For literally thousands of years, wooden barrels have been used to store, transport, age, and flavor alcoholic beverages of all types. From beer to wine to spirits, humans have relied on barrel aging to give their alcohol that last bit of perfection. However, the purpose of using wood barrels wasn’t for aging in the beginning, but more for storage, and the idea of barrel aging for taste was an unexpected result.
Long ago in ancient Mesopotamia, people used palm wood to fashion barrels used to store alcohol. However, palm wood is difficult to bend into barrels, and by the time the Roman Empire had come to fruition, the use of oak barrels had become the most prevalent form of storage.
Regardless of the type of alcohol stored, distillers soon realized that oak barrel aging made their beverages less harsh, better tasting, and added individuality to their particular process.
Because oak is a relatively porous wood, it allows for a certain amount of evaporation and oxygenation, but not to the extent that oxidation (the same process that causes rust to form on metals) or spoiling occurs.
When a certain amount of evaporation is allowed, some alcohol and water is removed, leaving more of the natural taste of the liquid behind. In the case of wine aging, the small bit of oxygen that makes into the barrel acts upon the tannins in the wine, making it softer to ingest and giving it a more pleasurable taste overall.
Alcohol can be fermented in oak barrels, or it can be aged in oak barrels after fermentation. There is an important distinction to be made between the two processes, particularly that alcohol which is fermented and then aged in the oak will take on more of the taste characteristics of the wood than if it were just fermented in it.
The effects of oak on alcohol are exceptionally prevalent when working with wine as the phenols in the oak produce a chemical reaction that gives the wine a bit of vanilla flavor and/or extra sweetness. The amount of char on a barrel also affects the tannin levels, and the ellagitannins in wood provide an extra layer of protection against oxidation and reduction.
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