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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

What's with Barrel Char?

There are plenty of legends when it comes to charred barrels. One tale is that of Elijah Craig and how his barn caught fire burning only the inside of the barrel. I've seen my share of fires, but never one that discriminates. In reality, America's first spirits producers, being a frugal lot and wanting to reuse a barrel that may have contained salted fish or beef, probably charred the barrel to eliminate the odor. In reality though, they added a new dimension to the taste of the corn liquor that became America's Native Spirit.

Loaded with Flavor

Experts share that somewhere between 50% and 80% of bourbon's flavor comes from the barrel. But what does charring wood add to the flavor of the bourbon?

Cellulose in the wood fibers break down into wood sugars, adding toffee, brown sugar or caramel that are signature notes in bourbon. To wrap your head around this, think about a marshmallow, fresh out of the bag, versus one on stick, thrust into the campfire that catches flame, is blown out, and consumed. Beyond the crunchy sensation, the sugary notes are intensified by toasting.

In addition, lignin in the wood offer vanilla, smoke, and spice. More lightly charred barrels may even have lactones remaining that can offer some coconut and woody notes. You'll see the range of char levels in the picture below from our visit to Lux Row Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. The piece on the left is the original wood, followed left to right by increasing char levels.

Char Levels

Bourbon barrels are typically toasted between 15 and 55 seconds. While many spirits producers toast a barrel, charred barrels are burned and closely resemble the wood in your fire pit after extinguishing the embers. Bourbon barrels can be charred longer than those listed below, as too much charring eliminates some of the more desirable color and flavors.

Level 1 - 15 seconds

This short-duration char is closer to toasted than charred. This can work for bourbons that are not aged long, allowing more color and oaky characteristics to be imparted. Few distilleries use this char level.

Level 2 - 30 seconds

This level is another that isn't typically used by distilleries, at least as for their primary barrels. Some distilleries will use this toasted barrel to finish bourbon in a second barrel. Some vanilla and caramel notes will be present as well as coconut flavors.

Level 3 - 35 seconds

While only 5 seconds separate Level 2 from Level 3, you'll see some major differences. Bourbons aged in these barrels will be nicely balanced, with caramel, brown sugar, toffee, along with baking spices and earthier notes. You'll start to see more visual signs of charring in the wood at this level.

Level 4 - 55 seconds

Some distillers will refer to this as "alligator char" as the inside of the barrel begins to resemble the shiny, slick pattern of alligator hide. The wood surface begins to peel, exposing more surface area for the bourbon to mingle with the distillate. Bourbons aged in these barrels exhibit more vanilla and deeper notes, such as leather or dark fruit (like plum or fig).

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