For centuries, whiskey has been celebrated for its intensity, depth and incredible versatility. With well-established roots in places like Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Canada, and (of course) here at home in Kentucky and Tennessee, whiskey’s identity continues to evolve based on where it is distilled and how it’s aged.
Much of the flavor depth in a whiskey comes from its interaction with wood in the aging or finishing processes. The malted barley or grain spirit is typically aged in toasted or charred barrels for months or years before it is ready to be consumed. While bourbon must legally be aged in new oak casks or barrels, other whiskies have fewer restrictions and can be aged in vessels that previously held other liquids. Those primary casks or barrels most often held bourbon, but sometimes whiskey is aged in sherry, port, Madeira, or red wine barrels. And many types of whiskey, including bourbon, can be “finished,” meaning that the whiskey spends a few additional months in a secondary vessel after aging. Finishing the whiskey in a barrel that has been in contact with other liquids adds new dimensions of flavor, providing a unique body and finish to the final product.
For wine lovers, it’s a match made in heaven: Whiskies aged or finished in flavorful red wine barrels offer the appeal of wine flavors (red and black fruit, herbs, spices) and textures (acidity, tannins, body), in a format that packs a punch. But the process requires a little bit more than just throwing whiskey in a barrel and letting gravity do its work, so we reached out to producers to understand the varying approaches.
BIG, BOLD AUSSIE FLAVOR
David Vitale, the founder of Starward Australian Whisky, took a different approach to making whiskey, creating a product intended for consumption at the dinner table. A native of Melbourne, Vitale was very aware of the rich wine culture of Australia, and wanted to discover how to connect with wine consumers who may not have immediately considered drinking whiskey.
“The whole philosophy behind Starward was this idea of something that’s quite approachable and accessible, both in terms of flavor price point, and availability,” Vitale says. “So, leaning into red wines kind of gave us an ability for there to be a bit of familiarity. There’s something exciting about a whisky made from the New World — from Australia — that speaks to the place it’s made and we want to do that by celebrating wine barrels.”
A departure from other whiskies on the market, Starward not only finishes — but also ages — its whiskies entirely in red wine barrels. Starward’s Nova Single Malt and Two-Fold Double Grain are both aged in barrels from Yalumba and Penfolds, two well-known Australian wineries that specialize in Shiraz, Cabernets, and Pinot Noir. Starward has a winemaker on staff who manages the barrel program and connects with the winery’s coopers to select the best barrels for the whiskey based on the wood policy. Within days of being emptied, red wine casks are delivered to the distillery to begin the process of aging that provides a unique flavor profile that isn’t often found in the world of whiskey.
HOMEGROWN IN OREGON
In Oregon, Westward Whiskey is also taking advantage of the red wine casks in its backyard, as well as partnering with local wineries that reflect similar approaches to production.
“I think Pinot Noir is a great variety for Westward because so many of the flavors are similar and complementary,” says Micah Anderson, Westward Whiskey’s Oregon brand ambassador. “Our whiskey displays some very rich dark berry notes and a hint of spice and chocolate. These flavors are complemented by the dark fruit notes in Pinot Noir.”
Westward partners with Suzor Wines, a small-production vineyard owned by Greg McClellan and Melissa Rondeau in the Willamette Valley that focuses on sustainability.
“It is important for us at Westward to partner with local wineries that are doing things similar to how we do them,” Anderson says. “They practice a minimal approach, just like we do, and focus on producing layered and vibrant flavors — which is how we at Westward approach our whiskey-making process.”
Westward and Starward are just a few of the dozens of whiskey makers around the world trying their hand at wine-cask aging or finishing as a way to enhance flavor.
5 RED WINE-CASKED WHISKEYS TO TRY:
Drawing its influence from the “big red” wines from southeastern Australia, Starward goes big with full maturation in red wine barrels to create a light and fruity whiskey with a long and spicy finish, similar to some of the country’s award-winning wines.
Robust aromas of apricot, plum, chocolate, and leather are supporting characters in this whiskey’s storyline. The whiskey is finished for about a year in Pinot Noir casks that were made from toasted French limousin oak.
In collaboration with The Prisoner Wine Company, this 9-year-old Tennessee whiskey is finished in red wine barrels made from French oak. In the finished whiskey, flavors of blackberry and black cherry play well with rich aromatics of vanilla, honey, and spice.
As the first whiskey produced in metropolitan Phoenix since Prohibition, this spirit has some serious bragging rights. The team at Arizona Distilling Company finishes its bourbon in French oak Cabernet wine barrels.
“The Great One” added his Midas touch to give Canada another reason to be proud. The whiskey is finished in red wine casks that come directly from Gretzky’s winery, with notes of nuttiness, stone fruit, and warm nutmeg.