New uses for old barrels

Wednesday, 5. April 2017 - 14:30

While second-hand oak barrels that were once used to age port, sherry, rum and other spirits have traditionally been re-used for aging spirits, they’ve been less likely to appear in wineries. But the exchange of barrels has been kicked up a notch recently, thanks to innovations in the wine trade that were showcased at ProWein.

1,000 Stories, a Californian Zinfandel produced by Concha y Toro, for example, is a big wine that has spent time in spirits barrels.

“We move it for a little while into 13-year-old bourbon barrels, as well as a touch of new bourbon barrels,” said Thomas Domeyko, Concha y Toro's export director. The wine weighs in at a massive 15.7% abv, though Domeyko says there is a 14.8% version for Europe. In the mouth, the wine is very dense but, to this writer at least, the alcohol didn’t seem obvious.

Domeyko says the company has begun to expand distribution of the wine. “We’ve been surprised by the audience,” he said. “It’s had a very good beginning in Denmark and Canada as well.” He added that it was finding an audience with younger drinkers, in particular.

The idea, he added was “to take the world of spirits and bring it into wine”.

Concha y Toro isn’t the only wine company thinking about spirits and barrels. For more than a century, Spanish firm González Byass has been selling its used sherry casks to Scottish whisky distilleries. After the company realised that the whisky sector had failed to innovate, despite being a leading spirits category, they decided to shake things up.

When Richard Paterson, the master distiller from Whyte & Mackay, was visiting Jerez in 2010 to select Sherry casks, González Byass’s global marketing director, Eugeni Brotons suggested he sent his whisky to Jerez. “The different temperature, humidity, winds and even the native yeast floating in the air would surely make the difference,” said Brotons. “He loved the idea and we started experimenting with different Sherry casks.”

In December 2013, the team finally cracked the code – the best results came from whisky aged for six or seven years in Scotland, and then finished in PX casks in Jerez for a further year. “We had our own whisky. Not a Scotch whisky, nor a Spanish whisky. We concluded we had an Outland Whisky, something new and different,” continued Brotons.

In January 2014, a blind tasting of the whisky – now called Nomad – was held for mixologists in Edinburgh. “At that time we did not have a brand name or the packaging, just a lab sample of a brown, topaz-coloured liquid,” said Brotons. He added that he was nervous about how the tasters would react. “Surprisingly, all the mixologists thought they were in front of a new whisky concept, really different to what they were used to. They loved Nomad, and they loved it even more when I explained the story behind the concept to them.”

Using old barrels in novel ways seems to impart interesting flavours. The tasting notes from Edinburgh show that the tasters found the whisky unique, with “lovely woody sherry notes on the palate never seen before”. And the 1,000 Stories Zinfandel has an attractive, but not intrusive, smokiness to it from the bourbon barrels.

Perhaps old oak barrels have a bright new future ahead.

Felicity Carter