A toast to US whiskey

27 June, 2024

Toasting barrels, as opposed to charring them, has taken off in the States in the past 10 years. Shay Waterworth looks at how the practice has matured.

There are two main theories behind the origin of barrel charring. One is that, hundreds of years ago, barrels were considered a valuable asset – not for the whiskey sector, but for the transport of goods including fish and meats. Therefore, to avoid fishy-tasting bourbon, coopers would essentially burn off the top layer. The other theory is that coopers deliberately charred the inside of the staves to help manipulate and bend the wood into shape. Either way, distillers discovered the profound effect which charred wood had on their whiskey and it became common practice. So common that today a bourbon is legally required to be aged in a virgin charred oak barrel.

Charring is a dramatic process which sees a cooper directly burn the inside of barrels at soaring temperatures to gain the desired ‘alligator’ char effect. This speeds up the interaction between the whiskey and the wood and the carbon inside the barrel acts as a natural filtration process. However, over the past decade brands have been turning their attention to a much more controlled and nuanced process called toasting, which is common practice in the wine sector. The temperatures involved in toasting are much lower and the wood is burned for around 20 minutes rather than charred for 20 seconds. In 2014, Michter’s released its Toasted Barrel Finish bourbon – the first of its kind which sees its Kentucky Straight bourbon finished in a toasted barrel without any char.

“We do a lot of experimenting when it comes to toasting,” says Matt Magliocco, executive vice president at Michter’s Distillery. “Andrea Wilson, our master of maturation, is a recognised expert when it comes to toasting and we launched the very first toasted bourbon in 2014. Fast-forward a decade and it’s become its own category which is incredible, and for sure we’re always experimenting with different profiles because the possibilities are infinite. We work with a variety of different cooperages and we value their expertise. I certainly can’t imagine us going down the route of owning our own cooperage.”

Over this past decade many brands have followed in Michter’s footsteps and just last month Woodford Reserve launched its Toasted Barrel whiskey as part of its Distillery Series. This vocabulary of toasting and charring makes up a second language to bourbon drinkers in the States, but across the pond in Europe the market is behind.

Belfast spirits producer Kirker Greer launched Bowsaw American Whiskey in 2019 and has since developed a bourbon, rye and small batch for the European market. However, in 2023 the brand employed cooper Mitch Wettle to oversee a toasting programme as it gears up to enter the US market in 2025.

Targeting craft

Kirker Greer chief executive Richard Ryan says: “We have our rye and our bourbon which are our ‘pouring whiskeys’, but we wanted to really target the craft element of whiskey making, and that’s where Mitch comes in. Our focus is on transforming whiskey stock and a lot of that comes down to the wood policy of the brand. I want to build a fan base for our whiskeys and I don’t think you can do that with mainstream styles like the rye and Kentucky Straight bourbon – we need to have special releases and bring different distilleries together to make unique blends in a quality wood programme. One thing I value when working with a third-party producer is the flexibility. We don’t have to use whiskey just from one place.”

Wettle is a third-generation whiskey expert and a cooper by trade, and Bowsaw brought him on board to develop a toasting programme. The brand is currently sourcing stock from Ross & Squibb Distillery but Wettle has been working with a cooperage in France to produce barrels to his exact specifications.

“I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to the options available to me and the freedom I have on this project,” says Wettle. “We still have a barrel shortage here in the US. It’s easier for the big players dealing in huge volumes because it’s big business for a cooperage, but if you just want a handful of specific types it can be difficult to source. It’s true that there’s never been more American oak in the US, but only around 1% is harvestable for making barrels, so if bourbon demand continues to increase we may have a supply problem imminently.”

According to Wettle, the first toasted barrel expression will be a Kentucky Straight bourbon and the aim is to do two releases a year with some bonus single barrel launches alongside.

“When you char a barrel it does actually toast it too, but the toast sits behind the charred layer. That’s why a lot of the most popular bourbons are aged for so long because they’ve had to work their way through the layer of char to reach the toasted wood. We aren’t looking to go beyond 10 years because using toasted barrels the flavours can easily be overwhelmed after that length of time.” As Magliocco said earlier, the flavour combinations of toasted barrels is endless and Kirker Greer’s Ryan has one style he particularly wants to address in the coming years.

 “One thing I’ve always had an interest in is trying to smoke a bourbon,” he says. “We obviously have peated whiskies in the UK, but is there a way of imparting a smoky flavour which actually complements a bourbon? It’s very hard to do and I’ve tried other brands’ attempts, but I think it could be done better. It’s not in our immediate plans but something we’re interested in and the whole bourbon and barbecue pairing seems like a natural fit. I think there’s a good opportunity for that style of whiskey in the on-trade.”

Disruptive blend

High West Distillery in Utah is one brand which is seeing success in this area. In 2014 it launched Campfire, a blend of bourbon, rye and peated Scotch. This disruptive blend has developed over the years and used toasted French and Hungarian wine barrels to combine the three whiskies, but the smoky flavour comes from the Scotch whisky rather than the wood, a technique which founder David Perkins believes makes the difference.

“The main reason is consistency with using actual Scotch, as bringing in barrels is a far more inconsistent way to go about it, because the barrels are all at different points in their lifecycle and ‘freshness’.

“If we used barrel finishing with peated Scotch barrels to achieve the same effect, we would constantly be doing major re-blending to achieve the same impression as from the peated Scotch.”

By Perkins’ standards, toasting isn’t necessarily the answer when it comes to achieving a smoky impression, but there’s no denying the importance of a toasting programme in today’s bourbon industry. Both ends of the spectrum, from major players to craft distillers, are investing in specific toasting styles to complement their liquid, and all this has developed in just the 10 years since Michter’s launched its Toasted Barrel Finish bourbon.

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