One of our most popular articles we’ve published is this guide called “How To (Legally) Make Your Own Whiskey At Home“. Long story short: distilling your own spirit might be a risky, illegal, and time consuming process, but aging and finishing your own whiskey is a much simpler (and completely legal) way to make something that you can still call your own. We’ve spent the past six months aging a whiskey in an oak barrel from Red Head Barrels and today we’re going to look at the results.
Barrel aging is the typical approach for post-distillation maturation of spirits: sticking a bunch of whiskey into (typically) charred oak barrels and letting it sit for a few years, picking up flavors from the barrel and the environment while the barrel provides some filtration of impurities.
The reason this normally takes years is due to the large size of the barrels for mass production distillers — the rate at which flavors and color are imparted to the spirit is all about how much the whiskey and the wood can interact. A larger barrel means less surface area for each drop of whiskey to touch. But for those wanting to age their stuff at home, there are smaller barrels available — and a smaller barrel increases the interaction between the whiskey and the barrel and speed up the process.
Red Head Barrels is one company that produces these smaller barrels, available in sizes as small as one liter or as large as full-size 53-gallon bourbon barrel. For our test, we I chose a one liter barrel, which takes about a bottle and a half of whiskey to fill up. Ordering from their online store was dead simple, and I was even able to get our logo engraved into the head of the barrel without much additional fuss or expense.
(In my personal opinion, get the engraving. This barrel going to sit on a shelf or somewhere in your house for a while, you might as well make it look interesting.)
The barrels are constructed from American white oak, which is the same kind of wood used for aging American bourbon (and most Scottish whisky as well, for that matter). The wood is treated with a medium level char, the same level typically used for the majority of barrel aged spirits in the United States.
Once the barrel arrived, it was time to get it set up and filled.
The instructions for the barrel tell you to assemble it (tapping in the spout with a hammer first) and then fill it with water so the wood can swell and become watertight. This is actually an important step that should not be skipped — without that pre-treating, you are just going to be leaking whiskey all over the place.
Speaking of leaks, one suggestion I have is to leave the barrel filled with water overnight. I found that the area around the spout had some slight cracking that was exacerbated once I added the water, and needed a couple more good smacks with a hammer to seal up properly the next morning. Better to find that with the water than the whiskey.
Once properly waterlogged, it was time to add the whiskey. For this batch, I went with an unaged corn whiskey from Tuthilltown Spirits in New York. I figured not only would that give me a good barometer for the flavors the barrel brings to the table, but also a good comparison to the similarly constructed bourbon that they produce.
You will definitely want to use a funnel for this step, since the hole is a little small and difficult to get the liquor into without assistance.
The next step here is the hardest: the waiting. The barrel sat on a shelf in my office from November 2021 until the end of April 2022, just about a full six months. During that time, the Texas weather (and my wife’s avoidance of air conditioning whenever possible) helped keep the whiskey moving into and out of the barrel, with the high temperature shifts during fall and spring bookending the annoyingly cold winter.
I will note that it looked damn good sitting on the shelf. After the incident with the leaking spigot when first filling the barrel, I did put a small towel under the barrel just in case that happened again, but I never saw another drop come out of the barrel unexpectedly.
After the six months were up, it was time to see the results. I emptied about a mason jar’s worth of spirit, and immediately topped it back off with more unaged corn whiskey — kind of like a solera aging setup. What came out of the barrel was a beautiful dark amber colored liquid that looked, smelled, and tasted similar to bourbon.
Similar, but not quite the same.
This certainly smells on-point. Immediately, I get those sweet barrel aging notes of toffee caramel, butterscotch, and brown sugar, which are the telltale oak elements that whiskey picks up from these barrels. So, mission accomplished there.
Beyond that, I also get a lot of fruity notes, which seem to be from the “esterification” process — the ability for the whiskey to interact with oxygen molecules to create fruity and lighter notes. That’s something you will only get with a barrel that “breathes” and lets the oxygen interact with the spirit inside. I’m picking up some light cherry, strong banana, and a hint of apple here, very similar to a Tennessee whiskey.
Taking a sip is where things start to go a little off the rails, and this might entirely be my fault.
There is in fact a flavor here, quite a lot of it. We’ve got a deep, rich, well-saturated flavor that in any other whiskey I would call “over oaked”. I think six months was a little too long here and I over-shot the mark.
That said, there are still a lot of good flavors going on here. I’m getting some dark chocolate, cinnamon, toffee caramel, a bit of toasted brown sugar, and even some of that fruity cherry note thrown in.
If I hadn’t watched the entire process from start to finish myself, I’d guess this was a five-year-aged Texas bourbon. Done in only six months.
This is a well-constructed, good looking, functional oak barrel for aging your own whiskey at home. It absolutely works as advertised, and will take a bottom shelf whiskey and allow you to turn it into something solid in a short period of time. For the price of a mediocre bottle of bourbon, you can keep cranking out your own delicious stuff, aged to precisely the point that you like it.
My only suggestion for things to watch out for is to test it more often than six months at a time. I did that six month shot immediately, but really I should have been tasting it probably monthly at first and then weekly when it got close. I allowed it to overshoot the mark this time, but I’ll keep a closer eye on this next batch.
Red Head Barrels 1L Oak Barrel
Price: $49.95 (+$27.50 for custom image engraving)
Overall Rating: 5/5
Absolutely worth the money to get delicious whiskey that you can claim you made yourself, even when starting from cheap liquor.