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What should I do when my barrels arrive?

After receiving your new barrels, it’s crucial to give them the right care to ensure their longevity and performance. Leaving a barrel empty can lead to problems such as stave shrinkage and mold growth. To avoid these issues, here are some suggestions:

Immediate Filling: If possible, fill the barrels with your chosen spirit right away. This not only prevents the wood from drying out but also kick-starts the aging process.

Avoid Storing in the Bag: To prevent any potential mold growth, make sure to remove the barrel from the bag during storage.

Use a High-Proof Spirit: If you’re not ready to fill the barrel with your aging spirit, a small amount of high-proof alcohol like vodka or Everclear can be used as a temporary alternative. This will help to keep the wood swollen and ensure the barrel remains sealed. Until you’re ready for the main fill, store the barrels on their face. This position, combined with the alcohol inside, will keep the heads moist and clean, maintaining the barrel’s integrity.

Secure the Bung: After filling, make sure to securely place the bung. A quick thwack with a mallet will ensure a secure seal, preventing any leaks or exposure to air.

Consider Long-Term Storage Solutions: If you plan to store the barrels for an extended period, you might want to consider using a solution of potassium metabisulfite and citric acid. This will help to preserve the wood and keep it in optimal condition.

At Minimum, Use Water: If none of the above options are feasible, filling the barrels with water is the bare minimum to prevent mold and keep the staves from shrinking.

By following these suggestions, you’ll ensure your barrels are well-maintained and ready to impart delicious flavors to your spirits. Remember, a well-cared-for barrel is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for exceptional aged spirits!

How do I remove a bung?

To remove a bung, follow these steps: First, stand the barrel upright. Next, open the spigot. Then, with a hammer, give the side of the bung hard strikes, alternating directions of the blows. While doing this, try pulling it out between blows. Be patient; it might take 10 or even 20 firm back-and-forth strikes to loosen it. With some persistence, you'll get it!

Here is a video demonstrating the technique with a wooden mallet.

How do I insert and seat a bung?

To insert and seat a bung, follow these steps: Gently place it into the bunghole, and then tap it using your tool. Remember, you don't need to pound it with excessive force; a few firm taps should suffice. Avoid hitting it too hard, as this could potentially shift the barrel head inside the can. The bung seals by swelling within the bunghole, not just from hammering. A snug fit is typically all you need.

If you've removed a wet bung and want to reseal the barrel, opt for a dry bung if available.

What do I do if I see a leak?

There are a lot of possibilities here.

  1. If you see evidence of a past leak, such as a dried stain on the barrel head, but no liquid, don’t freak. It’s likely that the barrel experienced an environmental change, a small amount of liquid escaped, dried, and the leak stopped. In my experience about a third of my older barrels did this, sometimes many times, and I still have plenty of liquid in the barrel. I view this as normal and cool. It’s just barrel candy. My more recent barrels don’t seem to do this but it wouldn’t bother me if they did.
  2. If you see this happening, and see a few drops of liquid outside the barrel, don’t freak YET. Be patient. Put something under the barrel that will catch that liquid if it gets worse and make cleanup easier, and then walk away for a day or two. It may never happen again.
  3. If there is an alarming amount of liquid actually dripping off of the barrel, you should totally freak out now. Flip the barrel upright. Get in touch with me. We’ll work something out.

What are the numbers and letters marked on my barrel?

The numbers and letters on your barrel are not just random characters. They are actually a key to its identity! Each set of markings provides information like the barrel's unique serial number (which helps me keep everything organized), its char and toast level (where "L" stands for Light Toast, "M" for Medium, "P" for Medium-Plus, "H" for Heavy, etc.), and sometimes even the specific type of wood or previous contents if it's a used barrel (like XB for Ex-Bourbon). So, next time you glance at those codes, remember, you’re looking at the secret life story of your barrel!

What’s “barrel candy”?

Barrel candy is the brown goo that the spirit carries out of the barrel, which dries on the outside of the barrel. At least once in your life, you should rub your finger on it and smell your finger. It’s an utterly fantastic smell, like whiskey perfume or something.

I’m told it tastes nothing like it smells though so don’t eat it.

What if the metal container splits?

Oh, man, I hope I never see this happen to you, but now that it has happened to several customers (100% of which were sold barrels which used the Thunder Group brand of Bain Marie insert, which I no longer use), empirically it’s a non-zero-probability event. I feel that it’s just fair play to mention that there is some (very very small) risk of this happening to you. I have occasionally seen the can split during the initial swelling of the barrel, and I just discard it. As I get more and more precise about making the barrel heads, I hope that this happens never.

I can’t replace or compensate you for any spirit lost by an event like this, but I would be happy to replace the barrel with any other barrel you’d like. All you have to do is email me with a picture of the failed barrel head. Make sure to include in the photo the serial number on the barrel so I can send you a comparable type.

Can I reuse these barrels?

Yes. During the second use, the barrel will give less wood character (sugars, flavors, color) to the spirit than the first use did, and there will be less adsorption of large molecules by the char, but the spirit will still mature with time. The higher-volatility molecules will still dissipate, and the spirit will still experience slow oxygenation. There will still be esterification and other beneficial chemical reactions. Many beloved commercial spirits are aged exclusively in second-use wood. However, commercial second-use barrels are often reconditioned on the inside (scraped, re-toasted, re-charred etc.) and while in theory this could be done with a Badmotivator Barrel I can offer no assurance that this would work for us. I have never removed a head, reconditioned it, and used it again.

Can I put other wood in the barrel?

Sure. Maybe you’re on a second use, and you want to add a little fresh wood inside to amplify that character. (If you are adding oak, use only properly seasoned wood!) Maybe you want to add a non-oak wood. Maybe you have some kind of unusual fetish. I don’t judge. Go for it. It’s your barrel, weirdo.

How long should I age spirits in these barrels?

These barrels are designed to a) work for years and years, and b) work slowly, as they should. These are NOT 1-month barrels. Fill it up, put it away, and check on it every once in a while. Try a little taste now and then. Maybe you just really want to drink it after four months, or eight. That’s fine, but there’s something you oughta know before you blow the whistle. After a year, a huge amount of the young-spirit character is gone and the spirit has gained a beautiful color and some sweetness. It’s pretty good after a year. But it’s way better after two, and awesome at four. That’s all I can tell you from personal experience.

What do the “toast” and “char” numbers mean?

In the world of cooperage, terminology can sometimes be a bit fluid, and standards might vary from one maker to another. I've done my best to compile a set of definitions that reflect a general consensus in the industry, but I’m always open to learning more from those with deeper knowledge.

Here’s how I currently define these key terms:

Toast: This is the process where the staves of the barrel are heated over a griddle at 400°F. The duration of this process determines the level of toast:

• Light Toast: 20 minutes

• Medium Toast: 30 minutes

• Medium-Plus Toast: 40 minutes

• Heavy Toast: 50 minutes

Char: Charring involves a more intense heat treatment. If a barrel is charred, the inside of the barrel head is exposed to open flame. The duration of this exposure determines the char level:

• Char 1: 10 seconds, a light charring

• Char 2: 20 seconds, a medium charring

• Char 3: 30 seconds, a medium-heavy charring

• Char 4: 40 seconds, a heavy charring

After charring, the barrel is quickly doused with water to quench the flames and lock in the charred layer.

Please note that these definitions are based on my current understanding and practices, and I'm always eager to refine them further with input from those in the know.

What toast and char do you recommend for my spirit?

The toast and char levels of a barrel have a significant impact on the final flavor profile of a spirit. Here are some general suggestions based on different toasting and charring combinations:

Light Toast, Char 1 Barrel:

• Gin: A light toast with minimal char is great for gin, which benefits from subtle flavor enhancements that don't overshadow its botanicals.

• White Rum: This combination will add a bit of complexity without making the rum too heavy or oaky.

• Tequila: This would add a subtle depth to silver tequila-style spirits if you're interested in aging it for a short period.

Medium Toast, Char 2 Barrel:

• Bourbon Whiskey: A medium toast with a #2 char provides a balanced profile, adding a touch of caramel and vanilla flavors.

• Rye Whiskey: This brings out the floral notes in rye whiskey while balancing it with some sweeter undertones.

• Apple Brandy: This combo complements the fruitiness of the brandy.

Medium-Plus Toast, Char 3 Barrel:

• Scotch: A deeper toast and more significant char contribute complexity to Scotch-style whiskies.

• Aged Rum: This combo can give the rum more depth and a more balanced profile.

• Mezcal: For those interested in aging Mezcal-style spirits, a medium-plus toast and #3 char can add a lot of intrigue without overwhelming the spirit's natural smokiness.

Heavy Toast, Char 4 Barrel:

• Dark Rums: A heavy toast with a high char level is excellent for producing a rich, deeply flavored rum.

• Bold Bourbons: For a bourbon with robust flavors, a heavy toast and #4 char can bring out dark chocolate, coffee, and smoky notes.

• Armagnac: This would add substantial body and complexity to a grape-based spirit.

Remember, these are just suggestions, and the actual outcome can vary based on many factors like the original spirit, aging time, and environmental conditions. Feel free to experiment and find what suits your personal taste best!

Should I leave headspace when filling?

A common guideline in distilling is to leave about 5% headspace in the barrel. This small amount of space allows the spirit to expand and contract as seasons change. A tip is to fill the barrel to approximately 1 inch (25mm) below the bung when it's positioned head up, ensuring the right amount of headspace.

If you've overfilled the barrel, there's an easy fix. Simply open the spigot periodically to release any excess pressure. This is particularly important during rapid temperature changes, such as the transition from cold to warm weather in spring. Releasing the pressure helps maintain the barrel's seal. Micro leaks that appear with weather changes are often due to internal pressure fluctuations.

Take a look at this video by Alan Bishop, where he discusses barrel aging in a dynamic environment: The effects of heat and pressure on barrels

How do I age beer or wine in a barrel?

Inspect for Leaks: Fill the barrel with water to check for leaks. If it leaks, water soaking may swell the wood to seal it.
Clean and Sanitize: If the barrel is new or has been used previously, it's crucial to clean and sanitize it without damaging the wood's character. Use a solution like potassium metabisulfite and citric acid for wine barrels, or a brewery-approved sanitizer for beer.
Temperature: Ensure the beer or wine is at a stable, appropriate temperature before barrel-aging.
Filling: Fill the barrel to avoid excess oxygen space, which can lead to oxidation. Minimize headspace.
Environment: Keep the barrel in a cool, dark place with stable temperature and humidity. Extreme changes can affect the barrel and the liquid inside.
Monitor: Check periodically for leaks, spoilage, and to assess the aging process. Tasting occasionally can help decide when it has reached the desired profile.
Transferring: Once the aging process is complete, transfer the beer or wine to bottles or another container for further maturation or consumption.
Cleaning and Storage: Clean the barrel thoroughly after emptying. Store properly to prevent drying out and microbial growth, considering filling with a storage solution if not in use immediately.
Oxygen Exposure: Minimize oxygen exposure during transfers to prevent oxidation.
Duration: The time for aging can vary greatly, from a few months to over a year, depending on the desired outcome.
Reusing Barrels: Barrels can be reused multiple times for aging, but the imparted flavors will diminish with each use.

Do you sell the barrel heads by themselves?

Nope. I have to be sure that each head is tight before I sell it. To do that, I have to test it in a barrel with water. Once I’ve done that, if I removed the head it could damage it and I couldn’t be sure it would be successful in a different barrel. I only want to sell barrels that I can be nearly certain will work well. Also, the cost of the can (and the cost of the shipping of the can) are fairly minor components of the price; it wouldn’t save anybody much money to do things that way.

Should I rotate my barrel?

I don’t know. I generally have not rotated my barrels, and I have no complaints about their performance. The exception is that occasionally a small leak will present itself on the lower part of the head, and I’ll just rotate it to the top and walk away. Works for me.

What are the dimensions of the barrel?

I am currently using the Choice 8.25 Qt. Bain Marie pot. The measurements below are from a different brand but they are very similar to Choice.