Testing Exotic Woods with Bourbon Whiskey

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Bourbon aged in exotic woods

Soon after my previous post on Homebrewing with Exotic Woods, Amanda and I discussed how we would evaluate the flavor of the various woods we had acquired. It is simply not worth risking a whole batch of beer on an unknown factor!

We went back to an idea Amanda had when I was brewing my batch of Fig-Cherry Barleywine. Some commercial brewers are not just aging beer in oak barrels; they’re aging beer in oak barrels that used to contain other alcoholic delights. Why not apply this same technique when brewing at home?

The strategy was simple: instead of adding the oak chips directly to the barleywine, first soak them in bourbon for 2 or so weeks to simulate the “bourbon barrel” effect. Then add the soaked chips to the beer and see what happens.

Well, what happened to my barleywine is that it didn’t carbonate, most likely because I left it on the oak chips too long and it was too high of alcohol for the irish yeast I used. However, when we removed the oak chips from the bourbon we were left with some disgusting-looking black liquid that I was about to dump into the sink until Amanda bravely volunteered to drink it. She said it was amazing, and that we should re-age all of the bourbon in the house.

Flash forward to my set of 10 wood chips from Maine Grilling Woods. What better way to test their flavor then to subject several shots of Bulleit Bourbon to their influence?

Amanda took a small chip of each of the woods, did a medium toast in the toaster-oven, and dropped it into a small vessel with a shot of bourbon. These were labeled and left to sit for 2-3 weeks before the taste test commenced.

Taste testing the bourbons

Taste testing the bourbons

Similar to my Great American Beer Challenge, the tasting was done blindly so we didn’t know which wood we were tasting. The good news is that only one of the woods went bad, and that it was much better to find this out with a shot of bourbon than 5 gallons of beer. Otherwise each of the woods lent noticibly different flavors and aromas to the bourbon that will hopefully exhibit themselves in beer as well. On with the results:

1. Acadian Oak

I found the acadian oak to have a fairly mild but pleasant flavor. Amanda wrote about brown sugar and maple flavors. So overall the standard aging wood earned a passing grade.

2. Downeast Hickory

The hickory had a rich wood flavor that I really enjoyed. Amanda wrote that it was not as sweet as the oak, with strong evergreen and floral notes. Also she said it tasted a bit like paint thinner.

3. Golden Alder

Watch out Mr. Yuk!

Mr. Yuk

Mr. Yuk

This is the one that went bad. I didn’t even taste it after Amanda had to spit it out.

4. Mountain Mesquite

This one was another winner, with its dark rich wood taste. Amanda picked up on pine and molasses flavors.

5. Northern Nutwood

I found the nutwood to be buttery and rich. Amanda found a mild sweetness with hint of caramel. It also had a bit of smokiness.

6. North Atlantic Olive

The olive had a raw wood but sweet flavor.  Amanda found vanilla and evergreen notes, but did not taste the same sweetness.

7. Sugar Maple

The maple had a very mild flavor that may not exhibit itself at all in beer. It was not clear if the bourbon took on any different flavor because of this. It had a clean and crisp finish.

8. Black Cherry

Black cherry had a great vanilla scent and flavor. I picked up on a bit of raw wood flavor as well.

9. White Cedar

You know that cedar chest that your grandma has? Your beer can taste just like that. I found the cedar to be bitter and tannic, with a hint of buttery. Amanda thought it had the most strongly imbued wood character.

10. Wild Apple

The apple was a little bit sour and raw. Amanda tasted a hint of pecan or other sweet nut. There were hints of sweet/fruity and astringent as well.

Conclusions

The bourbon taste test let us eliminate a couple of the woods that would perform so well (Golden Alder, Wild Apple, Cedar) and let some others percolate to the top. My favorites of the night were the hickory, mesquite, and nutwood. I also liked the olive and cherry quite a bit. Amanda preferred the oak, nutwood, and cherry.

My next batch of beer is going to be a chocolate brown porter, which will be aged with one of these lucky chip varietals!

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9 Responses to Testing Exotic Woods with Bourbon Whiskey

  1. Brandon says:

    That’s very interesting. Thanks (again) for sharing the results. What kind of whiskey did you use for this? How long and at what temperature were the chips in the toaster oven?

  2. pinchaque says:

    I used Bulleit Bourbon whiskey. For toasting the chips they each were a bit different and I didn’t record the exact data. Basically I just hit “toast” until they started to brown around the edges. This was just one chip in the middle of the toaster-oven. For multiple chips you would likely have to move them around to ensure even toasting.

  3. Brandon says:

    Cool. Thanks for clarifying. I’ll have to give this a try sometime. Cheers.

  4. Pingback: Brewing Chocolate Porter with Northern Nutwood « Chuck Smith's Blog

  5. Pingback: Brewing with Cedar

  6. katie says:

    Hello! I want to give this a shot – were you using the “chips”, or the “chunks” from Maine Grilling Woods? The chips look pretty small in their product picture, but it’s hard to say.

  7. pinchaque says:

    I used the chips. They seem to be about the same size as the oak chips I’ve bought at my local homebrew. The exact product name was “Maine Grilling Chip (Smoking Wood Chips) Sampler” although their site seems to be down at the moment…

  8. katie says:

    OK – thanks!
    I almost ordered from them, I want to try first with Mesquite – I’m not sure how close their Mountain Mesquite is to southwestern Honey Mesquite, so I ended up ordering NorthWoods Smokes honey mesquite chips. I’ll report back in on the taste – would be interesting to see if there’s a difference between the mountain Mesquite & the honey Mesquite…

  9. John Bizga says:

    California Redwood? Is it possible?

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