A legend in the industry, Lincoln Henderson developed several renowned brands during his four decades at Brown-Forman, before retiring in 2004. A couple years later, his son Wes approached him with an idea to start their own family bourbon brand. After a lifetime of working for massive distilleries, Lincoln wanted to flex his creative muscles in a way he’d never been allowed to commercially. His first thought? Finishing bourbon in ruby port casks imported from Portugal.
It was certainly an unorthodox idea for Angel’s Envy’s flagship product, which would first be released in 2011.
“This was a bourbon sin, punishable by a thousand angry tweets and cries for product boycotts,” joked whiskey writer Fred Minnick in a Forbes article.
His gamble would pay off, though. Angel’s Envy Port Finish was critically lauded and quickly defined the distillery’s ethos (motto: “When other bourbons stop, Angel’s Envy finishes”). A brand ahead of its time, the Louisville producer released a Caribbean rum-finished rye in 2013 as well as oloroso sherry, tawny port, Madeira, ice cider, and mizunara cask finishes over the ensuing decade, leading to sales that are still going up 48 percent over the last year.
“I certainly did not think that we would only release finished whiskey when we started the brand,” says Kyle Henderson, the late Lincoln’s grandson and Angel’s Envy’s production manager and senior blender. “But as we continued to innovate and explore new finishes, and the market began to know us for our finishes, we made a decision to continue along that path.”
Over the last five years, countless others in the American whiskey industry have followed that same path and we are suddenly in the midst of an explosion of finished whiskeys.
Many critics have begun to wonder, however, if this trend has begun to jump the shark.
The Beginning of Finishing
When we talk about “finishing,” we’re referring to the second (or even third) barrel or cask that a whiskey goes into after its initial maturation. For that reason it is also known as secondary maturation and generally credited as beginning in 1983. David Stewart, master distiller for Scottish single malt brand Balvenie, put some fully aged whisky into sherry butts for an additional year. Balvenie Classic, as it was known before taking the name DoubleWood, was a hit, eventually inspiring a generation of avant garde distillers.
“It’s been a valid tool for reshaping single malts for about as long as I can remember,” says Lance Winters, the president and master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., where he’s been since 1996. “For a big whiskey producer, it’s a much quicker path to a new product than starting from the mash bill up.”
One early practitioner was Dr. Bill Lumsden, a wine connoisseur, biochemist, and, by 1995, Glenmorangie’s distillery manager. Over the past two decades-plus, he has experimented with a range of finishing barrels, using everything from fino sherry and Sauternes to Tokaji dessert wine. Despite the acclaim for those, the idea of finishing in the American bourbon industry mostly remained unexplored, with occasional oddball releases near the turn of the century.
Notably, there was 1999’s Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, 16-year-old bourbon finished in Fussigny Cognac casks. Only 5,000 bottles were available and it was packaged in a French crystal decanter; at an MSRP of $250, though, it mostly sat on shelves gathering dust. It has since become a cult classic now seen as well ahead of its time. By 2002, a second Distiller’s Masterpiece — 20 years old and finished in tawny and vintage port casks from California’s Geyser Peak Winery — was critically acclaimed, but the bourbon world still wasn’t quite ready for it.
“Bourbon was still a slow sell because we hadn’t run through all the flavors of vodka yet. Cinnabon-flavored vodka and the like,” Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe cracked in a 2018 piece recalling that initial Distiller’s Masterpiece release.
By the early 2010s, thanks to Angel’s Envy and a few other American pioneers, finishing was finally starting to make inroads in America. The third edition of Distiller’s Masterpiece — finished in PX sherry casks — would arrive in 2013 and, on this occasion, it was an immediate hit that sold swiftly.
Around the same time, many upstart craft whiskey brands were hitting the scene and, with so many new products battling it out at liquor stores, they had to figure out a way to differentiate themselves — especially since many were using the same MGP-sourced bourbons and ryes. For many, the solution was finishing.
Two of the earliest finished sensations would be from Utah’s High West, which offered A Midwinter Night’s Dram, MGP-sourced rye finished in port and French oak barrels in 2014, and Yippee Ki-Yay, MGP- and Barton-sourced rye finished in vermouth and Syrah barrels in 2015. Both allocated, and tasting like no other American whiskey out there, they quickly showed that finished whiskey could turn a fairly standard product — like the brand’s own Rendezvous Rye — into a highly sought-after release.
But insiders were already becoming skeptical.
“Barrel finished whiskey is becoming more and more popular. It adds a flair of excitement and separation from the masses. ‘Look at all those ryes… but wait, this one is barrel finished!’” wrote Nick Beiter of Breaking Bourbon upon A Midwinter Night’s Dram’s 2014 release, while offering a warning that would prove prescient: “Although different, barrel finished does not necessarily mean good. It’s the equivalent of adding some flavoring to our whiskey, just in a more romantic way than simply measuring and dumping.”
In the Midst of Finishing
Nonetheless, by 2018 finishing had become so zeitgeist-y that I dedicated an entire chapter in my book, “Hacking Whiskey: Smoking, Blending, Fat Washing, and Other Whiskey Experiments,” to the concept. In it, I detailed the more ubiquitous finishes (sherry, port, Cognac) then on the market, while speculating on some more obscure finishing ideas that I believed legitimate distilleries would surely never try. How silly I was.
Within the year my book was released we would see the release of whiskeys aged in barrels that had formerly held honey (Belle Meade), cold brew coffee (Virginia Distillery Co.), and even Tabasco sauce (George Dickel).
An explosion of stranger-than-the-next finished whiskeys was taking place, and I was even a participant in this arms race myself, teaming with WhistlePig and Shacksbury for a cider-finished rye in 2018; with Finger Lakes Distilling to make an ice wine-finished rye in 2019; and with Columbus’s Watershed Distillery for a nocino-finished bourbon in 2020.
Today, it seems just about every major brand has a finished product, and the variety of finishing barrels is staggering. The rise of multinational conglomerates has made it easy for whiskey distilleries to source barrels from other brands working in other categories in their portfolio.
Jim Beam offers Legent, bourbon aged in wine and sherry casks before being blended “Japanese style.” Heaven Hill has their annual Parker’s Heritage Collection, an allocated series that has seen both bourbon and ryes finished in everything from Cognac casks to orange curaçao barrels. While Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep series has produced One, a toasted barrel finish, and Revival, a 20-year-old bourbon finished in oloroso sherry casks.
In late 2020, the Sazerac Company launched an entire finished line, the Thomas S. Moore collection. The first three “ultra-premium” releases were “extended cask finished” in, respectively, port, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. Despite the modest $69.99 price tag and despite the fact that anything Sazerac releases is greedily snapped up by collectors, the so-so-reviewed bourbons mostly sat on shelves. Nevertheless, four new Thomas S. Moore finishes were released earlier this year.
Let Me Finish
For smaller whiskey brands, oddball finishes have seemingly become a quick and easy way to stand out. If something has ever been aged in a barrel before, you can bet that barrel will eventually be used to finish whiskey.
“We tend to look at barrels like picture frames,” says Winter. “They should be able to surround and accentuate a picture that you’ve put a lot of time and energy into.”
That’s how, in 2015, on the verge of bottling his first batch of Baller, a Japanese-style whiskey designed for highballs, Winters started thinking about a small batch of umeshu, a Japanese plum liqueur that St. George had just produced.
“It had some commonalities with sherry: sweetness, nuttiness, acidity,” recalls Winters. The morning before the scheduled bottling, he poured some umeshu into a glass, emptied it out, and then poured some Baller in. “At that moment, we knew that we had to postpone the bottling (by about 18 months) so that we could make enough umeshu to have some finishing barrels.”
Winters’s intuition was correct. The umeshu’s sherry-like characteristics along with its bright lychee fruit notes helped to balance the smokiness of the whiskey. Baller remains a cult hit to this day and arguably America’s best single malt.
But strange barrel finishes aren’t always so good.
“It’s really about adding flavors to the bourbon, usually to cover up flaws in the sourced whiskey,” says Wade Woodard, an industry gadfly who frequently rails against the practice. In many cases, bold wines or spirits can be used to cover up the off taste of young or downright bad whiskeys, creating products that are overly “wine-y” or grossly cloying, in the case of one rum-finished bourbon I recently tasted.
Woodard suspects this could even be because factory-produced flavor packets are secretly added to some finished whiskeys. Everyone knows that bourbon cannot legally have any added flavoring. But, according to the TTB, most finished whiskeys are actually filed under class type 641, “whiskey specialties,” and those are allowed to have up to 2.5 percent HCFBM (harmless coloring flavoring blending material) without any further label disclosure. This is why Woodard thinks chicanery is occurring.
“They might as well just dump a gallon of port into the bourbon barrel,” he says.
While not as underhanded, some of the more gimmicky whiskey finishes hitting the market lately (ahem, “Big Papi” baseball bat-finished whiskey) seem less about creating a tasty product, and more for getting viral press from people like me.
I can attest to this desire first hand. In 2019, in an effort to promote “Hacking Whiskey,” I talked Texas’s Treaty Oak Distilling into making a series of exceedingly strange finished whiskeys to be offered at my Austin book signing. Some, like a barrel-aged gin finished rye, were stellar and would quickly become a commercial release; while a bone marrow- finished bourbon — roasted beef bones were literally shoved in the barrel’s bung hole — was so bad the distillery had no choice but to dump the resulting liquid down the drain and write it off as a loss.
I did get good press, however.
The Finish of Finishing
Then there’s Starward, an Australian whiskey brand that exclusively ages its single malt in local red wine barrels. Founded in 2009, it’s quickly splashed onto the world scene while even admitting it used unique barrel maturation to get attention.
“If I’ve got a Balvenie, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Laphroaig already on the shelf, why does Starward have permission to exist?” asks Starward founder David Vitale. He wondered what he could do differently that would still taste great and resonate with consumers. “Wine barrels were an obvious area because no one was really exploring that in the way I wanted to.”
What he means is fully aging his whiskey in wine barrels, not just finishing it. He’s of the belief that the reason so many finished products aren’t great is not because of the finishing wine or spirit, but because that second hit of oak causes the whiskey to lose all its nuance. He compares many finishes to “spreading peanut butter over top of a delicate spirit.”
Vitale believes that a finishing barrel actually needs more than just a year or so to integrate. Starward, which now claims the largest wine barrel-aged whiskey volume in the world, ages its single malt for its entire maturation span — around four years — in Aussie Shiraz, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, or even Apera fortified wine barrels.
“Winemakers use barrels for different reasons,” says Vitale. “Understanding the wood policy of winemakers is critical to our success.”
The proof is in the pudding. Despite the relatively youthful ages, releases like Octave Barrels, aged in Yalumba’s The Octavius Shiraz barrels, are incredibly flavorful, complex, and unique, while remaining balanced in a way so many other wine-finished whiskeys are not.
“I get why people are turned off by barrel finishing,” says Vitale. “That’s why we always try to explain:
“‘It’s not a finish. It’s a start.’”