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Thinking Outside the Barrel: Innovations in Cask-Finished Spirits

4 brandy bottles with colorful labels.
Cask-finished whiskey is nothing new, but in recent times, distillers have been experimenting with new applications of the practice. Now, even brandy is getting in on the fun — Louisville-based Copper & Kings launched CR&FTWERK earlier this month, a series of four American brandies aged in beer barrels previously used to age craft beers. Photos via Copper & Kings.

Cask-finished whiskey has been around for more than one hundred years, but the practice is still yielding complex, distinct results. Some might argue that there’s never been a better time to check out what distillers are doing with the technique.

Plenty of brands have won the hearts and minds of many, even including some purists, who would prefer to keep whiskey in its traditional white oak barrel. Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece now features whiskey finished in sherry casks, the latest in a series that previously used those of cognac and port. Glenmorangie has cultivated quite the roster, with several single malt Scotches touched by sherry, Grand Cru and red wine finishing. And heralded as the world’s best, Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 can now easily run you $3,000 a bottle for the keen collector. The 2016 version, released in February, appears poised to garner similar fervor (for now, at the somewhat more accessible price of $300).

Whiskey isn’t the only spirit getting in on the fun. Louisville-based Copper & Kings launched CR&FTWERK earlier this month, a series of four American brandies aged in beer barrels previously used to age craft beers. The distillery partnered with Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, 3 Floyds and Against the Grain, finding a kinship with the creative, rule-breaking spirit of the craft brewers, says founder Joe Heron.

Each brandy in the series is named after the beer that influenced it: 3 Floyds Dark Lord Russian imperial stout, Sierra Nevada smoked imperial porter, Oskar Blues’ G’Knight and Deviant Dale’s imperial IPA, and Against the Grain Mac Fanny Baw peated Scottish ale. They all play beautifully together, ranging from full and robust, to clean with a mild bite.

“We wanted the American brandy to be infused with the authentic flavor of the beers,” Heron says, a process that required every second of the 12-month aging timeline. “We wanted to demonstrate the pivotal role that the barrel plays in flavor expression through maturation.”

A glass of brandy on the rocks. Copper & Kings plans to repeat the CR&FTWERK series, adding new breweries to a still-secret line-up that will feature some of the original partners. Other offerings are receiving refreshed aging treatments, too — the team, led by distiller Brandon O’Daniel, is developing an apple brandy to be aged in sherry casks.

While plenty of non-traditional barrel aging is happening throughout the U.S., farther north, Canadian whisky is adding increasingly more to the cask-finished conversation. There’s much to be excited about, according to Davin de Kergommeaux author of “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert,” and contributor to “The World Atlas of Whisky” by Dave Broom.

He points out the Crimson Rye by 66 Gilead, and the “brilliance” in whiskies like Forty Creek Port Wood and Pike Creek (their master blender, Don Livermore, has a Ph.D in wood science). But right now de Kergommeaux’s favorite is award-winning Collingwood whisky, which is finished in toasted maple staves. The maplewood actually lends the whisky berry notes, de Kergommeaux says.

“It’s a love it or hate it whisky. I love it,” he says, citing a broad flavor spectrum that makes it easy to mix.

The practice of using casks to finish off spirits really does enhance the flavor profile, de Kergommeaux says. When used properly, those fancy sounding barrels aren’t just for show.

“A dry wine barrel has about six to eight liters of wine absorbed into the wood. This wine is released into the whisky,” he says, which alters the character and flavor of the spirit.

Some attempts work better than others (see the sweetness debate surrounding Woodford Reserve's Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir), and taste preferences can vary widely from one person to another, even with the most established brands. Still, experimentation shows no signs of slowing down.

Copper & Kings plans to repeat the CR&FTWERK series, adding new breweries to a still-secret line-up that will feature some of the original partners. Other offerings are receiving refreshed aging treatments, too — the team, led by distiller Brandon O’Daniel, is developing an apple brandy to be aged in sherry casks.

Heron says additional forthcoming spirits include absinthe aged in Serbian juniper barrels, and apple brandy aged in tequila barrels. Alley Cat will release in April, an Old Tom-style gin aged in a bourbon barrels for 22 months.

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