By: Gerald Dlubala
Those barrels hanging out in the distilleries, whether new, used or refurbished, are just getting started. Oak barrels have a full and varied life, complete with occasional travel between distilleries, breweries, wineries and back again, sometimes internationally.
Just within the Kentucky commonwealth, there is an inventory of over eight million barrels of Bourbon and other spirits in various stages of the aging process. It’s the highest inventory in 40 years and represents almost a two-barrel per person ratio. That’s a lot of barrels coming onto the market, which coincides with a booming secondary barrel market.
Impacting Flavors By Following The Seasons
One company helping those previously used barrels live their best life is Moe’s Barrels, with locations in Galt, Lodi and Fairfield, California. COO Dean “Deano” Wilson is a winemaker and self-proclaimed foodie, so he found it natural to follow his passion by selling previously used wine and whiskey barrels for secondary, flavor impacting purposes.
“We source our barrels from both the big and small producers,” said Wilson. “The boutique producers are our preferred source for quality used barrels simply because they tend to take care of them a little better. We buy our barrels in lots, with 99% of them coming in already cleaned and sanitized. But we’ll look at, inspect and grade them, giving them a wine or beer grade. If they don’t qualify for that, we can use them as furniture or décor grade. A trend that has grown recently is to sell the parts of used barrels to the artistic community, selling the individual staves, barrelheads or barrel rings for creative endeavors.”
Wilson told Beverage Master Magazine that his formula for success is to try and follow the season for selling a certain type of barrels.
“We get a lot of first and second use barrels at harvest time, which is very good for cross-utilization. White wine barrels are excellent for reuse with wine, Belgian style beers, Cognacs and more. The barrels we get immediately following the crush are great matches for repeated wine and bourbon use.”
Wilson gets his used barrels delivered with blue painter’s tape over the bunghole. The tape covers the hole for sanitary reasons but still allows the barrel to breathe. If they sit around too long with the bung in, there’s a chance for mold growth. If the barrels are left with the openings uncovered, they could dry out and start to split. Moe’s does the rest, performing sanitation, rehydration, steam cleaning and hot water rinsing.
“Communication is key for customers looking to purchase used barrels,” said Wilson. “The buyer needs to be comfortable in the relationship with the supplier. First and foremost, look for quality, but be comfortable enough to ask for what you need. Know what flavor profiles you’re looking to build. Use your nose and trust your smell when inspecting the barrels that you are buying. Some staining and minimal hairline cracks are fine, but larger, deeper cracks around the bunghole can be a sign of a problem, and it’s always best to stay away from any hardened purple stains. Check for holes or damage that could be related to borer beetles. We invite all buyers into our warehouse, where you can completely inspect the barrels you’re looking to purchase. Inspect them from head to head, inside and outside, noting the year on the cooperage. Know the barrel’s origin, exactly what it was used for and how many times it’s been used. A quality supplier will know and willingly share this information about the barrels they’re selling. Cleanliness and smell are your two biggest assets when looking at used barrels, so always follow your nose.”
Moe’s Barrels keeps all of its inventory inside a warehouse and available for buyer inspection.
“We want to recycle these barrels and give them another life in the business, whether it’s for additional distilling and brewing, for use as furniture and décor or ultimately selling the parts to the artistic community. It’s a way towards sustainability.”
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel: The Name Says It All
What better place to source local Bourbon and whiskey barrels than in Kentucky, the birthplace of Bourbon and home to the renowned Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Noah Steingracher is the man to talk to for North American and international craft sales at Kentucky Bourbon Barrel, a full service used barrel cooperage, offering used Bourbon and exotic spirit barrels.
Being right in the heart of the Bourbon Trail in Louisville, Kentucky, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel primarily sells Bourbon barrels sourced locally from all of the familiar names. When Steingracher joined the company, he brought his international sourcing experience with him, so exotic and international barrels are now in play as well. He has sourced used barrels from spirits distributors, breweries, meaderies and wineries for use in finishing and aging a potential customer’s product.
“We do it all,” said Steingracher. “We sell the used barrels from barrel to stave, depending on every customer’s unique needs. We have contracts with reputable and well-known distilleries to empty and ship their used barrels directly to us. We inspect them using our stringent guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable issues, including the size of any distinguishable cracks. If needed, our experienced team of coopers repair the barrels and make them fit to fill. We fill the used barrel market for customers that may not have the time, expertise or source to fill it on their own, and our experience and reputation are such that we have customers worldwide. I’ve shipped to islands that I’ve had to find on Google Maps. I’ve delivered barrels to the base of the Himalayas. There’s nowhere we won’t deliver.”
Steingracher told Beverage Master Magazine that the used barrel market is affected by the same seasonal changes that affect all brewers and distillers, as well as how the barrel will be used.
“A used barrel can function as either a vessel or an ingredient,” said Steingracher. “As a vessel, used barrels are just the holder for the product. For example, if a brewer wants to offer chocolate, porter or coffee stout, a used bourbon barrel fits the need and will provide the expected stone fruit and vanilla notes. But if you want to put out the best coffee stout, you should use a rye barrel so that the unique flavor from the barrel imparts a distinguishable, peppery infused difference. The right barrel will be a noticeable and valued ingredient in your formula.”
Steingracher noted that brewers and distillers sometimes become too easily attached to the brand stamped on the barrel rather than going with barrels that fit their actual needs, if for no other reason than to associate their brand with that of a particular distillery.
“A mindset of only looking towards a brand name rather than filling your flavor profile defeats the purpose of striving for reliability and availability of your product offerings. Craft distillers and brewers can always run into a situation of not being able to find that particular distiller’s used barrel for the next batch. Frankly, they usually don’t even have the marketing rights to use that particular distiller’s name in their marketing. Jim Beam can release up to ten thousand barrels a week, with Buffalo Trace releasing around six thousand a month, and then others like Pappy are obviously extremely limited.”
“Relationships matter when discussing that reliability and availability,” said Steingracher. “You need to know the type, origin, and age of the barrel you’re getting. With all the variants and combination spirits being distilled these days, what specific type of Bourbon was the barrel last used for? Was a char put on it? What level? Was it toasted? Repaired? How many years has it been used? Barrels can last a hundred years or more if used and maintained properly. The oldest is probably in Scotland, but I’ve personally seen some from aged before World War II. We do buy some back from the distillers that we know care for them the right way, and having access to our cooperage allows us to be able to make the repairs necessary to keep them in circulation. You can certainly come through and check on barrels yourself, but with our regular buyers, they know that the barrels we send them are fit to fill.”
The flavor and use options for used barrels are indefinite. With many craft distillers and brewers now openly sharing their barrels between multiple brewing cycles, with proper use and care, barrels can last indefinitely. It’s what you can do with them after extensive uses and fillings that become limited.
The Barrel Mill’s Infusion Spiral Technology Offers More Flavor Options While Decreasing Aging Time
Options for those barrels, whether new or extensively used, have gotten much greater due to Infusion Spiral technology from The Barrel Mill, a central Minnesota-based cooperage that specializes in premium new oak barrels.
Len Napalitano is an infusion spiral expert with The Barrel Mill and told Beverage Master Magazine that their infusion spirals are perfect for creating unique flavor profiles and helping distillers get their product to market faster.
“Sometimes, you won’t find the right barrels for the flavor profile that you want to build for your customers,” said Napalitano. “With each fill, a wooden barrel loses part of its flavor offering and balance, and after three fills, barrels can be neutral regarding any noticeable flavor profile. These barrels are still obviously good for use, and now they can benefit from infusion spirals to regain that lost flavor profile.
You can achieve new oak flavor without the new oak barrel, which can be in short supply at times. Even when used with a new oak barrel, infusion spirals help get your product to market quicker. Our spirals are cut from premium oak, maximizing end-grain exposure for full extraction in weeks instead of months, saving the distiller money in labor, cost and time. The spirals are formed from barrel stave wood, cut through, then put into a convection oven to get their desired toast or char by way of our proprietary formula.”
Jeremy Wochnick, Sales Professional for The Barrel Mill, said “The spirals range from a light toast to a #3 char depending what the distillers want, and are available in not only the standard, premium oak, but also in French oak and more exotic species like sugar maple, cypress, cedar and more for experimental and unique small-batch flavor profiles. Barrel quality results are obtained using any type of barrel, carboy or stainless tank. The spirals have proven to be successful in spirits, beers and wines as well as hard ciders and nonalcoholic drinks like ginger ale and regular ciders. Infusion spirals can be used to add a flavor profile to anything. We also have packs with blend options featuring different toast levels. The spirals can be used once, and are inserted into your barrel through the bunghole by way of netting or some sort of daisy chain for making retrieval easy.”
And those infusion spirals, after being retrieved from their time in the barrel? Well, it turns out that they’re a pretty good addition to your outdoor barbecue.