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Why Is Bourbon-Barrel Wine So Popular?

Some see it as an abomination. Others can’t get enough

Jeff Siegel By January 21, 2022
red wine next to bourbon barrel
Bourbon-barrel wines are the latest trend. Photo by Billion Photos/Shutterstock

Bob Blue, the winemaker for the newly launched 1000 Stories Wine, was pouring it at Kentucky’s fabled Bourbon Classic, an annual gathering of all things bourbon. He was a little concerned.

1000 Stories was wine, but aged in bourbon barrels, so it was neither one nor the other. How would those attending the Bourbon Classic, about as fanatical as bourbon drinkers get, feel about that?

Turns out Blue didn’t have to worry at all.

A man walked up to the booth — looking, says Blue with a laugh, about as typical a bourbon drinker as possible — and picked up a glass. He tasted it, looked at the woman next to him, and then said to Blue, “Now I have something to drink with my wife when she wants wine.”

Unknown in 2006 when Blue was in Kentucky, bourbon-barrel wine is mainstream. Today, there may be dozens of producers who make wine by aging it in used bourbon and spirits barrels. There are maybe tens of dozens of individual wines, with most of the wines costing between $12 and $25 a bottle. 

“I’m really not surprised by these wines’ success,” says Brett Jahren, who manages a St. Augustine, Florida location for Broudy’s Liquors chain, which has five stores in and around St. Augustine and Jacksonville, Florida. Jahren carries almost two dozen different kinds of bourbon-barrel wines, both red and white, and they’ve been selling well since he started carrying them five or six years ago.

“I think they’re fantastic wines,” says Jahren. “Now, for old school, wine-driven customers, it’s the same thing like the difference between screw caps and corks. But if you like exploring options, they offer more choices, more complexity, and they’re just more fun. And I say that as someone who isn’t a bourbon drinker.”

A different approach

Aging wine in something other than the traditional oak barrels is not new. It has happened off and on in California for decades; one of the most famous was August Sebastiani, who used to age a portion of his reserve Barbera and Zinfandel in used bourbon barrels several decades ago.

What’s different is that bourbon-barrel wine is part of a larger and more widespread trend, called a crossover product, that includes beer and spirits. For instance, Scotch whisky producers have long used old wine barrels to age their spirits, and craft brewers have turned wine- and spirit-barreled beer into a regular part of their offerings.

“We have always looked to innovate,” says Tia Butts, a spokesperson for Treasury Wine Estates, which makes the Beringer Bros. bourbon barrel wines. “Whiskey continues to excite consumers, and we are leveraging interest in brown spirits through our Spirit Barrel Aged wines. Overall, the consumer response has been outstanding, and we can’t wait to see where this road leads us.”

There are several important differences between making this kind of wine and traditional wine. First, it isn’t necessarily vintage-dated, like most wine is, but is made using wine from different vintages, in what Blue calls a batch approach that leaves the wine in the barrels for just a couple of months. Traditional wine can be aged in barrels for six to 24 months. This method, says Blue, helps give the wines a more consistent flavor, given that the used bourbon barrels can vary in taste and potency much more than traditional wine barrels.

These wines also emphasize their spirits backgrounds, and the labels often resemble whiskey or tequila bottles; hence, consumers are forewarned that the wine they’re buying is much more than a bunch of grapes.

Second, bourbon-barrel wine seems to appeal to people who might not otherwise drink wine, be it Blue’s bourbon festival drinker or Generation Z, in particular, who might prefer bourbon on its own or with cocktails. They may see wine as something that their parents or grandparents drink. Butts says the Beringer products are more popular with women than with men.

“Whiskey continues to excite consumers, and we are leveraging interest in brown spirits through our Spirit Barrel Aged wines. Overall, the consumer response has been outstanding, and we can’t wait to see where this road leads us.”

Widespread appeal

None of this surprises Blue, who says that one appeal of this style of wine is that it makes great cocktails. 

“My son wanted me to bring some home,” says Blue, “and he wanted to make cocktails with it. What I hear the most is that it’s different, but that I like the wine.”

Having said that, the one question that hangs over bourbon-barrel wines: Just because you can make these wines, does that mean you should make them?

“I like bourbon, and of course, I love wine,” says Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for The Washington Post. “But that doesn’t answer the question of why anyone would want to make them — or drink them. Yet they are all over the shelves. Not just Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels, but Merlot in rum barrels and Sauvignon Blanc in tequila barrels. I kept asking why.”

One of his biggest concerns, says McIntyre, is that the bourbon flavor overpowers the wine. In addition, the barrels, since they have taken on bourbon during their original use, tend to add alcohol to the wine. 

McIntyre says he still isn’t sure about the why of these wines. Maybe, he says, it’s a regional difference; the bourbon wines may be more popular in those parts of the U.S. where bourbon is popular.

Or not, as the case may be. It just may be that the time has come for wine in bourbon barrels.

3 bourbon-barrel wines:

bottle of Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chardonnay 2019

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chardonnay 2019

Bourbon-barrel Chardonnay isn’t as common as those made with red wine, so the Mondavi stands out in a crowded field. This is wine for people who want even more vanilla, butterscotch, and graham cracker flavors than in traditional Chardonnay.

bottle of Gnarly Head 1924 Double Black Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Gnarly Head 1924 Double Black Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

This is one of the best-sellers at the St. Augustine Broudy’s, and why not? It’s typical of the wines, with an almost cocktail feel — higher in alcohol, a sweet-ish mouthfeel, and almost manly presence about it.

bottle of Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Bourbon Barrel 2019

Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Bourbon Barrel 2019

Call this the most critically regarded bourbon barrel Cabernet, praised in several mainstream wine magazines. That may well be because it tastes more like wine, where the bourbon barrels add an accent and don’t dominate the wine.