We are an importer, exporter & wholesaler of alcoholic beverages & food with type 14 public warehouse & fulfillment service

For Barrel Brokers in the Age of Cask Finishing, the Opportunities Are Endless

With the wide range and sheer volume of spirits available these days, distinguishing your liquor from the stiff competition is more important than ever. One way to do so is with cask finishing, a method that’s risen in popularity in recent years.

Hyper-common in the whiskey space, cask finishing means maturing your spirit in a normal manner, then transferring it to a different cask to impart additional flavors. (For example, a bourbon spends at least two years in new oak barrels before heading into a sherry cask, imbuing sweetness and a distinct wine flavor.) But cask finishes are erupting across all varieties of spirits, and even for beer producers.

So how does a spirits brand find the perfect cask? Some research for hours to self-source precisely what they seek; others use in-house staff to cold-call major producers of wine or whiskey barrels. The wisest tap a “barrel concierge,” a trained specialist whose professional experience and supreme sensory skills make them uniquely qualified to procure, repair, and sell barrels on behalf of alcohol brands. Among other forms of testing and validation, these brokers literally sniff used barrels, using a honed sense of smell to determine whether it’s the optimal vessel.

Sourcing the Perfect Barrels

“The ideal finish is about polishing the spirit,” says Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender of Maison Ferrand Cognac and West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados. “You don’t want to create a monster that has nothing to do with the original flavors. You want to put a beautiful shine onto a rugged surface.” That means sourcing barrels that have complementary flavors — and a solid vidange.

“Vidange refers to the liquid soaked into the barrel that comes back after it’s emptied,” explains Philippe Giraud, owner of Alfred Giraud French Malt Whisky. Giraud’s nascent but highly popular and award-winning brand is renowned for using a slew of very old Cognac casks to finish and age his distillate, and, accordingly, his team is highly particular about vidange.

“When we acquire used barrels, we must refill that barrel within 24 hours of it being emptied,” Giraud says. “You quickly lose the 12 to 15 liters of vidange, the old Cognac or wine, that’s soaked into the wood; if that wood doesn’t meet liquid again rapidly, it dries up and evaporates.” That tight turnaround sees Giraud’s whisky maker personally sniffing all inbound barrels, rapidly determining if they pass muster.

Other barrel concierges take a slower, more complex approach. Gontran Beaudoin, CEO of NAO Oak cooperage, and his team of scientists complete organoleptic testing — literally nosing the barrel — as well as chemical testing of each incoming barrel before handing them over to clients seeking fit-to-fill barrels. “We hand-pick, sensory check, process, and repair more than 35,000 used barrels annually,” Beaudoin says.

As for what an accomplished nose, such as Beaudoin’s, is specifically seeking, sulfur within ex-wine barrels is a big red flag. “Wineries use sulfur to preserve the barrels,” Giraud says, “but we hate that taste of sulfur; it’s not popular in Cognac or whiskey. So we reject any barrels that have used sulfur.” Giraud cites having had bad surprises with sulfur, wherein the chemical’s use was not disclosed, though it was picked up by the sniff test, and those barrels, about 10 percent of what he’s been offered, are refused.

“The wood should be a third of the taste. It’s the spice in the dish, but not the dish itself.”

“If we nose test on arrival and immediately reject a barrel, it’s set aside for secondary laboratory testing,” Beaudoin echoes. There, NAO Oak’s in-house lab looks for things like aceto-bacteria and ethyl acetate, unwelcome byproducts of poor fermentation, usually under low-oxygen conditions, though some strains of yeast used within the distillation process have a tendency to produce more ethyl acetate. If barrels don’t pass lab scrutiny, per Beaudoin, they’re designated to be sold only for decorative purposes.

Hence part of the barrel concierge’s job is to understand a barrel’s provenance and resume. “We focus on traceability,” Beaudoin says. “Because there’s a great deal of technical information to learn within this trade, we bet on oriented work and friendly relations [with clients and business partners in more than 40 countries] instead of simple transactions.” Exceptional spirit maturation results from superb liquid meeting superb wood, so Beaudoin prides himself on understanding key producers of each: “Our knowledge of the distillers, winemakers, and people in the cooperage trade will always bring an even better outcome,” he says.

Indeed, many master blenders, particularly those within the Cognac industry, are barrel experts themselves. “We spend three months learning barrels,” says Gabriel, who has more than two decades of experience as a master blender. “You learn how to change the head or a stave, and rebuild barrels.” A barrel is really wood, water, and fire, per Gabriel, who notes varying levels of each component is how you elevate flavors within a spirit.

“You create the flavors with fermentation; with distillation, you get to choose from the pool of flavors that you want; and then you refine the spirit with aging barrels, making the grain of the spirit appear,” Gabriel says, admitting some master blenders disagree, believing 60 percent of the taste of the spirit should be the wood. “For me, the wood should be a third of the taste. It’s the spice in the dish, but not the dish itself.”

Barrel Rehab

Ways to tweak flavors from a barrel include turning down the heat or adding water to the barrel during the toasting process. “It’s just like toasting bread; the raw bread has a specific taste, and when you toast it for a while, that flavor changes, becoming more caramel-forward,” Gabriel explains. “If you forget the bread in the toaster, you get bitter and burnt flavors. The same holds true for barrels.”

Part of barrel rehab, which can be performed by the likes of Beaudoin and NAO, or in-house at a distillery, can see barrels getting a whole new char to the precise liking of the buyer. “A friend figured out a system to re-toast the barrel head,” says Gabriel. “It’s like a pizza oven and we pop a head in there to get the right char.” But many barrel buyers are looking for newer options.

“An empty bourbon barrel used to cost less than $100. Now it’s $200, and new barrels can be over $375, way up from the $175 they used to cost. That’s what’s causing a spike in your bourbon bottles.”

“Most of our clients only want a one-time-use barrel,” says Terry Thome, president of J.B. Thome & Co., sellers of bulk spirits and used barrels. “Brands want a barrel that aged a bourbon for three to five years, tops, and only one time. That’s more solid for holding spirits, more solid for the aging of the second fill, and no one wants leakage.”

While a chunk of Thome’s current customers are buying full, excess bourbon barrels from the likes of Jim Beam or Diageo, Thome’s company does sell some ex-wine barrels. Notably, Thome secured 1,000-plus ex-port barrels from Europe for Angel’s Envy when it created the now-famous Angel’s Envy Bourbon Port Finish. “Bourbon companies like the mystique that those wines add to the label,” Thome says.

Unlike the immediate refill technique employed by Giraud, Thome’s port barrels spent a month on a cargo freighter before arriving at Angel’s Envy. “We kept a gallon of liquid within the barrels to keep them viable, and, upon arrival, Angel’s Envy distillers could either keep or dump that,” he says.

Meeting Demand

Barrel demand across all types of distillers is exploding. Thome says that his business grew 20 percent year-over-year, and has for the last eight years, though he’s now seeing more ex-bourbon fills being snapped up by beer companies, similarly looking to add a new dimension to suds.

Beaudoin says that premium and super-premium liquor companies are now tapping him the most. And as consumers demand more diversification, eschewing uniformity of liquor will continue to propel that demand. By tasting more unique products, Gabriel predicts that consumers will keep expanding their palates and, in turn, will seek out more unique bottles and offerings.

Accordingly, prices of barrel-finished bottlings will likely keep edging north. “An empty bourbon barrel used to cost less than $100,” recalls Thome. “Now it’s $200, and new barrels can be over $375, way up from the $175 they used to cost. That’s what’s causing a spike in your bourbon bottles.” Giraud says super-exceptional barrels can fetch more than $1,000 each, adding that “there’s rarely savings when buying used barrels.”

But it won’t stop brands from pushing the envelope. While double or triple cask finishes are becoming more common, expect to see cask-finish numbers skyrocket on super-premium products. Take Alfred Giraud’s Horizon Single Malt, its first single malt, expected to launch this September.

“We aged it in 14 different types of wood barrels; there’s new French oak and American oak, but also ex-Cognac, ex-grand cru Bordeaux, even ex-Islay whisky barrels,” he says. “It’s a lot of blending and a lot of wood. But the resulting liquid is so unique and special that it’s all worth the effort.”

For the barrel concierge, this surging trend will present a host of new opportunities — and clients. As Giraud notes, a barrel’s claim is only as good as its last fill. A cask that spent 60 years aging Cognac immediately becomes a whiskey cask the second a single malt enters it. However, the more prestigious the brand using the barrels, the higher the resale value, and the more alluring those storied barrels become to the likes of Beaudoin and those begging him for something different.

The article For Barrel Brokers in the Age of Cask Finishing, the Opportunities Are Endless appeared first on VinePair.

Leave a Comment

Resize text-+=