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This Business of Bourbon Barrel Aged Wines

I’m a contrarian. I defy convention. I question authority. I make fun of pretentiousness. I go my own way. This is especially true in my choice of wines, as I’ve written about here in the past. I’m notorious for praising wines that are (gasp!) not completely dry. I don’t actually drink sweet wine much anymore, since I’ve more or less sworn off sugar, but my reasons there have nothing to do with wine snobbery. I actually like sweet wine. But as I cruise through late middle age, I’m keeping an eye on my A1C.

My most recent discovery began as a fad but went mainstream: soft red blends. Their “softness” is really a consequence of leaving a little more residual sugar in the wine, generally bringing it up to 1% or a little higher, rather than asymptotically close to zero. This article is a little condescending in spots, but nails the reason soft red blends are popular: “…red blends tend to have a softer tannin profile than other popular red varietal categories, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.” Bingo. Not everybody likes tannins in wine, especially supertasters like me, for whom bitter flavors overwhelm any other flavors in food or drink. Most of what I drink are now Zinfandels and soft red blends, particularly Menage a Trois’ Silk and HiJinx Cellars’ HiJinx red blend, which I should have bought a case of while it was still available here. I don’t think anything has done more damage to wine snobbery than soft red blends in the forty-odd years since white zin came on the scene.

So. There’s a new fad in town: Red wines aged in used bourbon barrels. I’m not much for bourbon. It tastes bitter to me, like most whiskeys. So I didn’t try it when Apothic made a splash with their Inferno blend in 2016. Instead, I stumbled across 1000 Stories Zinfandel earlier this summer. It’s aged in bourbon barrels for sixty days. It’s a $19 wine you can often find for $16 or $17. The wine is softer than a lot of zins, though I doubt its residual sugar tops 0.8%. Even at $16 it’s not what I call a “daily driver” wine, but if I’ve sprung for good tenderloins to toss on the grill, I’m willing to pop for a wine that does them justice.

Even if I didn’t know ahead of the game that this was a bourbon-aged zin, I would know that there was something different about it. There’s a taste or a sensation somewhere between conventional wine spice and a sort of burn that I associate with whiskey. The burn is subtle, and doesn’t overwhelm the wine. It just barely gets your attention, and I’m good with that.

Having declared their Zinfandel good, I tried 1000 Stories Gold Rush Red, a blend (not billed as soft) that is also aged for sixty days in bourbon barrels. It’s a decent red, also $19. However, the burn is not as pronounced, and although it’s a perfectly good blend, I’m not sure I’d pay $19 for it. $14 or $15, sure.

Next up beside the Duntemann grill was Exitus Red, again bourbon-barrel aged. It’s a $20 California blend of Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level is high (15.9%) which competes with the characteristic fruit-forward Zinfandel flavor. However, it’s a very good blend, and if the bourbon burn isn’t strong in this one, it’s mostly because the alcohol is through the roof. I do rate it a little higher than Gold Rush Red on overall impression. However, if you want a solid red blend, you don’t have to pay $20 for it.

Having found three reasonable bourbon-aged reds, I hunted around and finally located a bottle of Apothic Inferno, which was a limited-edition wine and has evidently gotten scarce since 2016. Apothic is famous for soft red blends like Apothic Red and Apothic Crush, so I had high hopes for it. And in truth, it was a pretty fair wine, quite drinkable, and only $12. But I was left with the suspicion that Apothic had poured the wine into the bourbon barrels before completely emptying out the bourbon. Really; it tastes like a mix of bourbon and red wine. The burn is there, but the bourbon taste overwhelms even the burn, and it’s the dominant nose in the glass and flavor on the tongue. Whether this is a bug or a feature is a matter of taste, and I readily admit that I’ve never tasted anything even remotely like it. I find the bitter edge a little off-putting, but you may enjoy that sort of thing. Like Exitus, it’s a 15.9% wine, so go easy with it. As for pairings, I’m not sure. The whiskey flavor clashed a little with good steaks, but might be just fine with burgers or brats.

There are more. Mondavi has a bourbon-aged cab, which I won’t try because I don’t drink cabs. Jacob’s Creek has a Shiraz aged in Scotch whiskey barrels, and while I don’t know that Scotch whiskey tastes different enough from bourbon to make a difference, I like Shiraz enough to try it. Others will likely emerge, and if I turn up a good one, I’ll mention it here on Contra. Grilling season is kicking into high gear in Arizona now that our long, long summer is ramping down. So there will be plenty of opportunities to try new things on both the food and the wine side of the counter. Stay tuned.


  1. Michael John says:

    Ironic, because I like a Scotch blend that is aged in a wine cask.

  2. All I know is this: Here in Kentucky, I used to buy old burned out bourbon barrels for next to nothing. Now, if I can find them, I can’t get my hands on one for less than $100.

    Rich (a bourbon guy, but likes wine too)

    1. 35 years ago, Carol and I used to buy them (cut in halves) at garden stores to use as planters. They still smelled like whiskey.

  3. TRX says:

    > supertasters like me, for whom bitter flavors overwhelm any other flavors

    I couldn’t claim that, but there are some things I *do* taste that other people apparently can’t, or only dimly. Most of the sugar substitutes, which are liberally doused onto almost everything. “Stevia” tastes like licking a 9-volt battery. Some of the others simply taste bitter. I went from “Cokeaholic” to cold turkey after the local bottler started using artificial sweeteners across their entire product line. I spent some time on and found where the main corporation had gotten the OK from the FDA to replace any percentage of sugar with artificial sweeteners without having to note it on the labels, which still list the ingredients and calorie counts of the regular product.

    So much for the little labels…

    What has become an issue is that over the last five or six years I’ve become hypersensitive to of onions. I was never all that fond of them to start with, but now they overwhelm the taste of anything else… even if they’re on someone else’s plate, all I’m tasting are onions. Why buy a meal if I’m going out to dinner? I’d get as much enjoyment out of eating the napkin. And it’d taste like onions…

  4. Paul says:

    After reading this post I found myself at the local Trader Joes, and picked up a bottle of Cooper & Thief, a blend that is aged in a whiskey barrel. I had never given these wines much thought before, but am glad I read your post. It was excellent.

    Thanks, Paul

    1. I’ve seen that on the shelves here, but didn’t know it was bourbon barrel aged. If you’re going to try it in the reasonably near future, please post a reply to this comment to let us know what you thought of it!

      1. Paul Woods says:

        Oh – we tried it, and finished it. It was very good, though I am sure tastes vary. The barrel aging gives it a very faint hint of Port flavor. We will definitely be buying again.


        1. Cool. We have to go over there for some mayo and a few other oddments, and I’ll pick up a bottle when I’m there. Thanks for letting us know!

  5. Orvan Taurus says:

    I’ve tried some (whiskey) barrel aged beers and found them rather meh, but maybe wine is different? The general guide is “bourbon is sweet, rye is spicy, scotch is smoky.” I like smoky (esp. Islay peaty) scotch, but am more likely to have rye at any given time. I doubt a rye barrel wine would be considered good, but I could see bourbon or scotch. Irish seems to be.. well… generic, really.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    There are bourbons which are aged in wine barrels.

    And wines that are aged in bourbon barrels.

    How about just cycling the barrels back and forth?

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