About this project
Home barrel aging, without the barrel.
Whiskey Lab is a unique vessel that allows you to explore barrel aging at home, without the inconvenience and expense of storing a full-sized, 53 gallon (200 L) barrel. Like the full-sized barrels that distillers use, we toast and char our wood Barrelheads to your desired level. Our Barrelheads are available in both French and American oak. And Whiskey Lab is both practical and beautiful—with a polished, stainless steel body, laser graphics, custom silicone stopper and pouring spout, and a glass viewing bulb for you to show off and share your creations. Whiskey Lab is sure to earn a place of pride both in your cellar and on your bar.
The short answer is, very simply. Just fill Whiskey Lab with your choice of un-aged whiskey, also known as white dog. White dog whiskeys are widely available at many liquor stores. You can also experiment with other spirits, beer, wine, or even vinegar. Then sit back, and let Whiskey Lab and time take care of the rest. Sample your creation as it ages as often as you like. Keep in mind that the more often you sample, the sooner you will have to fill Whiskey Lab up again. Of course, this is not a bad problem to have.
But really, how does it work?
The long answer is that it is the combination of wood, oxygen, and time that creates the wonderful flavors that we associate with wood aging. Soluble compounds from the wood dissolve into your whiskey over time. Small amounts of oxygen can also travel through the wood. The wood compounds react with the oxygen, gradually imparting color and changing the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel of the whiskey.
Want to learn more? See our "Getting Technical" section below.
What makes Whiskey Lab different from mini barrels or wood-aging sticks?
When we first tried wood-aging whiskey at home we started with mini barrels and wood-aging sticks. These products promise to give you fine wood-aged flavors in just a few days or weeks. After waiting and tasting, we found ourselves disappointed with the experience and results. These products imparted color and wood flavor, but the balance and complexity of the fine whiskeys that we enjoyed were missing. And after waiting longer, the flavor from the wood became overpowering without ever really becoming enjoyable. Wood-aging sticks and mini-barrels maximize the wood surface area that is in contact with your whiskey—leading to quick results—but oxygen and time are also needed to transform robust wood flavors to the nuanced vanilla, spice, coconut, and sweet notes that we are also looking for. Glass bottles don’t “breathe” like real barrels—so aging sticks don’t work because there’s not enough oxygen present. On the other hand, mini barrels "breathe," but the large surface area means that you have to take the whiskey out of a mini barrel sooner because if you didn’t, the wood flavor would be overwhelming; there isn't enough time to develop the complexity of flavor. Mini barrels also have a lot of evaporation, so you don’t get much in the end.
The reason that Whiskey Lab works so well is because it isn’t all wood. Whiskey Lab keeps the ratio of liquid-to-wood similar to a full-sized whiskey barrel using a polished stainless steel body with a custom toasted and charred wood Barrelhead. The wood Barrelhead "breathes," allowing some oxygen to pass through, while the stainless steel body minimizes excess evaporation. The liquid-to-wood ratio is the key to developing balanced flavors—by keeping this proportion similar to a full-sized barrel, the wood flavor compounds diffuse into your whiskey more gradually, allowing time for the reactions that create complex flavors, aromas, and textures.
Like a full-sized barrel, our design:
- Balances the liquid volume to wood surface area
- Lets you choose the wood type, toast, and char
- Blocks light, preserving the integrity of your spirit
- Makes it easy to taste during the aging process
Plus our "better than a barrel" features:
- Glass view bulb to show color changes
- Easy to label and document tasting notes
- Holds up to 1 liter
- Doubles as a serving vessel with easy pour spout
- Wood Barrelhead can be re-used multiple times, or replace the Barrelhead for a different aging experience
- Proudly designed and built in Portland, Oregon, USA
Learn more about wood-aging in the "Getting Technical" section, below.
Chilled Magazine: "Whiskey Lab allows aspiring spirit crafters to enjoy the process of wood-aging and tasting, with the same professional-quality experience of a full-sized whiskey barrel, on a home scale."
Portland Tribune: "The product should appeal to Portland’s many DIY craft distillers — people who want to tinker in small batches, customize flavors at home, and share spirits with friends and neighbors."
You'll receive a survey at the completion of our successful Kickstarter campaign where you can specify reward details, such as the wood type, toast, and char of your Barrelhead(s), black or silver graphics, and any add-on items that you would like.
Not sure which Barrelhead to order with your Whiskey Lab kit? We recommend starting with an American oak, medium toast, and heavy char for a bourbon-style aging experience.
We expect that you will receive your reward in January 2017. Check out our projected timeline below.
*In accordance with Kickstarter rules, none of the rewards include alcohol. To get started with your Whiskey Lab wood-aging experience, we recommend that you try un-aged "white dog" whiskey from local distilleries or liquor stores. It is readily available and more and more varieties are showing up on the shelves every day.
We are five friends who met in engineering school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. We were drawn together by our shared interests--love of the outdoors, a passion for investigating and learning by doing, and that we just have fun when we're together. We are curious by nature. We love to learn and then we love to create. Although our careers took us in different directions, we maintained our friendships and visited each other often. With the advent of video calling we were able to have virtual meetings where we exchanged ideas and discussed technical challenges and solutions. We decided to form an innovation company, BRAIN Labs, where we could work together to bring our ideas to life. Outside of our work for BRAIN Labs, we are 3 mechanical engineers, a civil engineer, and a science teacher. Among us, we have decades of experience in engineering and product development. We know what it takes to engineer a product and solution that is not only functional and reliable, but one that can deliver a compelling experience. We were Whiskey Lab's first and toughest critics. It's true that our team of engineers is never satisfied, but in this case, the results of our efforts have been pretty delicious. Cheers!
Complex flavor comes from careful treatment of the wood:
Most wine and whiskey barrels are made from oak; specifically French, Hungarian, and American oak. Oak is special because its physical structure can create a leak-proof barrel. At the same time, its molecular composition is the source of the complex flavors developed during barrel aging.
Oak is composed of a mixture cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin fibers, along with minor components such as tannins, esters, and lipids. When making barrels, the wood is first air dried, or "seasoned". Next, the wood is cut into staves, which are then heated and bent to form the sides of the barrel. This heating also toasts the wood, an important step for flavor development. As the wood is heated, the sugars in the wood caramelize. More heat results in deeper caramelization, and the flavor gradually changes from sweet to caramel and finally to bitter. In the case of bourbon and some other whiskeys, the interior of the barrel is also burned, which leaves a charred carbon layer. This layer of carbon acts as a filter, trapping unwanted molecules. Wood type, seasoning, toast, and char all contribute to the development of flavor-building compounds within the wood.
A key feature of a barrel is that it “breathes.” Wood is porous, and over time, changes in temperature and air pressure force small amounts of liquid to move in and out of the wood. At the same time, small amounts of oxygen from the atmosphere permeate through the wood into the liquid inside. The flavor building blocks that were developed during the toasting and charring of the wood react with this oxygen to create delicious aromas and flavors. For example, oxygen helps to change lignin fiber to vanillin, which creates notes of vanilla.
While the aging process is complex, it is an opportunity to develop a huge variety of nuanced flavors. That's why there are hundreds of distinct whiskeys. Whiskey Lab allows you to experiment with the aging process at home to create your own unique whiskey.
You choose the wood, toast, and char:
Wood: We will offer Whiskey Lab with your choice of American or French Oak. If we reach our strech goal we will also offer Oregon oak!
American oak has more cis-lactone, which contributes unique woody flavor and aroma, while French oak has more tannin, which contributes to mouthfeel and promotes oxidation. French oak is the typical choice for great wine, while true bourbon must be aged, by law, with American oak. But Whiskey Lab is about doing your own experimentation—American wine makers have produced world-class wine with American oak barrels. Can a great whiskey be produced by aging on French oak? We're betting yes—it won’t be bourbon, but it will be interesting.
Toast and Char: Heat converts the components of the wood into a complex array of flavor building blocks. Toasting is a slow process where heat can penetrate deep into the wood, creating a gradient of temperatures. Charring is a fast process where the surface of the wood quickly reaches a high temperature, but the heat does not penetrate very far into the wood. Here are a few examples of how heat changes the wood:
- Hemicellulose is a wood sugar that breaks down when heated into an array of caramel and toasty flavors, aromas and color. The deeper the toast, the greater the caramelization; with caramelization, the flavor gradually changes from sweet to caramel and finally to bitter.
- Oak lactones produce woody flavors: cis-lactone is more coconutty while trans-lactone is more celery-like. Lactones increase in concentration as the wood is heated, then begin to degrade with higher temperatures and long heating times.
- Lignin is a fiber that is broken down into smaller components by heat, with deeper toast leading to more break down. These components are then converted by oxidation to flavor notes such as floral, vanilla, smoke, and spices such as cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.
- Tannins contribute to mouthfeel, but are also astringent. Heat breaks down tannins, reducing this astringency.
- Carbon is produced by charring with an open flame. The carbon material on the surface of the wood acts as a filter, trapping some of the large organic molecules and removing them from the liquid which can affect the final flavor. The charring process also increases the toast level near the surface.
You can customize your Barrel Head by choosing from four toast levels: very light, light, medium, and heavy. And you can choose no char, light char, or heavy char.
For example, a bourbon-style whiskey would use American Oak with a heavy char and a medium or heavy toast giving the whiskey its deep caramel color, and a toasty, smokey, caramelized flavor and aroma.
For wine you could choose a variety of toasts, with lighter wine generally using light toasts while bolder wines benefit from darker toasts. Light or no charring is typical for wine.
Risks and challenges
We have set our production timeline with hopes of delivering our first Whiskey Lab rewards in January 2017. We believe this is achievable based on the most conservative lead times provided by our suppliers. In order to reach this delivery goal, if it appears the campaign will be successful, we will order the Whiskey Lab components with long manufacturing lead times before the completion of the campaign. We believe in Whiskey Lab and are willing to take on this financial risk because we are committed to making this happen!
Up until now, we have been producing the molded silicone parts for our prototypes ourselves. We are looking forward to moving this difficult and time consuming process to a production-level silicone molder. We anticipate that there might be some slight differences between our prototypes and the production parts and know where can make adjustments in our process, should the need arise.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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