One of the main things that gives whiskey, bourbon, and other brown liquors its flavor is that it is stored in barrels, typically made of oak or another “pure” wood. The contact with the wood gives these aged liquors color and character, especially if those barrels have been used to age different liquor, like rum, sherry, or even red wine beforehand. In fact, many scotch distilleries rely on ex-bourbon barrels to age their product. But what do manufacturers do with these barrels after they’re no longer suitable for whiskey production? Sometimes, they make them into wood chips, which you can use in your grill or smoker to officially win summer BBQ season.
“We find that the bourbon-soaked white oak gives us a slighter sweeter flavor with big oak vanilla notes. A lot of depth can come from these barrels and a little can go a long way,” says chef Mike Wajda of Proof on Main in Louisville. Wajda gets his wood from Speyside Cooperage, a company that produces bourbon and whiskey barrels for various distilleries, and sells used barrels. You can order the full barrels (a minimum of four), the individual staves, or pre-cut chips for smoking.
It seems that many larger distilleries make the most out of their spent barrels by sending them to companies like Speyside Cooperage, or by selling them off themselves. Distilleries like Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s repurpose some of their old barrels into smoking chips that you can buy directly from them. However, if you want to utilize a barrel from your favorite small-batch distillery, you may need to contact them yourself and see if you can grab one — many of the distilleries we contacted had never heard of people utilizing old barrel wood for culinary purposes.
Obviously the bourbon flavor will take your brisket to the next level, but you can impart that flavor on just about anything. “We have been smoking everything from proteins to milk fats and vegetables,” says Wajda. “I would say it works well with anything, but moderation is key with more delicate foods,” as the bourbon flavor that’s been soaked up by the wood is just that more powerful. So you don’t need to smoke your vegetables, or even thinner cuts of meat, for hours on the grill — just finishing them there will ensure there’s lots of flavor.
Wajda has not only been experimenting with smoking with bourbon-barrel wood, but also plating on it. He finds the wood not only adds great flavor when smoked, but imparts some of its notes to charcuterie served on full barrel staves. That’s especially true for charcuterie smoke-cured with the same barrel wood. Distillery to table: it’s the new trend.