At our wedding, the Doctor and I held a Whiskey Unity Ceremony. Each of us poured a base neutral grain spirit into an unused charred American white oak barrel, where it will age for a year, yielding up a first anniversary bourbon. Sound better than year old stale cake, doesn’t it?
The idea is for it to be a symbolic blending of the two of us. Bourbon whiskey makes for an interesting symbolic substance. It’s literally a blending of different spirits, that through mixing and aging together, combine to become something richer, more complex, and flavorful… much like a good marriage.
For our purposes, we took it a step further. The Doctor enjoys bourbon whiskey particularly, so she poured corn spirit, which along with a few other requirements, must make up 51% or more of the whiskey for it to be legally bourbon. I tend to prefer rye whiskey, so I poured rye spirit, and the resulting blend is a High Rye Bourbon.
That was all part of our original plan, based on something the Doctor found on Off-Beat Bride. We immediately loved the idea, and started doing so research. A lot of distilleries sell small do-it-yourself whiskey aging sets composed of a small barrel and some white whiskey, but as it turns out, these were not optimal setups. First of all, white whiskey sold in bottles is already proofed down to a drinking level water-to-alcohol ratio, which isn’t intended for being aged. Generally, the alcohol that goes into a whiskey barrel is stronger than what you buy at the store. It’s aged at this stronger proof, and may actually get stronger, or weaker, as it ages. When it comes out of the barrel, it’s at “cask strength” and it typically blended with water to be proofed down to it’s bottling ratio.
More importantly, the small barrels are intended for short aging. The size of the barrel is the key to the liquid-to-barrel-surface ratio, so the smaller the barrel, the less amount of time you want it in contact with the wood. It’s also an issue for evaporation. Alcohol is lost in the barrel aging process, aging a small barrel for a year could result in most of the barrel being lost to the “angel’s share.” Your average one litter barrel is actually intended for only no more than two months of aging.
Thankfully, we eventually got help from the distillers at Grand Traverse Distillery. They were able to set us up with a 10 litter barrel suitable for a 10-13 month aging, and with a custom blend of grain spirits at full cask strength. Our particular set, as I noted before, is a High Rye Bourbon, coming in at 55% Corn, 40% Rye, and 5% Barley. Technically a Bourbon, but with a lot more rye than you’d usually see.
They also provided a helpful set of instructions, including how to cure the barrel so it’s properly sealed before putting in the expensive alcohol. Whiskey barrels aren’t liquid tight until they’ve been filled, and they then spend a few days absorbing fluid and swelling shut… and leaking slowly until that’s done. The implication I got was that if they were built liquid tight, the swelling could cause them to break open and leak, so they are designed to swell shut once filled. That means you expect them to leak for days when first filled. Not something you’d want to discover by accident when you’ve filled them with expensive alcohol.
The distillers at Grand Travers advised us to fill the barrel with hot water six days before the ceremony, so for the three to five days it was swelling and leaking, we weren’t loosing future whiskey. It was also important to leave it unplugged and with a gap of air, so that the bung hole didn’t swell shut or swell small enough that we couldn’t get the bung in later.
The other thing of note is that a 10 litter barrel is actually rather large, and as I learned filling it with water, it takes a while. We figured no one wanted to sit through a ceremony where the Doctor and I pour 10 litters into a barrel, one bottle at a time, especially us. We decided that if the ceremony could work as a symbolic merging of us, it would also work as a symbolic joining of our families. At the rehearsal, we had our parents, bridal party, and siblings each pour part of a bottle into the barrel, so it was actually about 9 litters full at the wedding.
The distillers let us know not to fill the barrel completely. We made sure to keep about a half-inch gap under the hole in the barrel to allow for the barrel to breathe. In particular, changes in temperature can result in the liquid expanding and contracting, and if the barrel is 100% full, it can crack under the pressure. Their advice was to leave about a half litter back from the filling, so a few months later we can start adding it into the barrel to replace liquid lost to evaporation. Of course stopping to check how full the barrel is as we fill it wouldn’t have made for a nice ceremony, and we didn’t want to leave a bottle half full during a symbolic ceremony, so the Doctor and I each poured about 250ml from our bottles, and left another half litter behind for later topping off.
For the week leading up to our wedding the barrel was in a clean ice chest, which was the only water tight container we had that was large enough to hold it. That way we could see how much water it’s losing, and we didn’t damage anything. Each day I checked on it, and topped it off with water again, although never to the top of the barrel. I was advised that if was still leaking after three days, I should empty it, and refill it with hot water for a few more days of curing. Thankfully that wasn’t needed. We emptied the barrel the night before the rehearsal dinner, and placed the bung in the hole to seal it up so it didn’t dry out much overnight. The next night, at the rehearsal, our friends and families filled it with 9 litters of base spirits, making it a symbolic blending of our families and lives, not just ourselves. Then, the next day at the wedding ceremony the Doctor and I added our respective 250 ml of corn and rye, then sealed it up. A few days after the ceremony we filled the barrel to a half inch under the hole, and leaving behind the remaining half litter of base spirits for a few months from now so we can replace the share the angels will take.
Right now we are at the easy part of the process: aging. We had considered leaving the barrel to age in the basement of a family member while we moved across country, and coming back to it in a year. The distillers advised me not to do so. They said to keep it out of direct sunlight, but that the subtle change of temperature from day to night and season to season will only help it age better, so a basement isn’t a good idea. Moreover, it’s important to keep an eye on the barrel so that if a leak starts, it can be dealt with before too much is lost. Right no I’ve got the barrel on our bookshelf, where we can easily see if something were to happen to it. Our north facing apartment doesn’t get much direct sun, so that’s not a danger in this case.
In about a year, we will be able pour out the barrel for our anniversary. It will come out at cask strength, letting us decide to proof it down ourselves with distilled water, then and there, or keep it at cask strength to adjust when we want to drink it. I expect we may do a little of both. After all, it will be a lot of whiskey. Although 10 litters of grain spirit went into the barrel, we won’t be getting more than maybe 9 litters out, thanks to those dang angels. At cask strength, that’s still a lot of whiskey. We plan on giving bottles of it to our family and wedding party, and I expect they will prefer to enjoy it proofed down, while the Doctor and I will probably keep most of our stock at cask strength and adjust it’s balance when we drink it.
But there’s more. We won’t just be throwing away the barrel. While bourbon technically requires a fresh barrel, other whiskeys can re-use a barrel. Most scotch uses old bourbon barrels, for example. There are other tricks like barrel aged gins, bourbon aged beers, or even barrel aged cocktails. The distillers actually say you can get three good agings out of the barrel, as long as you give some extra time to each aging, and then it’s good for beer for a while. I suspect we will age a rye whiskey, but we’ve still got months to figure it out.