Subscriber Exclusive

Spirit of Experimentation: Casks that Intrigue

When selecting barrels to finish their spirits, some craft distillers are going against the grain.

Hollie Stephens Mar 3, 2024 - 10 min read

Spirit of Experimentation: Casks that Intrigue Primary Image

Gin resting in sherry casks at Copperworks in Seattle. Photo: Courtesy Copperworks Distilling.

It’s not only the compounds found in oak—such as hemicellulose, lignin, lactone, and tannin—that lend flavor to spirits that age in wooden vessels. The previous life of that vessel can have a say, too—and by selecting the right finishing barrel, distillers can add some final layers of complexity to their products.

Going beyond the tried-and-true barrel-aging playbook, many distillers are experimenting with unusual cask finishes to create truly unique spirits.

This shift toward heightened experimentation is epitomized in a 2019 amendment to the United Kingdom’s Technical File on Scotch Whisky. Previously, producers could only mature or finish scotch in a small range of cask types historically used in the industry, such as bourbon, rum, and sherry barrels. However, thanks to changes that relaxed the restrictions, scotch can now age in barrels previously used for other spirits, such as mezcal and tequila.

As craft distilling grows, meanwhile, it can be increasingly challenging to come up with unique, distinct products. For some distillers, selecting unusual casks for additional aging is the secret sauce. It’s an endeavor that’s not without risks—but when it works out, the results can be magical.

Access All of Craft Spirits & Distilling

Subscribe today to access all of the in-depth distilling stories & advice you won't find anywhere else (including this article).

Hollie Stephens is an award-winning journalist based in New Mexico and originally from the United Kingdom. Her work has been published in Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, Brewer and Distiller International Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and many other publications.