A Shortcut to Aged Whiskey? Product Testing the Oak Barrel
When a product claims to revolutionize a particular market, especially with some kind of fast-forward effect, a lot of us run to the store, purchase said product, and slather it all over our bodies, friends, and pets. Ask anyone who’s used a “rapid wrinkle repair” cream or tried to “Bulk up!!” or “Lose two dress sizes!!!” in some ridiculously short amount of time: product promises like these do nothing more than keep the “shouting advertisement imperative” in cultural rotation.
So when Oak Bottle bounded onto a market already suffused with oak chips and whiskey sticks (clutching them with some vaguely looming fear of a whiskey shortage), we were both intrigued and concerned by yet another claim of accelerated oak “aging.” Or, as Oak Bottle puts it, “oak flavor in 24 to 48 hours.” Assuming, of course, that’s what you’re going for.
Which is actually the first question that comes up—“Why am I looking to oak age anything at home, again?” According to the website, the oak barrel, while traditional, is “bulky and hard to handle.” Fair enough, but then again, we tend to allow trained professionals (or Mila Kunis) to handle our giant oak barrels while the delicious spirits or wine inside of them age. Oak Bottle’s sexy, slightly indelicate promise is a shortcut to presumable, and high-octane, quality, skirting the waiting lists and dusty with a devilishly simple contraption.
Photo courtesy of OakBottle.com
Which leads us to our next question: how it works. The purported magic of the Oak Bottle isn’t sci-fi/irradiated/Midi-chlorian-infused oak. It’s just about surface area, or “a simple volume divided by surface area equation.” As the site states, “the smaller the vessel, the faster the oak infusion,” meaning “[w]hat took months before takes just days now with Oak Bottle.” Conceptually, there’s something to it. A thimble-sized barrel would age the liquid inside in a proportionate fraction of the time of a normal-sized barrel. Except the Bottle isn’t a barrel, with its evaporations and expansions and contractions over time. In fact, the Oak Bottle is a single, milled piece of charred* oak wood, not joined together by a trained cooper, not tempered by the seasons or cycles of spirits aging.
Leading us to the major, gaping question: can the product add oak, which is to say desirable oak, to a spirit? (We left wine for another day.) And how would a naked spirit, say some 100% corn moonshine, compare after Oak Bottle aging to a traditionally aged spirit from the same producer? Needless to say, whatever the outcome of the experiments, they’d be at least partially enjoyable, and allow several unqualified intoxicated people to wear lab coats, like some kind of old-timey pharmacy.
EXPERIMENT ONE: Buffalo Trace vs. Oak Bottle-aged Buffalo Trace
The concept here is a before and after. We weren’t trying to compare the Buffalo Trace to itself after hyper-aging it. We wanted to see if we could take a bourbon (Buffalo Trace is around seven years old) and add years to it, making it as good as an older bourbon without all the cost (beyond the cost of the Oak Bottle, which could potentially pay for itself within the prescribed lifetime of 50 uses?).
Photo courtesy of OakBottle.com
Process: Bought a bottle of Buffalo Trace, put half of it into an Oak Bottle that had been previously soaked with water for 24 hours, kept the rest in the bottle for taste testing 48 hours later.
Color: The traditionally aged Buffalo Trace was a more orange/ruby brown, lighter in color. The “extra-aged” BT was darker, kind of alluringly dark, a richer mahogany brown.
Nose: Things got interesting here. There was more caramel and fudge in the “extra-aged” BT than the traditional. Some promise of dark chewy fruit, in addition to brown sugar warmth. Traditional Buffalo Trace had brown sugar/toffee and some banana.
Taste: Aaand this is where the promise of the nose was shattered for the “extra-aged” BT. There was a consistency between the nose and palate of the traditional Buffalo Trace, a moderate richness with oak and spicy warmth drying out the sweetness on the nose. The “extra-aged” bourbon had an overpowering woodshop quality to it, not just an overt oakiness but something harsh and plastic, like the bourbon had been aged in 1970s-era wood paneling.
EXPERIMENT TWO: “Aged” Moonshine vs. Bourbon
We’re not trying to disrespect the bourbon aging process here—we don’t have a rick house or fluctuations in humidity or ambient temperature, so we know we’re not making “bourbon” with the Oak Bottle (especially since it’s not charred new white oak). But it was too tempting not to see what one producer’s moonshine would taste like “aged “ in the Oak Bottle and compare that to the same producer’s actual barrel-aged bourbon. Especially since that’s one of the uses Oak Bottle recommends: “Maybe even try betting your best friend that you can match his 30 year oak aged Whiskey.” We couldn’t resist. They’s fighting’ words.
Process: Rinsed the Oak Bottle for 24 hours. Meanwhile purchased a bottle of King’s County 100% corn Moonshine and King’s County Bourbon (which is made from both corn and malted barley, adding another element of variation between the two). Aged the moonshine for 72 hours to taste alongside the bourbon.
Color: The “aged” moonshine had taken on just a bit of color, pouring out a super-pale gold, like diluted apple juice. The traditional King’s County bourbon was a russet/caramel brown.
Nose: Maybe there was less for it to hide behind with un-aged moonshine, but the industrial/woodshop smell came out even stronger than it had in the Buffalo Trace. No other notes on the nose to mask it. The regular King’s County, meanwhile, had notes of toffee, dates, and vanilla.
Palate: The “aged” moonshine was mildly offensive, with some mellowing smoothness and even persistent richness from the corn, but too much input from the woody/industrial flavor overpowered any good that did. The classic bourbon was drier than the nose, scrubbing brown-sugar body with almond and baking spice flavors and a long finish.
Just to give the Oak Bottle another try, we waited an additional 20 or so hours, tasting it again 94 hours later. It still smells like shop class, though it’s a bit richer in color and there is something slightly “whiskey-ish” about it. Strangely, black flecks pour out with the whiskey. And the presence of dark flecks comes as a surprise, since the Oak Bottle homepage encourages us to “Avoid messy oak chips,” as they “leave residue and sediment in the wine or spirit.” (Oak spirals, they claim, “complicate” things, for some reason…)
General conclusions, well, there’s no way in hell any liquid is going in here and coming out tasting like a carefully aged whiskey, let alone one with a couple decades on it. In its favor, the higher surface area ration did impart woodiness, if not spiritual (in both senses) “maturity.”
And then there’s the fact that it’s reusable, “for over 50 normal aging cycles,” which gives us immediate ideas of adding a few years onto a good bourbon, then using that bourbon-soaked bottle to “finish” some other spirit, and so on and so on. (And, bonus, presumably, some of that Home Depot taste would dissipate with repeat use.)
Which, if that means we get to keep these lab coats and continue playing with spirits, we’re game to try it. For science, of course.
By: Emily Bell, Vinepair