Wine Aged In Bourbon Barrels. Yay Or Nay?

Bourbon – the sweet Kentucky nectar. It’s as American as apple pie and comes in all tastes and levels of quality.

You might have had the rare luxury of putting Pappy Van Winkle to your lips. Or you’ve savored the more accessible options like Basil Hayden’s and Four Roses. Hell, it’s likely you’ve tipped back Jim Beam shot specials on country music night at Dave & Buster’s. No judgement here, you wild barfly.

In any case, much like wine, the barrels that bourbon uses as an apartment to age in are incredibly influential in its taste. That extra-charred, new American oak is what gives bourbon its character. It softens the bite and lends flavors of sweet vanilla and caramel. It’s Scotch whisky for the sweet tooth, if you will.

Due to legal requirements however, these barrels can only be used once. Unlike wine barrels, those that house bourbon are a one-night stand and then told to hit the bricks. Well, it’s more like a 23-year stand if you’re drinking the good stuff. But that barrel will likely never see bourbon in it again once drained.

Fortunately, bourbon barrels themselves have been given new life. Experimental brewers have been tossing their stouts and strong ales into these barrels that add a complex richness to their beer.

Household names like Firestone Walker have been going at the “beerbon” game for a while. They even hold an annual competition among local winemakers in Paso Robles to create the year’s best style. In other words, a friendly contest for those that know flavor blending in barrels backwards and forwards. Oatmeal stouts oh my!

Speaking of winemakers messing around with beer, we’re starting to see more grapes get on the bourbon-licked train as well. Instead of French, American or Sherry barrels that have only tasted grape juice, some producers are trying their luck with oak soaked in bourbon. It’s a fairly new concept for wine yet one that hopes to transcend the novelty of it.

The result is exactly as you’d expect: a luxuriously soft, slightly sweetened expression of a given varietal. The super-toasted American oak gives the juice a predicted creamy, vanilla base – but with a bit more smoke. The bourbon distributes undertones of caramelized fruit and soothes the acidity.

The current go-to varietal for most producers using bourbon barrels is Zinfandel. Its naturally acidic, and often bold, flavor nicely cut the rich infusion of grain alcohol. And it packs a wallop at a typical 15% alcohol due to the extra sugar. So careful with this one as it can sneak up on ya…like Jim Beam at Dave & Buster’s.

Luckily, most versions are quite easy on the wallet. 1,000 Stories is a well-known style in this space and comes out to $17. You can also snag The Federalist for around $20. In contrast to Zinfandel, R Wines does a Syrah-style take called Southern Belle that’s definitely worth a sip (and awesome label artwork to go along with it).

So what’s the verdict? In my humble opinion, bourbon barrel aged wine is unique but not for everyone. I know that’s a ridiculously safe answer. It’s certainly made for the American palate with its sweeter, velvety experience.

But if you like spicy, herbaceous vino like I do, it might come across as flabby and sugary. Needless to say, the style is still in its infancy and has potential to improve. Stay tuned, bourbon & wine lovers. It only gets better from here.

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VOICE OF MODERN WINE CULTURE