By Richard Thomas
One of the slew of accessory products that came out as a result of the Bourbon Boom were home-aging kits. Many of these were nothing more than oak sticks, with variations adding textured surfaces, charring or toasting. There have also been miniature barrels and, strangest of all, twirling whiskey sticks.
The usual advised method for using the sticks was to put them in the whiskey bottle for just a few days. How beneficial these were, or if they were beneficial at all, was a widely debated subject. Experiences varied wildly, and as for myself I never achieved anything better than strictly modest results.
That was before I encountered Barrel Char In A Jar, which departed from the usual whiskey stick model in two important respects. First, the Barrel Char In A Jar is designed to be a complete kit. Although most of the supplies look like they come from a shopping trip to Walmart, all the extras you need are there: sample bottles; jars; filters; funnels; and tongs. Also, a range of wooden inserts are provided, allowing for a range of experimentation.
The approach recommended is also different from that of any other whiskey stick set I have seen or heard of before, in that you are encouraged to mimic the aging process as closely as possible. In real barrel aging, the change from summer to winter squeezes whiskey in and out of the barrel would. Here you are supposed to put activated charcoal into the jar, and then follow a pattern of transferring the jar to simulate the seasons.
I put my kit to work in three distinct experiments and followed my usual pattern of using spirits that I was disappointed in, and was therefore trying to redeem. I understand that not much can be done to overcome a bad base of new make spirit, but I don’t think that was the case with the three I chose to use here. Also, I recognize that, for the sake of providing practical commentary for the consumer, nobody is going to use a mid-shelf go-to whiskey for something like this, let alone something off their top shelf.
All three of the experiments below followed the same pattern. I had a full 750 ml bottle, from which I drew up 30 ml to serve as a comparison sample. The remainder went in the jar with a teaspoon of activated charcoal and one or more whiskey sticks. All three of my sessions were carried out in September, and were done in two-day stages designed to mimic the seasons. Summer was in the garden shed, Spring and Fall in the basement and Winter in the freezer.
Experiment #1: Home Blend With One Cherry Wood Stick
My usual method for trying to make the best use of a disappointing whiskey is to try my hand at home blending. One such blend did not turn out as well as I had hoped. I had combined a large portion of an American blended whiskey that was rather bland with some MGP 95% Rye with the intent of making it more flavorful.
In this experiment, my intent was to add to that by bringing about some better balance, so I used a stick of cherry wood.
The result was not unlike adding some fruit syrup. It had a little impact on the flavor, making it sweeter and more mellow. The main result was to thicken the texture. My original blend was quite thin, and for some reason it came out creamier after the extra would exposure. Overall, the stick aging here was a modest improvement and in keeping with my past experiences.
Experiment #2: Rebel Yell With Two French Oak Sticks
This was inspired by the bottle of Rebel Yell I had on hand. This being the cheapest wheated Bourbon around, I wondered if I could not make a basement workshop version of Maker’s 46 using it as a starting point.
As Maker’s 46 uses French Oak staves inserted into the barrel, so I put two sticks of French Oak into my jar. The result here was the best yet from any whiskey stick use I have ever tried or sampled (or even heard of). While I’d say my experiment is only a half-assed imitation of Maker’s 46, Rebel Yell costs just one-third as much. So, I reckon I got out quite a bit ahead there. This particular experiment worked out so well that it’s been filling my flask for camping trips lately.
Experiment #3: Aging Corn Whiskey
Technically speaking, there is no such thing as corn whiskey aged in new white oak. This is because if you do this what you have isn’t corn whiskey, but Bourbon. Aged corn whiskey always uses some other kind of barrel. Furthermore, the only distilleries who use a mash bill with 80% or greater corn content and new white oak aging together are Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.
Keeping that in mind, I wanted to see what some new white oak whiskey sticks would do to some legal moonshine/corn whiskey. This is a classic of the home aging genre, but I had never tried it before.
In this instance, the improvement was marginal rather than moderate. I guess several days of quickly added wood flavor is no substitute for a couple of years of aging. The whiskey was little mellower, little sweeter and less grainy. However, there was still plenty of corn husk on the nose and palate, and it was quite identifiable as (literally) corn in a jar.
Overall, I think the Barrel Char In A Jar kit has three major points that set it apart from other whiskey sticks cats. One is the set of handy tools that it comes with, thoughtful addition. Second is the use of activated charcoal, which I think always add something to the process. Third is the range of wood provided, which encourages creative experimentation. If I had been looking online to order whiskey sticks, rather than having had an array of them on hand, I don’t know if I would have had the idea for my best exercise, my imitation of Maker’s 46.