Barrel Flavors

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Several things happen when alcoholic liquids are stored in new barrels. First, the liquid extracts soluble materials that contribute color and flavor, including tannins, oak and clove and vanilla aromas, and the sugars, browning-reaction products, and smoky volatiles formed when the barrel was heated. In the charred American barrels used for whiskey, the carbonized surface acts something like an activated charcoal absorbant, removing some materials from the whiskey and so accelerating the maturation of its flavor. Gaps and pores in the wood allow the liquid to absorb limited amounts of oxygen. And the rich chemical brew of wine or spirits, wood components, and oxygen slowly undergoes innumerable reactions and evolves toward a harmonious equilibrium.