The Bustling Bourbon Barrel Aftermarket

Pop Culture
The secondary market for bourbon barrels has boosted their price to over $100. (B. Badgett/Wikimedia Commons)

The used bourbon barrel market has never been stronger.

Used barrels once fetched a measly $15 for secondary usage. Now the used barrels command upwards of $125 to $400. Scotch and Irish whiskey producers have long purchased used bourbon barrels, but distillers have found new avenues during bourbon’s latest boom. These secondary markets range from Bourbon Barrel Foods, aging Soy Sauce and other food products in used barrels, to the Historic Pen Company, which manufactures pens out of used bourbon barrels.

There’s no shortage of bourbon barrel-aged beers, but recent years have shown a cobranding trend between bourbons and beers – Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout and District ChopHouse Bourbon Stout aged in Old Grand-Dad Barrels are two that come to mind. And now, tequila is cobranding its bottles with popular bourbon brands. Recently, Buffalo Trace’s parent company, Sazerac, announced the launch of Expresiones del Corazón, with four of the five expressions aged in used whiskey barrels.

Expresiones del Corazón includes a Reposado aged in Buffalo Trace barrels and three Anejos aged in Old Rip Van Winkle, George T. Stagg and Sazerac ryes respectively.

“When we were sending these barrels to Mexico, we didn’t know how this would turn out,” says David Grapshi, Sazerac’s tequila sales manager, who led this initiative.

Amazingly, the sweeter and spicier bourbon profiles, especially in the Stagg and Sazerac, come through amidst the agave spirit. But you won’t find bourbon notes in a bottle of Tabasco, one of the pioneers for using bourbon barrels. Tabasco’s regular pepper sauce is aged for three years in oak; it’s Reserve sauce spends eight years in the barrel. Since bourbon is essentially the only industry still using oak that’s deemed Kosher, Tabasco purchases all of its barrels from whiskey companies.

When the used barrels arrive in the hot Louisiana warehouse, the workers will fill with water and sweat them. They’ve been known to keep their own used barrel blend around – “until they get caught,” says Took Osborn, vice president of operations at Tabasco.

Unofficial barrel sweating aside, Tabasco workers grind out the char, place their own metal hoops around the barrel, and create a valve on the barrelhead to allow the mash to ferment. They add salt to the barrelhead, too, to form a hard crust when fermentation is complete. After Tabasco adds vinegar in the manufacturing process, one barrel of pepper mash yields 10,000 2-ounce bottles. And much like the bourbon-making process, there’s no speeding up the aging process.

“We’ve tried bulk aging, aging in fiber glass and different containers, but that wood barrel is what works best for us,” Osborn says. “The mash breathes in the wood." 

Also like bourbon, the Tabasco barrels absorb much of the product’s essence. Over the Tabasco barrel lifetime of 55 to 80 years, that’s a lot of pepper mash.

“We’ve tried to make hot tubs out of used barrels and you can never get the heat fully out of the wood,” Osborn says. “I can tell you that from personal experience a hot tub is not good to make out of an old Tabasco barrel.”

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