Commercial Barrel-Aging

Barrel Care: My barrel has a leak!

By Midwest Barrel Co.

July 1st, 2021

Ben Loseke examining a small barrel

Barrel-aging is an exciting undertaking. Some time spent in a barrel can take a homebrew, craft beer, wine or distilled spirit to the next level.

But the barrel has to be able to do its job. A leaking barrel is a no-go and will only delay your beverage’s barrel-aged journey. Nobody wants that.

Luckily for you, most barrel leaks can be fixed and even prevented in the first place. Trust us, we’ve been in your shoes – and our team of barrel experts has plenty of tips for sealing up barrel leaks.

No matter the size, all are made from American white oak and are charred on the inside.
Close up image of barrels stacked on pallets

Barrel care depends on barrel type

No two barrels are exactly alike. This is especially true of barrels that arrive at our warehouse. These barrels are authentic. They have actually been used to hold and age bourbon, whiskey, wine, rum, tequila, gin – you name it.

However, different barrel types need different care when it comes to leaks. For example, there are some preventative measures we recommend for wine barrels and brand new oak barrels that we don’t recommend for whiskey barrels. Why? Because distillers and winemakers treat their barrels differently, so different steps need to be taken to prevent issues like leaks from happening.

Don’t worry, though. We know our way around all types of barrels. So, enough chit chat. Let’s get your barrel back to ship shape.

WHISKEY, BOURBON AND
SPECIALTY LIQUOR BARRELS

Honestly, it’s pretty rare for a liquid grade whiskey, bourbon or other specialty liquor barrel to leak. Our in-house barrel experts say 95% of these barrels won’t leak as long as they’re filled as soon as possible once the customer receives them.

And they say that’s a conservative estimate. They’re pretty good at spotting a barrel that needs to be retired and sold as furniture or decor. If a barrel looks questionable, then they’re pressure tested to be sure.

Plus, our liquid grade barrels are freshly dumped by distilleries before they are sent to us. They’re still nice and tight because they’ve recently contained liquid.

WHISKEY, BOURBON AND
SPECIALTY LIQUOR BARRELS

But stuff happens. Leaks happen. Here is how we recommend addressing a whiskey, bourbon or other specialty liquor barrel that is leaking.

  • Tighten the barrel rings - Take a mallet or hammer and gently tap the rings (also called hoops) down. This will hold the barrel staves tighter and seal up and small leaks.
  • Use barrel sealant or wax - You can find different barrel sealants and waxes from a number of online stores. Rub the wax into the leaking area with your hand or drip melted wax onto the area.
  • DIY paste - You can even apply a concoction of your own making to problem areas. A simple 1:4 ratio of distilled water and unbleached flour will do the trick. After applying, go over the area with a blowtorch to cure and seal the patch.
  • Reeds, straws or toothpicks - Quick note: this method can make some leaks worse if not done properly. However, it is possible to gently push a reed, straw or toothpick into leaking spots. For toothpicks, break off any excess wood and sand it down 
Mallet on top of barrel
Gulf Wax

SWELLING IS A LAST RESORT FOR THESE BARRELS

Some other barrel brokers out there will recommend completely filling the barrel with water. This method is known as swelling because the water will eventually get soaked up into the barrel staves, swelling and tightening the barrel to make it leak free.


This should be a last resort for whiskey, bourbon and specialty liquor barrels. While swelling is a good way to get rid of leaks, you’re also going to lose a lot of the flavor that liquor could impart on your barrel-aged beverage. 

WINE BARRELS

Wine barrels are a different story. They aren’t dumped as often, so they tend to stick around at wineries a little while longer.


That means they tend to be a little drier than, say, a whiskey barrel once they arrive at our door. Drier barrels are more likely to leak.

Clean and repeat

Though it may take a little more care and prep work, wine barrels will also be leak-free. It’s going to take some swelling in advance.


There are a few different methods of tightening up a wine barrel.

HEAD SWELLING

The first step we always point wine barrel customers to is head swelling, which helps tighten the joint between the heads and staves. Normally, this method and some barrel wax patchwork will solve any leak problems.

Follow these steps to head swell a wine barrel:

  1. Stand the barrel vertically on one head.

  2. Fill the top head of the barrel to the top of the first ring with hot water (180º F or more). This is normally about two inches of water.

  3. Let the water sit overnight.

  4. Add more water in the morning and watch for bubbles coming from the head. If you don’t see any barrels, then flip over the barrel and repeat the previous steps on that head.

  5. Check for bubbles again. If you see bubbles, let the water sit for several more hours.
Close up image of barrel head

Inside SWELLING

Another option is to swell the inside of the barrel. Follow these steps for inside swelling:

  1. Lay the barrel horizontally onto a common barrel rack with the bunghole facing up.

  2. Fill the barrel 1/3 of the way with hot water (+180° F) and let it sit for two hours.

  3. Periodically roll the barrel back and forth to coat all of the inside surfaces of the barrel with water.

  4. Add another 1/3 of water to the barrel and check for leaks. If water is still leaking from the barrel, allow it to sit with water inside for another 1-2 hours. At this point, the barrel should be swelled up.

  5. Drain the barrel completely and fill with your beverage.

  6. It’s very important to fill your barrels as soon as possible if you’re using this method. The longer the water is in the barrel, the more you risk contamination.
Barrel on barrel rack

STEAM METHOD

Finally, there’s the steam method. If you have a steamer or other way to get steam inside the wine barrel, then this method can be pretty easy to tackle. Just follow these steps:

  1. Lay the barrel horizontally on a standard barrel rack with the bunghole facing up.

  2. Using a steam generator, fill the barrel with steam at a temperature of at least 212° F.

  3. Continue to pump steam into the barrel for at least 10 minutes. This may take longer depending on how dry the barrel is.

  4. Once the bands seem to tighten up, remove the steam and allow the barrel to cool.

  5. Drain any water that has accumulated.

  6. Fill the barrel 1/3 of the way with cold water to check for leaks. If any seeping is noticed, keep the water in the barrels until it subsides.
Steaming barrel

Our barrels are leak-free guaranteed

We do things the right way here at MWBC. We stand behind our promise that our barrels are leak-free – guaranteed for 30 days. We always recommend filling with your beverage right away to keep the staves and rings tight, but will stand by our guarantee for 30 days within your purchase.

Learn more about our brand promise of selling only Damn. Good. Barrels.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Midwest Barrel Company

Just your resident barrel slingers delivering some damn good content

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