Much of the art in the taste of whiskey comes from the wooden barrels it is aged in. Sealed tight for years in aged oak planks, the fermented grain sugars take on distinctive flavours and depth. Preparation of your own barrels offers an at-home way to add a new flavour profile to already aged whiskey, or you can use the barrel for a variety of decorating and storage solutions from table tops to flower beds. Barrel making is an art however, and coopers spend years in training learning to craft the wooden containers.
Find the oak by locating oak auctioneers or by asking a cooper. Oak approved for official barrel making is from trees aged between 50 and 180 years old. Cut logs for whiskey barrels are dried in a kiln.
Cut the logs into staves by hand by quartering them, sawing the quarters, and planning the quarters into long strips several inches wide and as tall as you desire for your barrel. Prepare between 24 and 36 staves, depending on how large you want your barrel to be.
Taper the ends of the strips so once they are fitted together the barrel will be curved. This enables the barrel to be rolled along the ground.
Assemble the staves within an assembly jig, or a large iron hoop. This process is tricky but the tapered ends of the staves together with the tension from the jig will keep the staves in place.
Slip a slightly larger hoop, one of the four you have on hand, onto the barrel until it is 1/4 of the way down the barrel. This will be one of the hoops that holds the barrel together.
Place the two smallest hoops onto the staves at either ends.
Hammer the hoops and the ends of the staves into place to ensure proper tension before removing the assembly jig. This partially prepared barrel is called the rose.
Wet the surface of the staves with a wet sponge to prepare the barrel to be charred without catching fire.
Hold the barrel above a fire for a half hour so the heat rising into the barrel can seal the edges together. This charring process can add a variety of flavours to the whiskey stored in the barrels, depending on the depth of charring.
Shape an arch into the hot, moist staves with a winch. This tension action works on the malleable staves only when still heated. The winch is stored in the bottom hoop of the barrel and may need to be pounded in.
Place the larger hoops onto the middle of the barrel to hold the arched shape into place and hammer them in place with the mallet.
Even out the edges of the staves with a saw.
Notch a groove, called a "croze", into the inside ends of each stave. This will be where the lids rest.
Shape the lids out of a rot-proof material-traditionally river reeds with dowels but you can cut a wooden lid if you prefer.
Place the lids into the grooves that have been coated with a wheat flower paste for security.
Smooth the surfaces with sandpaper and hammer all staves into place one more time.
Fill the barrel with a litre of hot water to test its integrity. Check for leaks by swishing the water along all sides and applying pressure to the staves.
This is an eight hour process for an experienced cooper. It will take longer if you are inexperienced. Take care using fire, saws and other machinery. Completed oak barrels are heavy and designed for rolling, not lifting.