Working in the wine retail industry is a priceless learning experience. I totally get now why you can’t even apply to the Master of Wine Program without 1-3 years of retail wine experience. Working in the retail wine world puts you in touch with what consumers want, and with emerging wine trends and styles. One of my biggest surprises to date has been the enormous popularity of bourbon barrel aged wines. I was vaguely aware these wines existed before, but I had no idea how much of a thing they are.
People of a certain age (mine) will remember this 1981 gem of a commercial for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups (you’re welcome for the earworm flashback).
I’m not sure how I made it through 1981 without bopping down the street holding a literal crock of peanut butter.
Mmm, wine. Mmm, bourbon. Two great tastes, that taste great together?
Sales of spirits-barrel aged wines have seen substantial growth in the last few years — up from $800,000 in 2015 to more than $91 million in 2018. Nearly every major American wine brand has a bourbon barrel aged wine in their portfolio. And they FLY off the retail shelves (prices listed are approximate).
- Apothic Inferno – $12
- Beringer Red Wine Blend Bourbon Barrel – $16
- Cooper & Thief – $21
- Federalist Bourbon Barrel – $21
- Fetzer 1000 Stories Zinfandel – $18
- Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel – $19
- Menage a Trois – $13
- Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Cab – $12
- Stave & Steel – $18
Notice a theme on those labels? Dark, brooding, and on literally on fire. The marketing is on point.
Using a bourbon barrel to age alcohol isn’t a new idea. Beer did it first, in 1992, with Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, which unleashed a then entirely new category in the craft beer segment.
The first bourbon barrel aged wine was 1000 Stories by Fetzer Vineyards, released in 2014. Winemaker, Bob Blue, started experimenting with used bourbon barrels back in the 1980s, when he couldn’t afford new barrels. The idea behind using bourbon barrels for wine is that it boosts the flavor and richness of a wine. Legally, bourbon barrels have to be made from heavily toasted/charred new American oak. And they can only be used once. So there’s plenty of life/flavor left in the barrels after the bourbon is bottled.
And as much as wine professionals tout acidity and funk (admittedly two of my own favorites), American palates are all about big, sweet, and smooth. After aging your wine in a bourbon barrel for a few months, you can check all of those boxes. You can also charge more for your wine — all of the bourbon barrel aged wines are $2-5 more per bottle than “regular” wines.
I’ve had an opportunity to taste quite a few of these wines, and honestly, I don’t think they taste much like bourbon. At their core, the wines are suuuuper ripe (usually Cabernet or Zinfandel), highly concentrated, and almost absurdly jammy, with candied notes of vanilla, caramel, coffee and campfire — all characteristics that come from American oak. I suspect the flavors have more to do with the intense level of char on a once-used bourbon barrel than the fact that the barrel once had bourbon in it.
I get why people love bourbon barrel aged wines. They aren’t my thing, but I get it.
Combining wine and bourbon barrels hasn’t given the wine world a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup level new product. But it has created an enormously popular style/trend, that’s likely to be around for quite a while.