Jeremy Kasler

The rise of barrel finished bourbons and whiskeys

If you’ve spent any time in the bourbon and whiskey aisle at your favorite liquor store lately, you may have noticed an abundance of new brands and releases, which is a great sign the industry is thriving. But some of these new bottles display some interesting information when you get to actually reading the labels: “finished in sherry casks,” or “finished in port wine barrels,” or “finished in Caribbean rum casks.” These finished bourbons are on the rise, but do they improve the bourbon and are they here to stay?

According to a recent article in Whisky Advocate, barrel finishing is common in the scotch world and has been for decades, but it’s a relatively new trend in the American whiskey category, which, of course, includes bourbon. According to writer Susannah Skiver Barton, aging bourbon for a few weeks or months in a secondary cask (typically that once held another type of spirit) can elevate the bourbon in subtle ways. 

“The enjoyment of finished bourbon has gained steam in the decade since Angel’s Envy debuted as the first widely available example of the style. Today dozens of finishes, from port, tequila, and armagnac, to chardonnay and rhum agricole, offer bourbon lovers an array of new flavors to explore—and the opportunity to dive deep into geekdom by sipping the finished bourbon alongside the spirit or wine type whose barrels were used in the finishing.”

Susannah Skiver Barton, Whisky Advocate

The article goes through some popular brands that represent each style of finish: sherry, port, red wine, brandy, etc. And it seems distillers are being quite adventurous with this category, sometimes even choosing to finish bourbon in used beer casks.

I’ve tried many finished bourbons over the years and have my favorites. I think the category is here to stay, because as the popularity of American whiskey continues to soar, so does the tastes and preferences of those buying it. I believe we will continue to see more brands from new distilleries, new methods of innovation, and new finished bourbons that are both creative and tasty.

Bourbon is evolving just as people’s tastes are evolving, and with creative distillers and companies open to experimentation, we as consumers can only benefit. That’s not to say the traditional bourbons are going away. Luckily there’s room on the shelf for all of these and plenty of fans of both tradition and innovation.

Since we’re on the topic, here are some of my favorite finished American bourbons and whiskeys. 

Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s Phifer Pavitt Reserve

Bardstown Bourbon Co. has devoted an entire line to finished bourbons and whiskeys with its popular Collaborative Series. They’ve released several products in that category, from whiskey finished in Destillare Orange Curacao casks to Spanish Olorosa Sherry casks to Founder’s Brewing Co.’s KBS Stout barrels. This one mentioned here was the first release in the Collaborative Series, and it consisted of 9-year-old Tennessee Whiskey finished for 19 months in used Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. The result? Bold notes of chocolate, raisin and even some blackberries. I just wish I could get my hands on another bottle.

Angel’s Envy Rye

Angel’s Envy was built on barrel finishes, since both of its core products are whiskeys finished in secondary barrels. The rye whiskey expression spends up to 18 months in Caribbean rum casks, creating a whiskey that is so unique, rich and decadent that I often have it for dessert. It’s so delicious and sweet that even a whiskey novice could drink it neat without flinching. Do yourself a favor and try this one if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.

Angel's Envy Rye

Angel’s Envy is all about barrel finishes. | Courtesy

2018 Parker’s Heritage Collection

This annual release shows off new innovations at the Heaven Hill Distillery, but the 2018 iteration experimented with bourbon finished in barrels from France that once held French orange curaçao. The result is a bright whiskey that definitely has notes of orange essence, but it’s a great balance that doesn’t overpower the traditional bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla and baking spices. This made for an excellent after-dinner sipper.

291 “M” Colorado Whiskey

A friend of mine shared a sample of this Colorado whiskey finished in used maple syrup barrels, and it was quite a treat! Created by the innovative people at 291 Colorado Whiskey, this “M” release took fully mature 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey and then finished it in 291 barrels previously used to barrel-age maple syrup. As you can imagine, the whiskey has those wonderful maple notes on the finish, but it also expresses toasted oak, toffee and fig flavors. A very unique product from a distillery to keep your eye on.

Jefferson’s Rye Finished in Cognac Casks

Jefferson’s Bourbon is known for doing some interesting things to its bourbon and whiskey, as this is the company that puts bourbon barrels on a ship and sends it out to sea (for the Jefferson’s Ocean line). But this product has been one of my favorites, as it takes Jefferson’s Straight Rye Whiskey and finishes it in used Cognac casks. The flavors coming out of this bottle include subtle spice, nutmeg and even some citrus. And, believe it or not, I get a lot of honey on the finish. A wonderful experiment with great results.