There is nothing on the liquor store shelf to compare it to.
Bellemeade Honey Cask Bourbon
The San Francisco World Spirits Competition’s “Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon” of 2019 is a pun. In distilling patois, the honey barrel is a cask of whiskey so perfectly balanced in age and location in a rickhouse that it is the platonic ideal of a whiskey barrel. Bellemeade’s Honey Cask Bourbon takes it literally, finishing its barrel strength bourbon in casks used to store honey.
Blood Oath Pact No. 5
Created by a food scientist with more than 20 years of whiskey blending experience, Blood Oath releases, called “Pacts,” are all different and all put a premium on barrel finishing. The fifth pact is a blend of 13-year-old bourbon, 11-year-old wheated bourbon and 8-year-old bourbon finished in Caribbean rum barrels. Expect something a bit sweeter than you’re used to.
Sagamore Spirit Port Finish Rye Whiskey
Port-finished whiskeys are more common than most barrel finishes, but this one is easily the most talked about of late. Winner of a few “Best Rye Whiskey” awards, Sagamore Spirit’s ported rye leans heavily into the jam, plum-like qualities of a good port while its spicy rye base still cuts through.
WhistlePig The Boss Hog, Spirit of Mauve
WhistlePig’s Boss Hog series is the Canadian rye whiskey sourcing masters highest-end whiskey. A 13-year-old straight rye finished in ex-Calvados barrels. Calvados, a pear or apple brandy distilled from cider, is best known for its flavors attachment to the land it’s produced on. The result in this case is a mature, easy-sipping rye with a swell of apple on the nose.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 12th Edition
This won’t be easy to find. Heaven Hill Distillery’s Parker’s whiskey releases annually and usually sells out shortly after, but if you’re able to track down last year’s release, you’re in for a treat. Classic Kentucky bourbon finished in former Orange Curaçao barrels, this is about as strange a barrel finish as you’ll find. Expect an enormous citrusy pop with a slightly bitter followthrough.