Almost 80% of the flavor contained within whiskey or bourbon comes from the barrels they’re aged in. This is why oaking your homemade moonshine is such an important step that shouldn’t be skipped. Don’t think because you don’t have an oak barrel means you can’t age your moonshine, there are simple and cheap alternatives that will give you amazing results. In this article we’ll discuss the four variables that affect the end flavor of your spirit and how to age your moonshine with either oak cubes, chips or oak barrels.
Four Variables Affecting Flavor
- Species of oak wood chips or barrel used
- Amount of wood toasting and charring used
- Amount of time wood is left to soak in the spirit
- Proof or % abv you are aging your whiskey at
1. What Species of Oak Wood Chips or Barrel Should I Use?
Oak commonly infuses hints of caramel, toasty, nutty or vanilla notes into the alcohol it comes in contact with. Different species of Oak will give different flavor profiles. So some experimenting is necessary to achieve the desired flavor. Below is a list of the most common oak species used in flavoring bourbon and whisky and an explanation of what flavor you can expect from each.
- American White Oak – By far the most commonly used often described as having an intense oak flavor with high vanilla and aromatic compounds. These compounds include aldehydes and acids such as vanillin, vanillic acid and syringaldehyde. American white oak chips release these aromatics faster then other species so the wood needs less contact time with the alcohol.
- French Oak – Imparts a much softer oak flavor then the American White Oak. You’ll notice a sweet spice flavor with hints of allspice and cinnamon. French Oak chips have more flavor compounds and tannin’s then American white oak.
- Hungarian Oak Chips – Imparts a more pronounced oak flavor then American White Oak. You’ll notice hints of black pepper, roasted coffee, bittersweet chocolate and vanillin
For more on these flavor profiles here’s a good article that I came across online: An in depth look at aging and oaking alcohol. It goes in depth into the types of Oak, talks about chips vs cubes vs staves and get’s into the science a little more.
Where to Buy Oak chips and Cubes?
I’d recommend purchasing several different bags of oak chips or cubes from your local brew shop stick to the “medium toast” to get started. If you don’t have a brew shop near you. Purchasing online might be your best bet, here’s a few that I’d recommend:
- Hungarian Oak Cubes Medium Toast
- American Oak Cubes, Medium Toast
- American and French Oak Chips Medium Toast
One last thing to mention about the species of wood, you don’t have to use oak! There are a number of other species that will give your moonshine a wide array of interesting flavors including: Cherry, Hickory, Hard Maple, Soft Maple, Read Oak, White Ash and Yellow Birch. These woods can be hard to find in your local home brew shop. You may purchase them online or try making them at home. To help you in the process of toasting your own wood chips I’ve writing this article:”Toasting and Charring Wood Chips At Home – Get Unique flavors not available in stores”(just writing this article be up soon)
2. How Toasting and Charring Wood Impacts Flavor of Moonshine?
Toasting wood chips is the process of heating wood to produce flavor compounds not present in raw wood. Heating wood breaks down the molecular structure of hemicellulose, lingnin and cellulose that’s present. Heat converts hemicellulose into sugars and degrading lignin, releasing flavor compounds like vanillin, guaiacol, eugenol and phenols. By toasting at different temperatures and different amounts of time you can create different flavor profiles. Below is a chart that demonstrates the different flavors that can be achieved by toasting at specific temperatures for a 3 hour time period. Time will vary depending on if your toasting oak cubes, chips or staves. Obviously oak chips will toast much faster then a stave. It is best to toast for 1 hour then check your wood .
The diagram above illustrates how heat affects flavor characteristics that develop at various temperatures in American Oak wood chips. This chart is not entirely accurate as the exact levels of hemicellulose, lignin, cellulose and tannins present in the wood can vary the flavor profile shown above but it does give you a good idea of what to expect. If your interested in toasting your own wood chips, cubes or staves check out “How to Toast and Char Wood Chips At Home“
Charring Oak Wood Chips or Cubes for Aging Moonshine
Charring differs from toasting in that we physically burn the wood with an open flame until the wood becomes black. Charring forms new chemicals in the wood while destroying others, it opens pores into the wood increasing surface area in contact with the alcohol. This speeds up the maturation process of the final product and can contribute color, honey, vanillin, spice, and a wide range of other flavors to the final spirit. The charring created during this process acts like an activate carbon filter, eliminating sulfur compounds and various unwanted congeners in the distillate. But not all congerners are bad, in fact we want to maintain many of these flavors in the final spirit. Which is why we need to be careful of over charring, generally we want a low to medium Char.
How to Char your own oak chips, cubes or staves?
Using a propane touch lightly burn your wood cubes, chips or staves. Keep in mind the average oak barrel only burns for between 5 – 25 seconds. So be careful not to over char it.
3. Amount of time wood is left to soak in the moonshine ?
When moonshine is aged on oak that has been charred and toasted it is transformed from a harsh, burning distillate into a smooth often sweet whiskey. The amount of time required will depend on if your using chips, cubes or staves. But generally speaking the longer it ages on wood, the smoother and more flavorful it will become. Below you’ll find a rough guide to how long each should be left in your distillate as a minimum.
- Oak Chips – 20-30 grams per quart 2- 4 months
- Cubes – 1/2″ cubes 8 cubes per quart 3-6 months
- Staves – 6″ long by 1″ thick 3-12 months
You may find the oak chips will quickly add color and flavor but this does not mean your whiskey is ready to drink. It takes time for the harsh, burning flavor of the alcohol to be absorbed by the wood. Over oaking is possible with wood chips so it’s best to take a small sample every week or so to test the flavor. You may also want to split your moonshine up into several jars and vary the amount of oak cubes or chips you put in each one, this will allow you to experiment and see what you prefer. If you just can’t wait 3-12 months you can use a smoothing agent like glycerin to mellow the harshness of your moonshine. It’s cheating but I’ve had some good results with it.
Where should I store Aging Moonshine on Oak?
If your aging your moonshine on oak it’s best to keep it in a hot place that experience large temperature swings with periodically agitation. When the temperature rises whiskey is absorbed into the wood where it dissolves tannins, sugars and other flavor compounds. When the temperature falls the wood expels the whiskey as it contracts. This will speed up the aging process. Once you bottle your whiskey and remove the wood you should store in a dark, cool, dry place.
4. What proof to age and oak moonshine at ?
To age and oak whiskey or bourbon it’s best to dilute it to 100 – 130 proof (50 – 65 % ABV). There are two commonly used standards, I’d suggest you try both concentrations and compare the results to see which you prefer. Distillate should be diluted as follows:
- Dilute to 110 proof (55 % abv) the traditional American standard
- Dilute to 125 proof ( 62.5% abv) the traditional Scotch standard
Be mindful the more water you add, the more water soluble components can be extracted from the wood, if you drop below 100 proof the esterfication process is inhibited. The more alcohol added, the more oil soluble components can be extracted from the wood. A higher proof often tends to extract more tanins giving the spirit a sharpness. A lower proof tends to be softer and able to extract more vanillis. This is why the 110 -125 proof range has proven ideal for oaking whiskey.
Can I Age Whiskey In Glass?
All major distilleries age their whiskey in oak barrel but this doesn’t mean you can’t age your whiskey in glass. If you’re aging whiskey in glass it’s important to leave it open to the atmosphere, this will allow oxidation and off gassing of higher volatiles. There are three methods to aging whiskey in glass mason jars:
- Coffee Filter Method – Place a coffee filter over the top of the jar and screw on the mason jar ring over it.
- Cork Method – Purchase a few wide mouth cork stoppers for your mason jars or if your aging in a carboy loosely place cork stopper in top.
- Oak mason jar lids – You can make or buy a few oak mason jar lids and replace the standard steel lids.
Don’t forget to add some toasted wood cubes or chips to your jars.
How To Make Homemade Whiskey – Follow these 5 steps:
- Add 20 -30 grams of oak chips or 8 oak cubes per quart of whiskey diluted to 55% abv in glass jar.
- Place coffee filter over top of jar using an elastic band to keep in place, allow 1 -2 weeks for oxidation of volatile compounds to occur.
- Sample whiskey every 2 weeks by watering down to 40 % abv using a hydrometer. If desired flavor is achieved proceed to step 4, otherwise let stand for an additional 2 weeks. Sample again until required flavor is obtained. Oaking can take up to 3 months depending on the amount of flavor and color want.
- Place two coffee filters inside a funnel and poor the spirit into your aging container through the funnel and filter. This will remove wood chips and sediment from your whiskey. I use a 23 L glass carboy but you can also use an oak barrel but these are expensive.
- Place a cork lightly in the top of the carboy and put your final product in a dark cool room.
Here’s a video that show’s the process of adding Oak chips to a batch of homemade whiskey.
Aging Spirits With Glycerine
Proper aging of a whiskey or bourbon can take years, the quality whiskeys you buy in stores are aged for 10 + years before being consumed. It’s possible to get a similar taste and quality of sprite by artificially aging your spirit to smooth it out. Glycerine is used to accomplish this and can be purchased at your local Home brew store. Try adding a 1/2 oz to 40 oz of homemade whiskey before drinking. I won’t go into detail on how this all works as I’ve already done this in this article : How Glycerine Is Used To Age Homemade Moonshine
Flavouring and Infusions
I’ve also had fantastic results with flavouring spirits including vodka and whiskey with herbs, spices and fruits. If your feeling adventurous try adding cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla or maple syrup to a jar of whiskey. Just be careful how much you add because some can be overpowering. Also try adding strawberries, kiwi or mango’s to a jar of Vodka and leave it for 2 months to absorb the flavours .
I’d love to hear your method of aging your homemade moonshine just leave me a comment below. Also if you have any question on aging spirits feel free to ask I’ll do my best to help! Feel free to join our Facebook group too it’s a great place to network with like minded people.