Barrel-aging Beers & Spirits During a Global Pandemic

malt whiskey barrel

By: Becky Garrison

How did the events of this past year impact barrel-aging programs? Following are selected pro-files of those who manufacture barrel-aged products and the impact, if any, they experienced during 2020 regarding the production and marketing of their barrel-aged beers, bitters, ciders and spirits.

Copperworks Distilling Company, Seattle, Washington

  Copperworks Distilling Company’s philosophy is to showcase the flavor of specific malt strains from a specific farm of a specific growing season. They age and, in some cases, finish their whiskey in a variety of casks, both new and used, to create a bevy of whiskey flavors. By blend-ing a few casks, they can produce unique whiskeys for each release. They vary the cask parame-ters  – stave seasoning, toast, char, entry proof, warehouse conditions and years aging – and se-lect the barrels only when they reach the peak of deliciousness.

  According to co-founder Jason Parker, the challenges involved with this method of barrel-aging include investing in a product that can’t be sold for several years and not knowing what your ex-periments, plans and decisions will ultimately taste like for several years. They also lose between 5-7% per year through evaporation, widely known as the “angel’s share.”

  Copperworks sources all of their new barrels directly from cooperages. Before purchasing used barrels, they try to taste products that came from them. While sourcing barrels did not prove to be a challenge during Covid-19, Parker said there were challenges in staying socially distanced when dealing with deliveries and warehousing. “It made us slower, but we had nothing but time.”

  With breweries coming back online, Parker expects to have more opportunities to partner for barrel exchanges. “The flavor swaps are great!”

  During 2020, Copperworks produced more whiskey than in prior years. “With no tasting room customers, special events, classes, tours, competitions, conferences or other gatherings – all of which we miss terribly – and after making all the hand sanitizer we could, we simply focused exclusively on distilling, blending and bottling whiskey (and a few cask-finished gins).”

  Since they could not introduce themselves to new customers through bars, restaurants and their tasting room during Covid-19 shutdowns, they went online to introduce new releases via video blogs, virtual tours and tastings, direct emails and social media.

Ecliptic Brewing, Portland, Oregon

  Right after Ecliptic Brewing opened in Fall 2013, one of the first beers John Harris made was Orange Giant Barleywine, which went straight into barrels for a year. The beer debuted in 2014, and every year since, a new batch has been released.

According to Harris, barrel-aging is important to them. “We had a two-year drought where we could not lay down any barrels due to production demands. It has been great to get back to this again and get the creative process going more. We have many projects going right now!”

  In his estimation, adding the spirit of the wood barrel to the base beer is a real joy. “Seeing what the barrel does to the beer – whether it be a bourbon, rye, Sangiovese red wine, white wine – it’s all an experiment hoping for a good outcome. The downside is sometimes projects or individual barrels go south and need to be dumped.”

  Thankfully Covid-19 did not impact their barrel-aging program. Moving forward, they will con-tinue to use traditional spirit barrels but will be putting creative spins on the beer before releas-ing. “The market is looking for more than a bourbon-aged stout without any twists. 2021 will be fun!”

Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon

  Deschutes Brewery’s barrel-aging program began in 2008 and currently consists of approximate-ly 800 barrels and six wood-aging vessels. These barrel-aged projects generally fall into one of two categories: beers aged in spirit barrels that are meant to highlight the spirit of choice, and mixed culture sour and wild beers that use neutral barrels as aging vessels.  This program fits in with their mission as a conduit to continually explore new expressions of beer using unique, high-quality ingredients.

  According to Ben Kehs, assistant Brewmaster and Barrel Master, Deschutes experienced some minor shipping delays and general uncertainty regarding freight times and costs during the pan-demic. “For wine barrel sourcing, we did find that some of our local suppliers were releasing fewer barrels from their programs as their sales were affected. The majority of volume for our barrel-aged products end up in a bottle instead of a keg, so we did not experience a big disruption with the shutdown of on-premise accounts, but the closure of our pubs made us look at expand-ing our direct-to-consumer business.”

Finnriver Farm & Cidery, Chimacum, Washington

  According to Andrew Byers, Head Cidermaker and co-owner, Finnriver Farm & Cidery’s barrel program allows them a pathway to a greater depth of expression, a treatise of tannins from fruit and wood and a place to bring it all together. “Like Finnriver, barrels are a place to weave the community fabric, a place to discuss origins – a place to reconnect people to the land that sus-tains them.”

  “To make phenomenal barreled cider, you need to start with phenomenal fruit, dynamic and healthy yeast and a vision of your finale,” Byers said. In his estimation, the micro-oxygenation of barrel time is the place to mellow harsh polyphenols and the opportunity to extract those pithy ellagic tannins from the oak.

  Finnriver seeks out barrels from regionally-based whiskey producers – historically High West, Woodinville Whiskey and now Bainbridge Organic Distilling – and purchases a small number of fresh whiskey barrels each year. Occasionally, neighbors will reach out with neutral wine barrels.

  Among the ongoing challenges they face is finding space to store the barrels and the time in-volved in monitoring their barrels. During the pandemic, they could not give customers draft pours. However, this lack of draft sales led to an increase in bottling and longer barrel-aging, as well as an increase in their club memberships.

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, Washington

  Rick Hastings, Liberty Ciderworks’ owner and cidermaker, pointed to the need to barrel-age ci-ders when using tannic, cider-specific varietals. “Most of the time, there’s a real benefit in allow-ing the type of micro-oxygenation barrels offer to occur versus aging in a stainless tank.”

  They use wheat whiskey, gin and bourbon barrels, mostly from Dry Fly Distillery, along with red wine barrels to extract flavors that compliment different apple varietals. They also use barrels as neutral containers.

  During Covid-19, their cider club and online sales grew. In particular, they found a heightened demand for their pommeau and have tripled production on that barrel-aged product. In a post-Covid world, Hastings hopes their online sales, which have given them access to global markets, will continue. “For us, barrels are an essential part of making what we produce, and if we’re able to grow connections with quality-minded consumers through technology, our barrel program will keep growing too,” he said.

pFriem Family Brewers, Hood River, Oregon

  The ethos of pFriem Family Brewer’s barrel-aged program is emblematic of their overall brew-ing style. Josh pFriem, Brewmaster and co-founder, said, “We take a historical approach and look at it through a modern, innovative and pFriem lens.”

  For their funky and mix-culture beers, they search out high-quality, primarily French, oak wine barrels, while they also work with a wide range of producers for their distiller beers.

  The biggest thing that impacted pFriem’s barrel-aged program during the pandemic was their inability to sell their beer on draft. Also, pre-pandemic, they were about to open their new barrel-aged facility in Cascade Locks, Oregon. Plans are still in place, and once opened, this space will enable the brewery to have separate areas for their mixed culture and clean spirit barrel-aged beers and a unique place for people to gather.

The Bitter Housewife, Portland, Oregon

  While they don’t have a formal barrel-aging program, The Bitter Housewife’s collaboration with Bull Run Distillery allows them to explore how barrel-aging changes bitters. As Genevieve Brazelton, co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer, said, “The result was quite tasty, and in-stead of being a one-off product, it’s now part of our stable of bitters.”

  The product demand is high enough to need more than a few barrels a year, so they currently source bourbon or whiskey barrels from four Portland area distilleries. It became more difficult to obtain barrels during the past year, though Brazelton is not sure this delay was due to Covid-19.

Wanderback Whiskey Company, Hood River, Oregon

  Wanderback Whiskey Company’s barrel-aged program includes new oak, aged naturally for at least two years and heated by coopers to create a heavily toasted, lightly charred inner surface. They also utilize previously used, yet still flavorful, barrels and previously used “neutral” casks with very little flavor remaining in the wood.

  According to co-owner Sasha Muir, the challenges of barrel-aging include casks that leak, wood that can vary in its flavor profile, variations in how the cooper heats the wood, the environment the barrels rest in and surrounding odors in the area of the casks.

  Wanderback Whiskey sources its barrels from several brokers around the country. As coopers were more than happy to provide barrels to them during Covid, they did not notice any signifi-cant changes over the last year. “Our program will likely remain the same once Covid has passed,” Muir said.

Westland Distillery, Seattle, Washington

  In Master Blender Shane Armstrong’s estimation, the arc of tradition, innovation and locality that guides Westland Distillery is reflected in their cask program, which includes the Scotch whisky stalwarts of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry and the new American oak familiar to the Bourbon industry. Their new oak casks are air-dried for a minimum of 18 months. For their Garry Oak casks, found exclusively in the Pacific Northwest, air drying time is a minimum of three years.

  “Our locality is reflected both in growing region and by relationships with local brewers, wine-makers, and cidermakers,” said Armstrong.

  For distillery manager Tyler Pederson, the challenges of producing barrel-aged spirits are that it’s expensive, time-consuming and logistically complex. He does not believe the pandemic had a heavy impact on the cooperage industry.

  “Our availability of new and used casks remains steady and should for years to come. We will also continue to grow and develop our partnerships across our region, sourcing casks from winemakers as well as from breweries through the Cask Exchange program,” Pederson said.

  When sourcing casks, Westland considers the provenance of the cask, the quality of the oak, the type of spirit that will be maturing and the length of time anticipated. In the case of re-used bar-rels, they also consider the quality of its previous contents and how long it matured the spirit, wine or beer. They also note the distance each barrel traveled when factoring the sustainability of their cask program.

Westward Whiskey, Seattle, Washington

  According to Christian Krogstad, Westward Whiskey’s founder and Master Distiller, they’ve reimagined single malt. “That spirit of creativity is paramount to everything that we do. For us, that means playing with different casks.”

  The majority of their new American oak lightly-charred barrels come from Kelvin Cooperage. They also play around with different wine and beer finishes using casks obtained from their brewing and winemaking friends throughout the Northwest. While their tasting room took a hit during Covid, once direct shipping was available throughout Oregon, they were able to sell some of their smaller Oregon- and distillery-only projects.

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