Over a Barrel

Seáneen Sullivan looks at food producers using the traditional art of barrel ageing to create new flavours
By Seáneen Sullivan
Whisky maturation is a beautiful kind of alchemy. The heady, often fiery new make spirit is placed in an oak cask. Over time a transformation occurs; a conversation between the wood and the liquid. The flavours that were once bound tightly within the trunk of a tree are released, softening the spirit, while any undesirable flavours evident in the new make are removed, transformed by the oak. Wood seems to hold endless intrigue for the whisky aficionado and distiller alike. Experiments abound: quarter casks, sonic maturation, ocean ageing, finishing, rejuvenation: all means of extracting flavour from the wood and transferring it to the whisky.

Yet, distillers are not alone in prizing wood influence. There is a rich tradition of foods aged in wood. Historically everything from sauerkraut, fish, meat, vegetables and even eggs were aged in barrels. Many traditional regional dishes include wood aged produce. A few years ago in a fit of bravado I agreed to try Surströmming. It comprised herring fermented in wooden barrels, a traditional Swedish delicacy that boasted a putrid aroma and rancid flavour reminiscent of rotten eggs and well aged garbage. The original motivation for the use of barrels in ageing food was likely practical rather than flavour driven. Barrels helped regulate temperature and keep out vermin, as well as being a convenient means of transportation. However a growing number of modern food producers are discovering oak as a means of adding flavour and mouthfeel to everything from hot sauce to tea, repurposing the casks to house vanilla or sugar and turning to oak to enrichen mustards and pickles.

Tabasco Hot Sauce

Located on a salt dome, Avery Island is the spiritual home of Tabasco Sauce, and the place where the contents of each bottle of the fiery liquid is matured. The warehouses are home to fifty thousand ex-Jack Daniels barrels each full of a fermenting mash made from handpicked capsicum frutescens blended with the salt from the island. The salt is also piled on top of each barrel as they are stacked six high. Once the gurgle of carbon dioxide from fermentation slows the salt layer creates a bung and allows the pepper mash to quietly mature.

The lurid red purée will rest in the barrel for up to three years. There are practical considerations to take into account when using ex-whisky barrels for hot sauce maturation. Prior to being filled the char is removed from the barrels to allow the mash greater exposure to the raw wood. The barrels are also re-hooped as the acidity of the pepper mash would destroy the existing barrel hoops. The influence of oak is evident in the final product when compared with the unaged mash, even after the fully fermented and matured pulp is cut with vinegar. The wood rounds out the sharp acidity of the peppers, giving depth of flavour to the finished sauce and creating a lasting finish, echoing the properties the whisky formally housed in the cask.

Noble Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup

As I adore honey, it takes a serious maple syrup to change my bee-bothering ways. Noble Tonic 01 fits the bill. The maple syrup that forms the base of Noble Tonic 01 is sourced from heritage sugar shacks in the maple orchards of Quebec. Bourbon barrels from Tuthilltown in upstate New York are recharred before being used for maturation. The wood imbues the dense amber syrup with hints of tannin and vanilla. Interestingly, following the bottling of the syrup, the maple drenched casks are sent back to the distillery where they are used to age the whisky for Hudson Maple Cask Rye.

There is a beautiful symbiosis evident here. The bourbon barrel lends to the syrup its toasted oak and rich char notes and in return the maple syrup returns robust oak and zesty spice to the whisky. A lovely example of carving a new path in approaching wood maturation.


Ceremony Coffee Roasters

Unroasted coffee beans have a weakness, they are a flavour sponge. This can manifest in unfortunate ways with beans that have been handled without care, showing flavours in the resulting coffee from transportation such as cardboard or petrol fumes.

Ceremony Coffee in Maryland decided to harness this fragility in order to enhance the flavour profile of the coffee once roasted. They created the Barrel Conditioned Series by pairing specific coffees with a cask that would enhance and complement the existing flavour profile of that coffee.

Ceremony used an ex-bourbon barrel from A. Smith Bowman in Virginia paired with an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. The typical flavours of Yirgacheffe are very clean, with bright acidity and occasionally toasted coconut. The ex-bourbon barrel serves to accentuate the richer flavours and once roasted showed layers of lush vanilla, with delicate floral and pineapple aromatics. The barrel-ageing added complexity and richness with warming sweetness, dates, and Madeira cake evident in the final coffee. The roastery also experiments with barrels that have held other libations, such as red wine.

As competition within the Scotch industry for good quality casks continues to grow, we may find whisky competing for barrel space with all manner of produce.

Whisky, maple syrup & tabasco glazed pork belly

Three oak matured products combine to make a winning Sunday roast. This is an inexpensive cut, start off with awesome pork. It pays to go rare breed and outdoor reared.

500g pork belly, rib bones out. Ask your butcher to score the crackling or score it yourself with a very sharp knife in parallel lines crossing each other, being careful not to cut through to the flesh beneath.


  • 15ml Soy Sauce

  • 15ml Whisky

  • 10ml Tabasco

  • 5g course Sea Salt

  • 25ml Olive Oil


  • 50ml Oak Aged Maple Syrup

  • 50ml Whisky (I used Great King Street)

  • 25ml Warm Water

1. Mix marinade ingredients together and rub into the belly.
2. Refrigerate pork overnight in a dish with the skin uncovered to dry out the skin.
3. Bring pork to room temperature thirty minutes ahead of cooking.
4. Preheat your oven to the highest temperature.
5. Place the pork on a rack in the middle of a roasting tray.
6. Roast on the highest heat for 15 minutes, then reduce to 180C for 1 hour.
7. Whisk together the glaze ingredients and remove the pork from the oven.
8. Using a pastry brush, cover the pork with the glaze, including the skin.
9. Return the pork belly to the oven for a maximum of 15 minutes, turning up the grill function if needed to get the crackling lovely and crispy. Keep a close eye on it as it can go from crispy to incinerated very quickly.
10. Rest for ten minutes, cut into slices and serve with seasonal veg, lovely gravy and a sweet bourbon.

I sometimes pour scalding water over the raw scored belly prior to marinating and refrigerating, as it causes the scores in the skin to petal out, increasing the likelihood of crunchy shards of crackling.