Distilling your own whiskey is illegal in the United States… probably with good reason (it can be dangerous to consume if not properly distilled). That doesn’t mean you can’t create a great whiskey from home through aging. Many factors go into creating a great whiskey, and the barrel aging process is among the most important. Here’s how to age whiskey at home and create your own special spirit to share with your friends.
This post will include links to products that will help your home aging process. I might get a commission off of purchases, but I promise I only recommend products I believe in.
Aging The Right Spirit
When aging your own whiskey at home, the first consideration is which spirit to use. If you’re wanting to experiment a lot over time, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this question. Technically, you can age anything. Barrel Aged Gin is a rising fad these days, and vodka has been tried before, too. If your goal is whiskey, there are a few options.
First, consider double-aging a bourbon that you know you love. Think about Woodford Double Oaked Bourbon which is twice barreled. Extra-aging an already aged bourbon can impart some extra unique flavors to your project. Try taking a young bourbon and aging it for a while to improve the flavor. The first time you do this, I’d recommend using a more affordable bourbon so you aren’t out too much money if the experiment fails. Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark might be good options to test out. Whiskey can be over-aged, so maybe don’t try double-aging an old bourbon (but, if you do, maybe it’ll be delicious).
“White Dog” Raw Distillates
A second option is to purchase a bottle of un-aged grain spirit, or “White Dog” raw distillate. White Dog was the name given to the unaged distilled corn spirits during the pioneer era of America, and the name has stuck around to describe raw distillate to this day.
Many distilleries have started selling the raw distillate of their popular mashes, or you can search for an otherwise neutral, un-aged, and legal “moonshine.” Buffalo Trace Distillery markets a raw distillate of their three main mash bills: Mash Bill 1 (Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, E.H. Taylor), Wheated Mash (Weller and Pappy), and a Rye Mash (E.H. Taylor Straight Rye).
These are usually much more affordable, because they haven’t been kept in warehouses for years, nor have they lost much volume to angel’s share. Using a White Dog whiskey or unflavored moonshine is a great way to start age whiskey at home, starting from scratch. Check out these options for a good starting point:
How To Age Whiskey
Now that you’ve got your spirit picked out, it’s time to talk about methods for aging your whiskey at home. You can either do this in a barrel or in a mason jar or bottle. Each method has its pros and cons, but neither is better or worse than the other!
Barrel Aging Bourbon At Home
Many people want to barrel age their bourbon or whiskey. There’s clearly something nostalgic and it just feels “right”. Barrel Aging is what all the big distilleries do, after all. But barrels aren’t just for good looks. They have the benefit of surface area, and fully surrounding your spirit with the good charred oak character you want to impart to your whiskey. Keeping a barrel in a place where the temperature can fluctuate can help your whiskey cycle in and out of the wood as it expands and contracts, so it’s a great way to experiment. Barrels also allow for evaporation and oxygen to to interact with your spirit. It’s the most “authentic” aging experience.
Picking out a barrel
If you want to barrel age bourbon or whiskey at home, you’re going to need a barrel. Unless you’re doing some massive operation (you better have the permits), a brand-new giant bourbon barrel is probably not what you’re looking for. Luckily, you can buy much smaller barrels that will sit your counter, table, or whiskey shelf to let you age small quantities of whiskey at home without breaking the bank or taking up an entire corner of your kitchen. These often come in variable sizes, as small as one liter for aging a single bottle, up to five liters if you want to age more bottles or try your own blend. Amazon.com sells them in varying sizes all the way up to 20 liters and beyond, if you’re feeling ambitious.
Whiskey Aging Barrel
How to age whiskey in a mini barrel
Once you have your barrel picked out, it’s time to fill it with the spirit you picked our earlier. You can use an already aged whiskey or bourbon, or that White Dog raw distillate. You can even blend things together if you’re feeling crazy… this is your creation after all.
Using a mini barrel to age whiskey at home is easy. Just fill it up as much as you can, and pop the cork back in. The more full your barrel is, the more you’ll be able to take advantage of the surface area of wood. It’s a good idea to leave a little pocket unfilled, but you can get it most of the way. Remember, you’ll lose a bit of the spirit to evaporation (angel’s share) during the aging process.
How long should you age whiskey? The great thing about mini barrels is that the ratio of wood-to-whiskey is much better than that of larger barrels. You can often get “years” worth of aging in just a few months. Age a white whiskey, raw distillate for 3-6 months. If you’re aging a bourbon or whiskey that’s already been aged once, 1-2 months should be fine.
It’s okay to open your barrel up after a while to give it a taste. You, the master distiller, ultimately decide when your whiskey has been aged long enough. When it’s ready, pour everything back into glass bottles and cork it up.
How To Age Whiskey With Oak Staves and Spirals
Charred Oak Staves or Spirals are a nice alternative to a barrel. They are cheaper, take up less space, and can allow you to experiment with different oak varieties, chars, and blends. Maker’s Mark uses a stave process to finish aging a lot of their bourbons in addition to the barrel age process. Their barrel selection process is built around this stave-finishing technique, and there are 1001 combinations to choose from.
You can achieve a similar kind of chemistry from the comfort of your own home with smaller oak staves and/or spirals. These often fit right into an existing bottle of whiskey (you might have to sip a little off the top). All you have to do it drop them in, cork it up, and let it rest for a couple weeks or so. Again, give it a taste after a few weeks and see if it’s ready! Take the staves out when you think it’s aged enough.
Oak Staves vs. Oak Spirals
Either of these are good options, depending on how much flavor you’re trying to impart. The biggest design difference between an oak stave and a spiral is that the latter has more surface area. As with barrel aging, the surface area can impart more flavor quickly into your spirit. It can boost the flavor and speed up the aging process a bit. Midwest Homebrewing Supplies sells Spirals in different char/toast levels for as little as $13, and they ship free with Amazon Prime.
Staves, on the other had, can be smaller and have less surface area. You may be able to fit more of them, of different types even, into your whiskey. The smaller amount of surface area can also give you a little more control over the flavor. These Bullet Staves come highly recommended as well, and they are pretty cool to look at.
If you want a full aging kit, Aged & Ore sells a really beautiful and thoughtfully done whiskey aging setup. It’s a limited run with Chicago-based Aged and Infused, but they are still in-stock and on sale as of this most recent post update (Aug. 5 2022).
Mason Jar Whiskey
You can also do a staving process with a mason jar. Any jar with a lid will do. Take staves or wood chips and put them in your jar. Add the spirit or blend of your choice, and let it age somewhere for a month or so, tasting periodically. You can also roll your jar around to make sure all the spirit is getting exposed to the wood.
Enjoy Your Home Aged Whiskey
Once your spirit has aged enough, take out the staves or pour it from the barrel into glass containers. Old whiskey bottles work, mason jars are great, or you can use Grolsch bottles. Now it’s time for you to invite some friends over and share your whiskey!
Do you have experience aging whiskey at home? Let us know in the comments, or tag us in an Instagram photo @ncwhiskey!