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Barrel Finished Bourbons: Exploring the Range of Styles

Bourbon makers are finally starting to embrace barrel finishing, turning to sherry, port, brandy, and other used casks to impart flavor to their spirit.

Barrel Finished Bourbons: Exploring the Range of Styles

April 5, 2022 –––––– Susannah Skiver Barton, , , ,

Barrel finishing is a long-established practice in scotch, but a far more recent phenomenon in American whiskey. That's mainly because bourbon, by definition, must be matured in new charred oak barrels. Put bourbon into a barrel that isn't new and charred and it technically becomes a whisky specialty, more commonly called finished bourbon.

A few weeks or months in a secondary cask can elevate the bourbon, transforming it in subtle ways. “It changes [the bourbon], and we think it changes it for the better,” says Bob D'Antoni, chief barrel officer at Four Gate Whiskey Co. The blender and bottler releases cask-finished whiskey almost exclusively, with secondary vessels ranging from sherry, port, and rum, to custom barrels made by Kelvin Cooperage.

The enjoyment of finished bourbon has gained steam in the decade since Angel's Envy debuted as the first widely available example of the style. Today dozens of finishes, from port, tequila, and armagnac, to chardonnay and rhum agricole, offer bourbon lovers an array of new flavors to explore—and the opportunity to dive deep into geekdom by sipping the finished bourbon alongside the spirit or wine type whose barrels were used in the finishing.

Sherry


Long used by scotch makers to finish single malts, sherry casks impart their influence more subtly on the robust flavor and texture of bourbon. Among the several styles of sherry, distillers most commonly turn to just two for finishing purposes: oloroso, which has dried fruit and nut flavors, and Pedro Ximénez, which exudes sweet, chocolaty richness.

Sherry can only be made in Jerez, Spain, where traditional bodegas use the solera system to maintain consistency of flavor across vintages. Casks are never totally emptied; older wine is removed for bottling and replaced by younger wine, and so on. Most solera casks remain in use for decades, so distillers looking for finishing casks often buy purpose-made ones that have been “seasoned,” or filled with sherry for a year or two before moving on to their finishing role.


Firestone & Robertson TX PX Cask Finished
92 points, 50.8%, $65

Firestone & Robertson's 4 year old TX straight bourbon is finished for 8 months in 20 year old Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. Jammy fruit and dark chocolate-covered nuts form a foundation for ponzu-like citrus and umami notes.


Legent

88 points, 47%, $35

Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe collaborated with Suntory master blender Shinji Fukuyo to create this bourbon, with a maturation that includes French oak red wine cask-finished, oloroso sherry-finished, and unfinished bourbons. Nutty grain, red fruit, and lively spices.


Belle Meade Sherry Cask Finished

87 points, 45.2%, $80

This bourbon, sourced from MGP by Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, spends 3 to 10 months in oloroso sherry casks. Vanilla, cherry sundae, cocoa, subtle spices, and drying oak. Bakery shop, cinnamon toast, Honey Nut Cheerios, and sweet cereal grains emerge with time in the glass.

Try the Finish: Lustau Don Nuño Dry Oloroso Sherry—20%, $25

Port


The grapes in Portugal's Douro Valley grow on steeply terraced hillsides, but port itself is typically aged in the cool, humid cellars of Porto, where casks are reused for decades. Like sherry, port comes in a variety of styles, with the most common, ruby, offering bright fruit notes due to its minimal maturation. Tawny port, which is often aged for a decade or longer to maximize oxidation, showcases nutty flavors.

Angel's Envy uses ruby port casks for its flagship expression, which launched in 2011. “It had some anticipated effects”—like adding sweetness and berry flavors—“and some unanticipated contributions,” says co-founder and chief innovation officer Wes Henderson of the initial finishing experiments. “What we didn't really think about was what the mouthfeel, viscosity, and finish would be like.” He explains that the residual grape particles in the cask create a mouth-coating texture. “[The port cask] also takes off some of the perception of higher alcohols, which makes it one of those bourbons that's very drinkable,” he adds.


thomas s moore port cask finished bourbonThomas S. Moore Port Cask Finished

93 points, 49.45%, $70

This 5 year old bourbon from Barton 1792 is finished in ruby port casks for an average of 3 years. Baking spice, brown sugar, cola, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, fig jam, and toasted pecans.


Angel's Envy Port Cask Finished

88 points, 43.3%, $50

Angel's Envy didn't intend to focus on cask-finishing, but it worked out so well that it's now the brand's hallmark. Dried cherries and strawberries, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate. With water, tart cherry cobbler.


Chattanooga Tawny Port Cask Finished

88 points, 47.5%, $45

Made using six of the distillery's high-malt mashbills, this is aged for 3 years before being transferred to tawny port casks for a 6-month finish. Roasted walnuts, dark berries, semi-sweet chocolate, and plums.

Try the Finish: Churchill's Reserve Port—20%, $18

Red Wine


Port and sherry have relatively forceful profiles as fortified wines, but delicate table wines are a different story. “The most important piece is how we transport the barrels,” says Dan Callaway of Bardstown Bourbon Co. (BBC), which has made several red wine-finished bourbons. Rather than rinsing the casks—the standard procedure, which removes leftover wine that could spoil in transit—BBC's partner wineries leave the dregs and fill the casks with argon gas before shipping them to the distillery in refrigerated trucks. This ensures the integrity of the wine that remains in the wood. “What that does is bring a richness, a roundness, a viscosity that you can't get in any other way,” Callaway says, adding that the residual wine also brings down the bourbon's proof while retaining full flavor.

Red blends, zinfandels, and other varietals have all been partnered with bourbon, but producers largely favor robust reds like cabernet sauvignon. Callaway prizes cabernet for its hearty tannins and dark fruit notes, which marry seamlessly with bourbon.


Bardstown Bourbon Co. The Prisoner Wine Barrel Finished

92 points, 50%, $125

The barrels for this red blend each held a single varietal wine, so BBC did five separate finishes and blended them together. Chocolate fudge, coconut, cinnamon, and baking spice.


Daviess County Cabernet Sauvignon Cask Finished

89 points, 48%, $45

From Lux Row Distillers, this is a combination of two bourbon mashbills—one wheated, one made with rye—finished for 6 months. Black plum, red Hawaiian Punch, raisin, clove, and cinnamon.


Three Chord Strange Collaboration

89 points, 49.5%, $50

A blend of bourbons from Barton 1792 and Green River distilleries, finished in California's Strange Family Vineyards French oak pinot noir casks. Spice, cocoa, and cooked blueberries and cherries.

Try the Finish: The Prisoner Red Blend—15.2%, $49

Brandy


As whisky is made from grain, brandy is made from fruit—usually grapes, but sometimes apples, pears, or peaches. The most well-known brandies come from France: cognac, armagnac, and apple-based calvados. But American-made brandy is becoming more common, especially with distilleries like Copper & Kings—located in the heart of bourbon country—focused on homegrown styles that appeal to whiskey lovers.

Brandy's fruit notes partner well with bourbon's grain-driven sweetness. “The inherent fruitiness of Woodford Reserve is emboldened by the cognac's influence,” says master distiller Chris Morris of the distillery's Baccarat Edition. He explains that XO cognacs (aged at least 6 years) share similar flavors with the bourbon, including toffee, nuts, and herbal notes, and that his goal is to enhance those characteristics with the finishing cask. “We make sure of this by entering the fully mature Woodford Reserve in the cognac casks at a very low entry proof so the fruit character is not overwhelmed and can shine through,” Morris adds.


Blood Oath Pact 6

91 points, 49.3%, $100

Master blender John Rempe combined two straight bourbons at 8 and 14 years old with a 7 year old bourbon finished in cognac casks.Concord grape jelly, Cherry Coke, dark chocolate, and roasted nuts.


joseph magnus cigar blend bourbonJoseph Magnus Cigar Blend

91 points, 56.5%, $179

Designed to pair with your favorite smoke, this is finished in both cognac and armagnac, as well as oloroso sherry casks. Chocolate cream pie, brown sugar, apple, cinnamonand blueberry. A whiskey that combines power and finesse.


Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition

88 points, 45.2%, $1,500

XO cognac casks create an unorthodox but enjoyable bourbon. Marshmallow, coconut, chocolate-covered almonds, popcorn, and pepper spice. The finish is lengthy, presenting baking spice, cracked pepper, and polished oak

Try the Finish: Delamain Pale & Dry XO Cognac—40%, $125

Other Finishes


With cask-finishing still relatively novel in the bourbon world, there's plenty to learn about how the whiskey interacts with its secondary vessel—and sherry, port, red wine, and brandy are merely the initial forays. Not all experiments meet with universal appeal; Whisky Advocate rated an orange curaçao cask-finished bourbon from Bardstown Bourbon Co. a mere 81 points, finding it overly sweet and unbalanced. Yet the 2018 Parker's Heritage Collection bourbon was also finished in orange curaçao casks and scored 90 points.

Some producers are broadening the template by employing casks that previously held more than one wine or spirit—including, sometimes, a past bourbon. Four Gate Whiskey Co. is known for its doubled-up cask finishes, as well as its blends of multiple cask-finished bourbons. With more variables to consider, the process is extra complicated. “We don't want to overcook anything,” says D'Antoni, noting that he and chief blending officer Bill Straub sample barrels weekly. “We're more apt to pull [the whiskey] early than late” to prevent the finish from dominating.

Finishing casks now encompass just about any alcohol that could conceivably be matured in wood, including beer, white and rosé wines, madeira, tequila, rum, shochu, other whiskies like scotch and single pot still Irish, and obscure fortified wines like mistelle and pineau des Charentes. Producers are even turning to non-potable substances, like maple syrup and honey, to season casks that are later used for bourbon finishes. In the right hands, the cask's influences should meld seamlessly with the underlying whiskey, making for a truly sweet finishing touch.


Four Gate Outer Loop Orbit Orange Curaçao-Gin Cask Finished

92 points, 60.15%, $200

The orange curaçao casks first employed for the 2018 Parker's Heritage Collection went on to mature Copper & Kings gin. They then had a fourth use as the finishing vessels for this blend of 5½ and 12 year old bourbons. Pineapple, mango, grapefruit, dried apricots, and spice.


Goodwood 5 year old Stout Barrel Finished

88 points, 45%, $85

Kentucky-based Goodwood Brewing sources bourbon and rye for its spirits line, finishing them in its own stout, honey ale, and English mild casks—which themselves previously held bourbon. Licorice, citrus, vanilla cream, and dark chocolate.


Jefferson's Reserve Old Rum Cask Finished

86 points, 45.1%, $80

The casks for Gosling's Family Reserve Old rum started life as bourbon barrels and then spent 16 years at the Bermuda distillery before returning to Kentucky to provide a 14-month finish to this 8 year old bourbon. Chocolate-covered cherries, orange marmalade, lemon peel, honey, vanilla, and sweet grains.

Try the Finish: Copper & Kings The Ninth. A Sympony in Orange Gin—45%, $35