Oak Barrel Prep
Begin by rinsing out the barrel to remove any charred bits and pieces of wood that might have shaken loose in shipping. Using a rubber mallet, carefully tap in the spigot (just until snug). Fill the barrel with water. It is normal for the barrel to drip until the wood has swelled (may drip for several days). Once the dripping stops, keep the water in the barrel for an additional 24 hours to hydrate the staves. Empty and rinse again. Fill to the top with your favorite spirit or follow the instructions below on making your own vinegar.
Oak Barrel Aging
The length of time your spirits age and mellow in the barrel depends on personal taste. Small barrels will begin imparting oak flavor quickly – check every two to three weeks for taste and top off what has been lost to the Angel's Share**. When pleased with your results, pour into your favorite decanter or bottle and enjoy.
**Oxygen enters a barrel when water or alcohol is lost due to evaporation – often called the “Angel's Share”. In an environment with 100% relative humidity, very little water evaporates and so most of the loss is alcohol – a useful trick if one has a liquor or wine with very high proof.
Storing Your Empty Barrel After Initial Use
Ideally, your barrel would always be filled. Used barrels require no special preparation beyond a simple water rinse, if desired, when transferring out and in immediately (or within a day). If you MUST store your previously used barrel empty, rinse it several times with clean water, and drain thoroughly. Remove the spigot and lid to dry out quickly and completely. Continue to promote air flow and store out of sunlight and in a cool (55° – 60°) and optimally humid (65% - 75%) area. You will need to inspect for mold and swell your barrel with water again when ready to use.
Temperature and Humidity
Temperature also impacts the aging process due to the amount of oxidation that occurs at different temperatures. Higher temperatures accelerate this process while lower temperatures result in slower oxidation. Ideally there would be great variations between night and day temperatures. These fluctuations in temperature, along with changes in barometric pressure, have been shown to actually force the whiskey, wine, ale or vinegar in and out of the wood, resulting in maximum flavor and character