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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 3 years of barrel aging. So, if you want to get into the whiskey making business, you are committing to a minimum of three years lag time, three 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.

Published in Group Writing
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There are 13 comments.

  1. 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
    • 4 likes
  2. 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
    • 4 likes
  3. 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
    • 2 likes
  4. 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
    • 5 likes
  5. 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
    • 5 likes
  6. 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
    • 5 likes
  7. 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
    • 1 like
  8. 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
    • 2 likes
  9. 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
    • 3 likes
  10. Member

    Sounds like A Man in a Hurry.

    • #10
    • February 11, 2019 at 8:48 pm
    • Like
  11. 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
    • 3 likes
  12. 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
    • 3 likes
  13. 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
    • 1 like