How to Make Booze Better

 

Some booze is best served in a saucer, in the garden, as slug bait. Other alcoholic beverages are best served at particular temperatures, in particular glassware, revealing their full palette of flavors. Then there is booze that could be better, and therein lies today’s tale.

Whilst serving deep in the heart of Texas, I happened upon Ranger Creek, a “brewstillery.” This neologism denotes a craft brewery that also has a license to distill alcohol. The brewery piece is a source of steady income, with quick conversion of ingredients into beer ready to be poured. The distillery side can be as efficient, or even more so, if you stick to un-aged clear spirits: vodka, gin, white whiskey, white rum, blanco tequila. 

The moment you venture into whiskeys, whether you call them whiskey, rye, Scotch, or bourbon, the rules change. All of these require years of aging in oak barrels. Indeed, bourbon may not be sold as such without at least 2 years of barrel aging. So, if you want to get into the whiskey making business, you are committing to a minimum of two years lag time, two years of illiquid liquid inventory. 

Ranger Creek found a mitigation strategy. In addition to steady income from beer, the distillery portion of the business was jump-started by small-barrel aging. The smaller the barrel, the more surface area, relative to volume of liquid. The more surface area, relative to volume of liquid, the faster acting the “aging” process. So, Ranger Creek was able to bottle and sell small batch small barrel whiskey “in the style of” the three recipes being slowly aged in the big barrels. 

Along with beer—which had the same ingredients as whiskey, plus hops—and the small barrel whiskey batches, they offered 750 ml bottles of un-aged, white whiskey. This got me thinking. Could I turn white whiskey into a drinkable aged whiskey?

A little poking around the internet revealed that I could get a 2 liter charred oak barrel, shipped from the Texas side in the Rio Grande Valley. The barrel arrived at my temporary Texas address with clear instructions. Fill it up with warm water and set it in a sink or container where it can leak until the staves swell up and seal themselves. The barrel was properly constructed and did seal itself after two days. I rinsed the barrel thoroughly of wood chips, then poured in the white whiskey from Ranger Creek.

Now, the instructions gave a range of weeks per barrel size. I made the mistake of waiting 4 weeks, the maximum recommended for the 2 liter barrel. When I decanted the whiskey into bottles, it was very oaky, a bitter, biting, “hot” flavor. However, cutting the booze, with 1 part water to 5 parts whiskey, smoothed out the flavor nicely and resulted in a very drinkable product.

Encouraged, I decided to take it to the next level. Many whiskey makers age their product in barrels previously used for other spirits, adding some of that other spirit’s flavor profile to the whiskey. I decided to fill the barrel with a jug of cheap but drinkable port.

The immediate result was supposed to be an improved port. I am not a regular drinker of port, so am no expert. I did not notice a significant improvement after 4 weeks, but the barrel aging at least did no harm. This second run was noticeably less aggressive than the first use, as the barrel’s char was slowly being worn down.

The next run of white whiskey was excellent, in the neighborhood of a middle shelf professionally produced whiskey. It was reminiscent of some Scotch whiskeys. This took 5 weeks, so you can see a trend in the barrel aging effectiveness.

The barrel sat empty for a while, so I had to rewet the staves. They sealed back up nicely in a day. Then I went for something different.

Years before, I had been introduced to a great extra anejo tequila. This style of tequila is aged three years in oak barrels, like bourbon, so picks up flavor that is much smoother, to my taste than the clear, blanco tequila. The first such tequila I had sampled in a Mexican restaurant was aged in bourbon barrels, so that had me thinking.

My experiment turned out well, yielding a small barrel equivalent of extra anejo, with the port and whiskey traces deep in the barrel surface nicely mellowing the blanco tequila into an amber colored, refined spirit. I made one more batch, taking 6 weeks to get results, then retired the barrel. It made a fine addition to a back yard fire pit, the fragrant, infused oak smoke wafting up in the desert night.

If you do not partake, or do not care to fiddle with making better booze, the same barrels are sold and used to age vinegars. That is a story someone else can tell.

There are 23 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Interesting stuff.

    My family were never big drinkers, so I have never really been part of booze culture. It’s interesting what people do for it and to achieve results.

    • #1
    • February 10, 2019, at 9:33 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Interesting stuff.

    My family were never big drinkers, so I have never really been part of booze culture. It’s interesting what people do for it and to achieve results.

    Likewise. I found myself making my own beer back in the 1990s to enjoy a “real” Bavarian brew on the weekend. The barrel-aging hobby started for me in 2016 and lasted through 2017, unless I decide to go another cycle with a new barrel.

    A limiting factor has been the ridiculous price charged for most white whiskey, as it became a hipster thing. Factor in the cost of the barrel over 4-6 runs and it can become a hobby but not so economically advantageous, compared to buying a professionally produced equivalent.

    More generally, alcohol, itself, has an unpleasant odor and taste, so you definitely have to do something to make it more than slug bait or antiseptic/anesthesia.

    • #2
    • February 10, 2019, at 9:49 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    More generally, alcohol, itself, has an unpleasant odor and taste, so you definitely have to do something to make it more than slug bait or antiseptic/anesthesia.

    Yeah, that may be part of why my family doesn’t drink much. I know that I’m a supertaster, and others in the family may be as well. When everything tastes stronger, and it’s easier to detect the smell and taste of alcohol, drinking a lot may not be for you.

    • #3
    • February 10, 2019, at 10:16 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Poindexter Member

    Three years? Who has that kind of time? Doc, Mr. Roberts, and Ens. Pulver made Scotch in less than 4 minutes!

    https://youtu.be/e4QNBypC9vs

    • #4
    • February 11, 2019, at 7:13 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. WillowSpring Member

    Very interesting. Do you know how much you lost to evaporation? 

    The first company I worked for was about a mile down the road from a distillery (Bowman’s) and I went on a tour one time. The warehouse where they aged the bourbon was a huge barn like structure with very large beams and row after row of barrels. The atmosphere was probably the equivalent of a stiff drink – they said they lost a large percentage (I remember 40%, but that may be high) to evaporation and it seems the beams in the barn took in all the evaporation. It was a great place to visit and probably a better place to nap.

    The distillery was started in 1934 on the day after prohibition was repealed. The Bowman family owned the 7,200 acre farm that eventually became Reston Va. In 1988, they moved to Spotslyvania County. It was probably the last company that actually made something tangible in Reston which is now a software/paper pushing city.

    • #5
    • February 11, 2019, at 8:26 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. PHCheese Member


    This is a barrell made in the small town where Nicki Haley grew up in South Carolina by the name of Bamberg. Its made by Black Water Barrell Co. The one pictured is a “leaker” which I bought for a bird cage stand. I like to kid that this is how I bought my wine before I quit drinking. I toured the production plant. It was very interesting. They sell all the barrells they can make. Not only do you have to age the wine or wiskey but the oak to make the barrells needs aged for three years. Damm this process is worse tha aging cheese.

    • #6
    • February 11, 2019, at 9:02 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. Mendel Member

    Just out of curiosity, @cliffordbrown, did you try a taste of the “white dog” before filling it into the barrels? I’ve heard it usually tastes pretty vile.

    • #7
    • February 11, 2019, at 10:03 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    Very interesting. Do you know how much you lost to evaporation?

    The first company I worked for was about a mile down the road from a distillery (Bowman’s) and I went on a tour one time. The warehouse where they aged the bourbon was a huge barn like structure with very large beams and row after row of barrels. The atmosphere was probably the equivalent of a stiff drink – they said they lost a large percentage (I remember 40%, but that may be high) to evaporation and it seems the beams in the barn took in all the evaporation. It was a great place to visit and probably a better place to nap.

    The distillery was started in 1934 on the day after prohibition was repealed. The Bowman family owned the 7,200 acre farm that eventually became Reston Va. In 1988, they moved to Spotslyvania County. It was probably the last company that actually made something tangible in Reston which is now a software/paper pushing city.

    The amount lost to evaporation depends on the temperature and humidity of the place in which the barrel is stored. Surface area to volume ratio likely also matters. Controlling for all that, the shorter time in small barrels means less loss. I did not keep close track, but would estimate 10-15% over the course of 4-6 weeks. I was not tracking the specific gravity, so cannot say if the alcohol percent by volume increased or decreased.

    • #8
    • February 11, 2019, at 12:46 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Mendel (View Comment):

    Just out of curiosity, @cliffordbrown, did you try a taste of the “white dog” before filling it into the barrels? I’ve heard it usually tastes pretty vile.

    You are correct.

    • #9
    • February 11, 2019, at 12:46 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. The Reticulator Member

    Sounds like A Man in a Hurry.

    • #10
    • February 11, 2019, at 8:48 PM PDT
    • Like
  11. Steve C. Member

    Poindexter (View Comment):

    Three years? Who has that kind of time? Doc, Mr. Roberts, and Ens. Pulver made Scotch in less than 4 minutes!

    https://youtu.be/e4QNBypC9vs

    When people ask me what Scotch tastes like, iodine is my go to answer. Naturally, most people say, “ick”. Then I say, “Yes, but it’s much smoother because it’s a twelve year old iodine.”

    • #11
    • February 12, 2019, at 7:03 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Instugator Thatcher

    I prefer my white lightning to be good corn squeezings- made by my relations in the GSM and used by my grandfather to “supplement” his income in the 1960s and late 1990s (yes, here was a hiatus from the 70s to 90s)

     

    • #12
    • February 12, 2019, at 2:53 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    I’ve written about alcohol and tobacco. I’m not completing the trifecta, so someone else can do the firearms “how do you make that” post.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2019 Theme Writing: How Do You Make That? There are plenty of dates still available. Tell us about anything from knitting a sweater to building a mega-structure. Share your proudest success or most memorable failure (how not to make that). Do you agree with Arahants’ General Theory of Creativity? “Mostly it was knowing a few techniques, having the right tools, and having a love for building and creating whatever it was.” Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    I will post March’s theme mid month.

    • #13
    • February 13, 2019, at 7:40 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. SkipSul Moderator

    Clifford A. Brown: Indeed, bourbon may not be sold as such without at least 3 years of barrel aging

    This is actually incorrect. Bourbon (the only whisky whose definition is actually delineated in federal law, and which is considered the only whisky indigenous to the US) need not be aged for very long at all.

    To be called “Straight Bourbon” (that is a legally defined term), bourbon needs to be aged at least 2 years. But anything that’s been aged for less than that may still be called bourbon.

    Bourbon has other requirements:

    Its mash has to be a certain percentage of corn (it being a corn whisky, which is also why it is sweet – note that Jack Daniels is also a corn whisky, but it fails the rest of the requirements).

    During distillation, it can only be drawn off at a certain temperature (I’d have to look up the exact number), a temp which is far lower than most whiskies are drawn at.

    The distillation draw also makes for a lower alcohol % per gallon than other whiskies.

    Bourbon must be aged in new white-oak barrels, which have been charred inside (the charcoal interior gives it its color, the white oak imparts the vanillin flavonoids). Old barrels may not be re-used for bourbon (but can be resold to other distillers for other whiskies – they’re popular for brandies, scotches, and other aged spirits, as well as beer).

    Lastly, bourbon can only be casked at a certain proof level (it is frequently watered down for sale to the more normal 80-90 proof range during bottling).

    If you meet all of these requirements, you can call it bourbon. Otherwise it is legally something else (say, Jack Daniels).

    There is a micro-distillery here in Columbus, Ohio, which makes bourbon. They do not age it a full 2 years, so they cannot sell it as “straight bourbon”, but it’s still bourbon. However, due to the short aging (about a year-ish), it is a bit on the harsh side.

    • #14
    • February 23, 2019, at 5:43 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown: Indeed, bourbon may not be sold as such without at least 3 years of barrel aging

    This is actually incorrect. Bourbon (the only whisky whose definition is actually delineated in federal law, and which is considered the only whisky indigenous to the US) need not be aged for very long at all.

    To be called “Straight Bourbon” (that is a legally defined term), bourbon needs to be aged at least 2 years. But anything that’s been aged for less than that may still be called bourbon.

    Bourbon has other requirements:

    Its mash has to be a certain percentage of corn (it being a corn whisky, which is also why it is sweet – note that Jack Daniels is also a corn whisky, but it fails the rest of the requirements).

    During distillation, it can only be drawn off at a certain temperature (I’d have to look up the exact number), a temp which is far lower than most whiskies are drawn at.

    The distillation draw also makes for a lower alcohol % per gallon than other whiskies.

    Bourbon must be aged in new white-oak barrels, which have been charred inside (the charcoal interior gives it its color, the white oak imparts the vanillin flavonoids). Old barrels may not be re-used for bourbon (but can be resold to other distillers for other whiskies – they’re popular for brandies, scotches, and other aged spirits, as well as beer).

    Lastly, bourbon can only be casked at a certain proof level (it is frequently watered down for sale to the more normal 80-90 proof range during bottling).

    If you meet all of these requirements, you can call it bourbon. Otherwise it is legally something else (say, Jack Daniels).

    There is a micro-distillery here in Columbus, Ohio, which makes bourbon. They do not age it a full 2 years, so they cannot sell it as “straight bourbon”, but it’s still bourbon. However, due to the short aging (about a year-ish), it is a bit on the harsh side.

    Thanks for the correction. I’ll need to sort out where I picked up the 3 year number.

    • #15
    • February 23, 2019, at 5:49 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. SkipSul Moderator

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    Thanks for the correction. I’ll need to sort out where I picked up the 3 year number.

    The tour guides at the Jim Beam distillery are very thorough and knowledgeable. The guide I had when there was the daughter of one of the distillers at Jack Daniels, and knew the industry well.

    • #16
    • February 23, 2019, at 5:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Steve C. Member

    I only have two rules.

    One: Never bet money you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper.

    Two: No bourbon. Ever.

    • #17
    • February 24, 2019, at 7:44 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. Arahant Member

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    One: Never bet money you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper.

    I think this requires its own post.

    • #18
    • February 24, 2019, at 10:08 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Judge Mental Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    One: Never bet money you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper.

    I think this requires its own post.

    Or one on life rules in general.

    • #19
    • February 24, 2019, at 10:18 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    One: Never bet money you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper.

    I think this requires its own post.

    Or one on life rules in general.

    Yeah, but I want to know exactly how he came by this bit of wisdom personally.

    • #20
    • February 24, 2019, at 10:49 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Judge Mental Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    One: Never bet money you don’t have on a dog race with an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a stripper.

    I think this requires its own post.

    Or one on life rules in general.

    Yeah, but I want to know exactly how he came by this bit of wisdom personally.

    Yeah, I picked up on the specificity.

    • #21
    • February 24, 2019, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    Thanks for the correction. I’ll need to sort out where I picked up the 3 year number.

    The tour guides at the Jim Beam distillery are very thorough and knowledgeable. The guide I had when there was the daughter of one of the distillers at Jack Daniels, and knew the industry well.

    Just to be thorough, here are the relevant rules: 27 CFR § 5.22 – The standards of identity [emphasis added]:

    § 5.22 The standards of identity.
    Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also § 5.35, class and type):

    (a)Class 1; neutral spirits or alcohol. “Neutral spirits” or “alcohol” are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190° proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80° proof.

    (1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

    (2) “Grain spirits” are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.

    (b)Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.

    (1)

    (i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

    (ii) “Corn whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; and also includes mixtures of such whisky.

    (iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”, “straight corn whisky”, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whisky”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whisky” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.

    (2) “Whisky distilled from bourbon (rye, wheat, malt, or rye malt) mash” is whisky produced in the United States at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored in used oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. Whisky conforming to the standard of identity for corn whisky must be designated corn whisky.

    (3) “Light whisky” is whisky produced in the United States at more than 160° proof, on or after January 26, 1968, and stored in used or uncharred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies. If “light whisky” is mixed with less than 20 percent of straight whisky on a proof gallon basis, the mixture shall be designated “blended light whisky” (light whisky – a blend).

    (4) “Blended whisky” (whisky – a blend) is a mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whisky or neutral spirits. A blended whisky containing not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis of one of the types of straight whisky shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “blended rye whisky” (rye whisky – a blend).

    (5)

    (i) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) is a mixture of straight whiskies which does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whisky.” Products so designated may contain harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a).

    (ii) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky, and not conforming to the standard for straight whisky, shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “a blend of straight rye whiskies” (blended straight rye whiskies). “A blend of straight whiskies” consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky shall include straight whisky of the same type which was produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, provided that such whisky contains harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as stated in 27 CFR 5.23(a).

    (iii) The harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials allowed under this section shall not include neutral spirits or alcohol in their original state. Neutral spirits or alcohol may only appear in a “blend of straight whiskies” or in a “blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky” as a vehicle for recognized flavoring of blending material.

    (6) “Spirit whisky” is a mixture of neutral spirits and not less than 5 percent on a proof gallon basis of whisky, or straight whisky, or straight whisky and whisky, if the straight whisky component is less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis.

    (7) “Scotch whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Scotland, manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom regulating the manufacture of Scotch whisky for consumption in the United Kingdom: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Scotch whisky” (Scotch whisky – a blend).

    (8) “Irish whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Ireland, manufactured either in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland, in compliance with their laws regulating the manufacture of Irish whisky for home consumption: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Irish whisky” (Irish whisky – a blend).

    (9) “Canadian whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Canadian whisky” (Canadian whisky – a blend).

     

    • #22
    • February 25, 2019, at 6:12 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. SkipSul Moderator

    Nifty! Thanks for digging that out!

    • #23
    • February 25, 2019, at 6:19 PM PDT
    • 1 like