Over the last couple decades, spirit and craft beer producers have embraced the virtues of unique barrel finishes. While the notion of whisky barrel aged wine sounds like a trend, even a gimmick, it’s not a totally new concept. Wineries, particularly New World producers, have long relied on American oak, even sometimes using previously used bourbon barrels. While in the past, the use of pre-used whisky barrels was a cost-conscious decision – French oak barrels, even used ones, can be prohibitively expensive – the new trend is less about saving dollars as it is about flavour contribution, and appealing to the spirits lovers.
Financial prudence aside, and beyond the obvious marketing advantages of aligning with the rising popularity of brown spirits — used whisky barrels can add a depth of flavour
Ex-bourbon barrels, which by law are heavily toasted, should lend the most obvious impact to a wine. A heavily toasted American oak barrel contributes a sweet and smoky profile to the liquid it houses. That vanilla-like aroma and flavour associated with Bourbon and other whiskies is enhanced when a barrel has been charred. While much of the intense vanilla flavours are transferred to the first liquid (the whisky) housed in the barrel there can be a bit of flavour transference to a secondary liquid such as wine.
Whether or not you or I can tell any real difference between a wine aged in ex-whisky barrels or a standard American oak cask is up for debate. Some of the more obvious vanilla and smoky notes of these wines may also be derived from a period of maturation with oak chips or heavily toasted oak staves. Regardless, these new wines are serving a purpose of connecting a wine consumer to whisky and a whisky consumer to wine.
While the processes used by the winemaker to create the perceived vanilla and smoky notes found in many of these wines is a bit mysterious, the results are obvious. These wines offer forward flavours and are often made in approachable, not too dry, styles. If you like classic fruit and oak forward Australian Shiraz, jammy Zinfandel or oak-rich Chardonnay, these wines could be for you. As for the food pairings, these wines tend to pair well with foods that share a similar personality. Grilled meats and barbecue fare are obvious choices, or try with Tex Mex-style dishes such as chili, fajitas and tacos. Considering the fare many of us will be serving this weekend at Superbowl gatherings, this style might make a good wine choice for game day entertaining.