Oak is a wonderful wood. You can build a house out of it, smoke a pig with it, or even use it to paddle a boat. And when oak that’s been toasted or charred comes in contact with distilled spirits, truly magical things can happen. Most casual drinkers know that time spent in oak barrels is what turns white whiskey brown, as the wood contributes color as well as elements of vanilla and caramel. Now, several local producers have begun extending the lifespan of already used barrels—and creating all sorts of innovative new products.
Corsair Artisan Distillery in Marathon Village has released a remarkable experimental barrel-aged gin, offering unexpected nuances to a spirit category that usually emphasizes crystal-clear liquid and aromatics that are manually added during the distilling process. Corsair is generous with the barrels after they’ve used them, and breweries around the area gladly snatch them up in order to age their own beers. Because these barrels have previously contained a variety of spirits from gin to more unorthodox distilled grains like quinoa and buckwheat, the resulting aged beers exhibit unique characteristics. Yazoo Brewing Company and Black Abbey have particularly robust and creative barrel-aging programs.
Other local outfits, like Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and Cumberland Cask, are also experimenting with barrel aging. Green Brier recently aged a special limited release of their popular Belle Meade Bourbon in sherry casks; the eminently sippable end product takes on the character of the fortified wine.