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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Used Whiskey Barrels, Available Now at Siciliano's

Brace yourselves, folks. Barrels are back at Siciliano’s — for a limited time.

By Joe Potter

KBS. Bourbon County. Dragon’s Milk. No Rules — You know the beers. You know you want to clone them. Now, here’s your chance.

By a stroke of luck, Siciliano’s has acquired a very limited quantity of ex-whiskey barrels, retired by Journeyman Distillery of Three Oaks and Breuckelen Distilling of NYC. The barrels are 15 and 25 gallons in size, and are available for $175 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

However, if you’re like me, before you go out and drop $175, you want a little background info on barrels and what to expect:

First off, these barrels will need to be rehydrated before their first use. When a barrel is empty, the wood dries out and shrinks, causing leaks. When filled, the wood swells and the barrel becomes watertight again. To rehydrate a barrel, you can take it outside and fill it with clean water for a day, being sure to periodically replace water lost to leaking, evaporation or absorption by the wood. Alternatively, hot water can be used to speed up the process. If you don’t intend to fill the barrel with beer right away, a holding solution of 0.6 oz citric acid and 2 oz potassium metabisulfite (both available at Siciliano's) per gallon can be used to keep the barrel wet and promote sterility.  

Secondly, these are charred barrels that have previously housed cask-strength distillate of ~120 proof. This means they (theoretically) are sterile and free of any funkifying microorganisms.
However, if you would like to sanitize the barrel prior to use, I would strongly advise AGAINST using a burning sulfur stick (which is a common practice for treating wine barrels). The extremely high proof of the spirit leaves flammable alcohol vapors inside the barrel, and exposing them to an open flame could effectively create a bomb. If you do feel the need to clean and sanitize the barrel before use, I’d recommend a liquid-based method such as Barolkleen and Star San to avoid an explosion/fire/great personal harm.

Third, it’s important to note that barrels do have a shelf life (sort of, depending on what you’re into). Many homebrewers find that after one to three uses of a retired barrel, the beer stops pulling spirit character. Imparted oakiness will also diminish with use. Further, even with regular cleaning and sanitation between batches, many homebrewers note a perceptible tartness in their beer after a few barrel fills. This is due to wild yeast and bacteria which have begun to take hold inside the cask. It is, therefore, a common practice to age one or two “clean” beers in the barrel before retiring it as a souring vessel. If you’re a sour fan, that’s great news — you can get a couple batches of BBA beers and then continue to use the barrel for your funky beers. If you’re not into funk, sell your barrel to someone who is when you no longer have use for it. Everybody wins!

(At this point, a curious homebrewer might ask, “Isn’t it possible, that once a barrel stops imparting spirit flavor, one could simply refill it with high proof whiskey, replenishing its spirit character and wiping out any souring microbes harbored inside?” My answer is, “I think so?” It seems to me that it would be possible to “refurbish” a barrel by refilling it with distillate, but unless you or someone you know is running a still, that could prove expensive and impractical.)
A barrel-ager should also be aware that liquid can be lost from the inside of a cask due to evaporation and absorption by the wood. A practice called “topping up” is required to refill the lost space inside the barrel in order to prevent oxidation. A similar beer should be used for this, or you may even experiment with using a cheap whiskey. One could even employ a sort of solera system where, for example, five gallons of beer are removed from the barrel for consumption/bottling and 6 gallons of freshly brewed beer enter for aging. This mixing of both old and new is common for sherries and ports.

One final note: with these barrels being smaller than the standard 55-gallon cask used in most commercial operations, the ratio of barrel surface area to volume is much higher. This means that barrel will impart spirit and wood characters much more quickly (as little as a few months), and frequent sampling should be performed to avoid overdoing it.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Brew on.


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