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Make Bourbon Barrel Less Bourbony

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JustinTG

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Hello, First time poster and new winemaker here.

This season, my cousin and I are taking over the "old guard" of family winemaking and making a barrel of wine from Lodi/Northern Valley Syrah and Grenache.

We have access to used bourbon barrels and will be both fermenting and aging in barrels. Typically, the old guard (my parents, uncles and grandfather, think old-time Italian Americans that have been doing this since crushing grapes with feet was the norm) seemed to embrace both the bourbon aroma and char that these imparted but that is not something I typically gravitate toward and instead would prefer something closer to a neutral oak.

I do not feel comfortable completely reconditioning the barrel so I was planning on doing a cleaning procedure first with sodium carbonate (soda ash) and then citric acid. However, I am not a chemist and I don't know if the soda ash will be effective in neutralizing some of the bourbon and char flavors or if it is just useful for killing organic matter. Furthermore, I keep reading that soda ash is kind of a "last resort" and am wondering if I should avoid it all together. However, if I am ok with neutral oak, it seems I shouldn't mind the soda ash treatment. On the other hand, we do have someone that can take the barrel apart and reconstruct so if another solution and some elbow grease would do, I think I'd prefer that.

That said, I guess my question is, can I use a soda ash solution to remove some of the bourbon and char flavor from a used bourbon barrel if I am aiming at neutral oak.

Thanks for the help and looking forward to contributing more to these informative forums
 

Jay A

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Justin, much like yourself the "Guard" placed whiskey barrels in my hands. If not mistaken they were 5 years old at the time & would still impart that bourbon taste. Very frustrating, I never cared for that flavor. Most of my family was used to it.

I tried everything at the time which was close to 30 years ago. ID Carlson had a product called barrelklean, I would fill both up with hot water put in a piece of heavy stainless steel chain & roll them down my 130' driveway. The neighbors thought I was crazy!

Lots of charcoal came out, rinsed, stored them with citric acid/sulfite mixture. Smell was gone, wine would go in in October, rack & taste through winter all good. Come late spring right after MLF, whiskey wine was back. Very frustrating for me. Not sure if those barrels can ever become neutral.

Way too risky IMO, why go through all that work & expense.
 

JustinTG

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Thanks for sharing your experience. Interesting that it took so long for the bourbon to come through. This year, we're out of time so we'll have to do our best with the barrels.

One thing that might be different is that we're going to inoculate with malo and *hopefully* it completes before winter. Maybe with some careful monitoring we can bottle early if we sense bourbon creeping in.

Thanks again for your response and I'll make sure to report back.
 

stickman

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The main issue with those type of barrels is that they have been charred. I think it's best to remove the char, though many people don't bother. One of the heads needs to be removed so you can have easy access to scrape off the charred layer. There are plenty of barrel maintenance procedures online, but getting the head re-installed properly without leaks can still be tricky. My father in law also used Bourbon barrels, he actually liked the slight Bourbon flavor in his wine, but the barrels did seem to go neutral after a couple of years of use.
 

JustinTG

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Thanks for the insight and I had a feeling the culprit would be the char as much as the bourbon.

I'm toying with trying to work with people to get the head off but I am no cooper and weighing my risks. Since we're also fermenting in barrels, I might try to get the head off of one barrel and if I can reseal it, I'll use it for aging. Otherwise we'll use it for the ferment.
 
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JustinTG

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Thanks.

I managed to get the top off relatively easy today (though I'm sure getting it on is harder) and as expected, it is a dark char (see attached). I'm going to give it some elbow grease but not sure how much that will matter.
 

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JustinTG

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Just to update in case anyone else has similar questions, I wound up putting the head back on and just cleaning all three barrels with a soda ash (600g~1 cup per barrel) and then citric acid soak (~ 1/2 cup per barrel, forgot the exact weight) with a lot of shaking and rinsing. We fermented in two of the barrels and have since racked out without any noticable bourbon/ excessive char flavor. Actually did a saignee rose that is coming out light with no significant color impact from the charred barrel.

So I guess that's to say i wasn't disappointed to ferment in bourbon oak. We'll see what happens after 6 month of aging.
 

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