What's The Difference Between A Whiskey Barrel And A Wine Barrel?

Toasting Oak BarrelsI was shopping the other day and found some oak chips, made from Jack Daniels Whiskey Barrels. They were being sold as flavor enhancers for barbecues. Could I use these to age my wine? Would they have to be toasted first, or would the fact that they had been used for whiskey aging offset that requirement?

Don — PA
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Hello Don,

It is important to know that there are some differences between a whiskey barrel and a wine barrel. Whiskey barrels are process differently that wine barrels. The critical difference being that whiskey barrels are charred on the inside, whereas wine barrels are toasted. Doesn’t sound like much of a difference – I know – but the effects on the flavor are very different.

The reason a whiskey barrel is charred is so that the inside of the barrel staves turn into a charcoal. This charcoal’s purpose is to help take out the harshness of a raw whiskey. In a loose sense, the char acts in the same way a carbon filter works on water. It helps to remove the impurities. This char is also what adds the amber color to the whiskey.

Wine barrels are toasted. The reason they are toasted is so that when the wine is aged in the barrel, flavor is added, not taken out. When the oak staves are toasted at the correct temperature for the right amount of time, various phenols, sugars and other compounds rise to the surface of the wood to interact with the wine while it ages. Flavors ranging from vanilla, to coconut, to caramel can be coaxed from the wood and into the wine by the degree of toasting the oak wood goes under.

Shop Wine BarrelsTannins from the wood also react with the tannins is the wine so as to precipitate them out of the wine as a sediment. This helps to mellow the wine, make it more stable and more clear.

There are some other differences between a whiskey barrel and a wine barrel that are not as critical, but we’ll save them for another time.

Don, going back to your question, you could use these whiskey barrel pieces in your wine, but the effects will be vary different from using actual toasted oak chips that are prepared specifically to be used in a wine.

One thing I would urge you to do is make a serious effort to sanitize these oak barrel pieces. There is no reason to assume they were stored in sanitary conditions if they are to be used for smoking.

If I where doing the sanitizing I would soak them in a very strong sulfite solution. I would find a container that could be sealed air-tight and kept full of the sulfite solution, so as to keep the floating pieces of wood submerged by the lid. I would use 2 teaspoons of sodium metabisulfite and 1/2 teaspoon of either citric acid or acid blend to every gallon of water. Let the wood soak for several days. The longer the better.shop_toasted_oak_chips

In short, I see not reason why you couldn’t play around with this wood. Just remember that there are differences between a whiskey barrel and a wine barrel that will result in a very different out come in your wine.

Happy Winemaking,
Customer Service at E. C. Kraus
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Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.