It’s pretty well-known that aging in oak barrels plays a key role in the flavor of spirits and wines, with different types of oak contributing different flavor profiles to your product. Generally, toasted barrels are typically used for wine whereas charred barrels are popular for spirits. However, the truth is that distilling can be an expensive hobby, and having a variety of oak barrels on hand may not fit everyone’s budget! The good news is that there are other ways you can enhance the flavor of your spirits if you’re not ready to buy your own oak barrels yet. Oak Chips and Oak Stix are two inexpensive alternatives, but I’m mainly going to focus on the benefits of Oak Stix for today’s blog.
Oak Stix As An Alternative To Oak Barrels And Oak Chips
Overall, Oak Chips and Oak Stix both provide you with benefits that are very similar to that of oak barrels. Keep in mind that you won’t achieve the exact same character in a product aged with barrel alternatives as you would with one aged in an actual barrel, but using barrel alternatives can give you a bit more room to experiment with variations in the toasting and charring. Between oak chips and Oak Stix, the Oak Stix actually give you the character closer to that achieved by barrel aging than the oak chips will. With Oak Stix, you can char the surface of the wood without affecting the inside layers of the wood because they are larger in size. Oak chips, on the other hand, can be extremely difficult to char without totally destroying the wood because they are much smaller. Another benefit of the larger size of Oak Stix is that they give your product a mellower, smoother character due to less astringency.
Charring Your Oak Stix
Charred oak is best for aging whisky as it improves and softens the taste in addition to contributing to both the body and color of the spirit. It’s important to note here that charring and toasting are not the same process. Toasting causes the sugars in the oak to caramelize, producing varying degrees of vanillins and tannins. Charring the oak creates charcoal/carbon, which will give the spirits a smoother flavor profile because it helps remove some of the harsh congeners. The level of charring is related to how long the oak has been exposed to the fire, ranging from light to heavy.
You can toast Oak Chips or Oak Stix by wrapping them in aluminum foil and baking them in your oven at around 450 degrees for 3-4 hours. Baking them at different temperatures will actually lead to different flavors, so you can experiment and have fun with it.
You can char Oak Stix on your stovetop, but of course be very careful! Here are a few tips:
1. Find a tin that has a fitted lid.
2. Light the Oak Stix until they are charred to your liking, and then place them in the tin.
3. Place the lid on the tin to extinguish the flames.
4. Repeat this for each piece of Oak Stix that you want to char until you’re finished.
5. Then leave all of the charred Oak Stix in the tin (with the lid on tightly to keep the smoky goodness inside!) until you’re ready to add them to your spirit.
How To Use Oak Stix To Flavor Spirits
According to Rick, when an alternative to barrel aging, such as oak stix or oak chips, you generally want to age the spirit at slightly over 60%abv (120 proof). After the spirit has been aged, you will dilute it. Here are some guidelines:
1. Put you undiluted spirit into bottles, and add 1 oak stick per 750ml bottle. Put a cap on the bottle.
2. The oak stick will work similarly to how an oak barrel works in that the liquid will absorb into the wood and then be released back out, taking some of the flavor profiles from the wood with it. Unscrew the lid to let it breathe a moment, then replace the lid and agitate once a week to help the process.
3. You’ll want your liquid to age with the oak stick for several months, but you can vary the length of time depending on your personal flavor preference. Make sure that you taste it every few weeks to check the taste every few weeks because you can't remove the oak flavor once it's in, and it can become too oaky.