Commercial Barrel-Aging

Barrel-Aging 101: Aging beer in bourbon barrels vs. rye whiskey barrels

By Midwest Barrel Co.

April 11th, 2023

Willett Bourbon Barrels are some of our most popular for commercial barrel-aging.
Willett Bourbon Barrels are some of our most popular for commercial barrel-aging.

We see quite a few different types of used barrels move through our warehouses these days. But without a doubt, the most popular are nearly always either used bourbon barrels or used rye whiskey barrels.

For the breweries and other commercial producers we work with, these barrels are the top two picks. Their flavor profiles accentuate all the right notes of many beer styles. Barrel-aged stouts, barleywines, porters, Belgian quads – the list of styles that make excellent barrel-aged beers could go on and on.

Bourbon barrels and rye whiskey barrels dominate.

However, if you’re new to barrel-aging or still researching whether BA beers, cider, mead or other beverages would fit in your lineup, then you might be wondering where to start.

First, you’ve probably got the right idea with aging in either bourbon or rye whiskey barrels. They’re popular for a reason. Many craft beer consumers are big fans of the bold flavors these barrels provide.

But do your customers know the difference between the two barrels? Maybe not at first, but there’s definitely a difference in taste.

Those differences are what we’ll explore in this Barrel-Aging 101 guide.

Bourbon vs. rye whiskey flavor profiles

Willett rye barrels
Like all Willett barrels, Willett Rye Whiskey Barrels are a Midwest Barrel Co. exclusive. You can only buy them fresh from us.

The whole point of barrel-aging any beverage is to pull flavors from the oak that enhance or influence the flavors that are already present in whatever it is you are aging.

Like the spirits they aged, bourbon and rye whiskey barrels have crossover flavors that can be pulled from both. There are also noticeable differences, again, just like the spirits themselves.

Once you understand the flavors both barrels bring to the table, and which flavors they might best enhance in your brew, then you’ll be able to make a more knowledgeable decision about how best to release a killer barrel-aged beverage.

Common flavors in both bourbon and rye whiskey barrels

Many of the flavors that can be found in both bourbon and rye whiskey barrels are thanks to the oak itself.

Most of the barrels we receive are once-used, meaning the distillery used them to age a spirit, emptied them and then sent them to one of our warehouses.

With a barrel that has only been used one time, you can typically hope to get plenty of spirit and oak character during your barrel-aging process.

Flavors from the oak that you should notice will include:

  • Vanilla
  • Cinnamon
  • Sweeter spices
  • Clove

These flavors are also found in the end product that is bottled up and sold to consumers.

How much of the flavors from the oak are present in aged beverages can vary based on the char level, too. Many of our customers enjoy trying out different char and even toast levels to accentuate different flavors in their beer.

For example, with beer, higher char levels often help cut down on sweetness, if that’s something you are aiming to achieve.

Dive deeper into how char levels affect the flavors added by aging.

Bourbon barrel flavor profile

Now, let’s talk about used bourbon barrels, specifically.

Bourbon barrels are the top dog in barrel-aging. Straight bourbon whiskey must be aged a minimum of two years in a brand new, American oak barrel.

Once a distillery is finished aging the bourbon the barrel is emptied and can’t be used again for bourbon. Most of the time, that’s when Midwest Barrel Co. procures the barrels for our customers.

Inside the barrel, you will find many flavors that will stand out. That oak character will be present, as will flavors that come from the spirit itself, which will be heavily influenced by the mash bill used when distilling the bourbon.

To be called “bourbon,” the spirit’s mash bill must be at least 51% corn. This high corn content is responsible for the sweeter notes and denser mouthfeel of bourbon compared to rye whiskey, which can carry over into the barrel.

Rye whiskey barrel flavor profile

For a whiskey to be considered a “rye whiskey,” its mash bill needs to be at least 51% rye.

The rye grain is where this style of whiskey gets a signature spice that many barrel-agers appreciate. The higher the rye content, the more of a kick the whiskey carries.

Most rye whiskey barrel-aged beverages will take on some of those spicier, sometimes more herbal notes.

Pay attention to mash bills

Various Willett bourbons on a barrel
Different bourbons, like these from Willett Distillery, may often have different mash bills, which affects barrel flavor.

Whether you’re looking to age in bourbon or rye whiskey barrels, be sure to pay close attention to the mash bill of the specific brand of spirit.

With both barrels, different mash bills highlight distinct flavors. We’ve already mentioned that corn provides sweeter notes and more mouthfeel and rye adds spice, but barley and wheat also contribute different flavors.

Barley can add nut, smoke and chocolate flavors, while wheat doesn’t add much in terms of flavor, aside from bread, but can help tame sharper notes.

Some distillers use wheat to help provide a smoother overall taste.

Pay attention to the customer

Here is one final tip on choosing to age in used bourbon barrels vs. used rye whiskey barrels: Listen to the customer.

Most craft beer fans know what they want. Sure, they love to be surprised and find the hot, new beer, but they've got their favorites that they keep coming back to.

For barrel-aged beers, that's often bourbon barrel-aged.

Why? Because bourbon is heavily marketed as America's spirit. It can only be made in the U.S., after all.

Brewers can take advantage of this with their own marketing and labels by clearly stating when beer was aged specifically in bourbon barrels.

Calling out barrel type is a good practice bourbon or otherwise, but leaning on "bourbon barrel" may help with marketing.

How to find the freshest used bourbon or rye whiskey barrels

The key to getting the most flavor out of any barrel is freshness.

Our top customers are always looking for fresh, used barrels that have been emptied as recently as possible so that:

  • 1) They know there’s a lot of fresh spirit character remaining
  • 2) The barrels are less likely to need swelling and other care.

Get our weekly inventory email

The best way to be in the know about the freshest barrels we have on hand at any given time is to sign up for our inventory mailing list.

Each week, we send out an inventory email that highlights recent arrivals and provides a complete list of what’s in stock.

Got questions? We have answers!

Our barrel crew unloads and inspects every used bourbon and rye whiskey barrel that goes through our warehouses.
Our barrel crew unloads and inspects every used bourbon and rye whiskey barrel that goes through our warehouses.

There’s a whole lot more to learn about the many different types of barrels and best practices for barrel-aging. Our staff is here to help.

From former brewers, to homebrewers, to people who simply live and breathe all things barrel, we’ve got a team that can answer any of your questions and help you tackle any troubleshooting.

Don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re always down for some good barrel talk.

Drop us a line!

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Midwest Barrel Company

Just your resident barrel slingers delivering some damn good content

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