Will Bourbon Barrels Rot (and How to Preserve Them)

Will Bourbon Barrels Rot (and How to Preserve Them)
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Bourbon is aged in new oak barrels made from American white oak. After aging, distillers will discard the barrels since they cannot be used to age new batches of bourbon. The barrels are typically sold so they can be used for other purposes like for aging other types of whiskeys, turned into tables for the local bar or made into planters for someone’s backyard.

So will bourbon barrels rot after they’ve been used to make bourbon?

Since bourbon barrels are made from American white oak, they are fairly rot-resistant and last many years. However, the wood can decay due to environmental factors, such as sunlight, rain, and moisture. By finishing it with wood stains or taking simple steps to prevent moisture build-up, the barrels can be better preserved and last for many years.

Stores like Vintage Gentlemen offer great options for buyers to purchase repurposed items made from whiskey barrels. Read on to learn more about how whiskey barrels are made, how you can keep them viable for decades, and cool ideas to repurpose your own barrels.

How Whiskey Barrels are Made

Barrels are made out of new oak, usually American white oak, that is charred and aged for at least two years. White oak is incredibly rot resistant. Other oak, such as red oak, is not rot-resistant and typically not used to make bourbon barrels. 

Charring inside makes the wood even more watertight. The whiskey will spend a lot of time aging in the wood barrels, taking on the barrel’s unique color and flavors.

Under U.S. law, a barrel can be used just one time to age bourbon. But these barrels can last for up to 60 years. There is no minimum for how long the whiskey needs to be kept in the barrels, with some aged for only 3 months. However, to be considered “straight” whiskey, there is a minimum 2-year aging requirement. Bourbon aged for less than 4 years must have an age statement label.

Well-known whiskey maker Knob Creek ages their whiskey in white oak barrels with maximum char, a “level four char to draw out rich vanilla and caramel notes.” Their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is aged for nine years, imparting a “rich, sweet, woody, full-bodied, almost fruity” flavor and a “copper to medium amber” color.

Whiskey-maker Jack Daniel’s uses American white oak to make their barrels using 33 separate wood staves. No glue or nails are used to keep the staves together. The pressure of the wood’s arrangement keeps the barrel watertight. The inside of the barrel is charred, bringing out the wood’s natural sugar and imparting flavors including vanilla, caramel and toasted nuts.

Jack Daniel’s says its barrels will be reused by others, such as hot sauce makers, winemakers, beer brewers and Scotch whisky distillers.

Recommended reading: Is Whiskey Acidic?

What Causes Wood Rot

Wood rots because natural microorganisms, specifically fungi, attack wet and damp wood. Coupled with oxygen, warm temperatures will also cause the rotting process to increase. On the other hand, frozen temperatures will slow it down. 

While not necessarily causing wood rot, termites also cause damage to wood.

Whiskey barrels are typically made from white oak because its pores are filled with tyloses, balloon-like swellings or projections that fill the vessels, making this particular type of wood extremely durable. This makes white oak both water and rot-resistant.

Tips for Preserving Bourbon Barrels

Some places will let you nab their whiskey barrels for free, while other places will let you purchase them. Once you’ve got them, you need to make sure that they will fit your needs for decades to come. Here is some advice on how to keep them in tip-top shape.

Keep in a dry location – By keeping the wood away from UV rays from the sun and water from rain or dew/fog, microbes won’t be able to cause decay. Others have mentioned that leaving it in the dirt or on concrete can quicken the rotting progress, starting from the bottom up.

Use a protective coating – While a protective coating may give your barrel a different look than what you want, it can definitely help your barrel last for a long time. Some have used a polyurethane coating or a wood deck sealer to protect the barrel. Some also suggest using melted paraffin wax. Others mention that leaving it unfinished and outdoors can cause a silver or gray finish to the barrel after several years.

Drills holes for draining – Make sure that water does not compile on top of the barrel by drilling holes on top. This ensures proper drainage.

Also, don’t let water sit inside the barrel. By drilling holes at the bottom of the barrel, you can prevent the build-up of water inside the barrel. Drill holes every 6 inches around the outside, about 2 inches from the bottom. It is best to drill larger holes, about 2 inches in diameter because smaller holes may close up as the staves swell with moisture.

Covering the holes with mesh wires will prevent any insects or small animals from getting inside and will stop soil from seeping out of the barrel if you’re using it as a planter.

If you don’t drill holes, the moisture and mildew will affect the joints of the barrel and ruin it.

Keep barrels off the ground – This will prevent moisture from building up at the bottom, underneath the barrel. You can use pressure-treated wood, bricks or other types of stone to raise them off the ground a few inches to prevent rot.

Vinegar to prevent rust on hoops/rings and as an anti-fungal – Simple vinegar or other anti-rust chemicals will keep the hoops in great shape. Additionally, apple cider vinegar will reduce the growth of fungus.

Uses for Old Bourbon Barrels 

If you’re reading this article, then you’re probably curious as to how whiskey barrels can be reused. There are many great ideas on how to create your own unique barrel-based accessory.

Planters – Many people love the look of having half bourbon barrels in their backyard and using them to plant bushes or fruit trees. These barrels can last for a long time if taken care of properly. These can be great if you want to move plants to different parts of your yard, compared to planting trees or other plants directly into the ground.

Many have said that these will be well preserved for 15-20 years.

Here are a few tips for keeping the hoops in place for planters. If the staves (the wooden planks that comprise the barrel) get too dry from the sun and dry weather, make sure to also water the barrel along with the plants to prevent the staves from shrinking. This will ensure that the hoops (also known as rings) will not shift downwards. Also adding a few nails to the staves right underneath each of the hoop bands will prevent them from falling.

People typically put some type of liner or stones at the bottom of the planter before adding soil. This will help prevent water from collecting at the bottom of the barrel.

It is unlikely that the barrels are not made from white oak, since other woods like red oak rot fairly quickly.

Furniture – Many bars and restaurants repurpose bourbon barrels and convert them into tables. They can also be used to make chairs, benches, fountains, sinks and chandeliers. Some have even used the staves to make hardwood floors, making a cool and unique conversation piece for any home.

If you don’t want to make your own furniture, there are stores that sell whiskey barrel coffee tables.

Distilling other alcoholic drinks – Bourbon makers cannot use old barrels to age their whiskey. They need to use new charred white oak barrels. So other distillers and wine-makers will use these old bourbon barrels to age their alcohol. A portion of the bourbon will get absorbed into the staves of the barrel, which will in turn impart flavor into the liquid being aged inside the barrel.

Cooper & Thief wines age their wines in bourbon barrels. For their red blend, they age the wine for 3 months. Their other wines are aged in different types of barrels, including brandy, tequila and rye whiskey barrels.

Scotch whisky is almost always aged in used bourbon barrels. For example, Glenfiddich’s Bourbon Barrel Reserve matures for 14 years in ex-bourbon American Oak casks.

Where to Buy Used Whiskey Barrels and Costs

If you’re looking to purchase your own whiskey barrels, there are plenty of companies that offer used ones. They vary greatly in cost depending on size and brand.

On average, a used bourbon barrel will run about $100. If you’re not looking to buy them, you might try going directly to the distillery and see if they are willing to provide the barrels for free.

Here are some spots where you can buy used whiskey barrels.

Rocky Mountain Barrel Company – The Colorado-based business boasts an impressive selection of bourbon, whiskey, wine and rum barrels. Some of the brands they carry are Traverse City Whiskey, Balcones and Baker’s Bourbon.

Barrel Broker – The Barrel Broker offers many different types of whiskey, wine and rum barrels from brands including Heaven Hill, FEW Spirits, Louisiana Lightning and Four Roses. You can purchase full barrels, half barrels, barrel racks, hoops, barrel heads or staves. Prices range from $90 to $199.

Bourbon Barrel Artisan – Craftsman Jason Cohen uses bourbon barrels to create furniture. So if you don’t necessarily want used full barrels, this is a great spot to find something unique. Some of the creative offerings include a bourbon barrel chair, two-tier chandelier, tables, trays and barstools.

Lowe’s – If you want to go the less traditional route, the well-known home improvement company offers many different barrel planters. The Rustic/Weathered Oak Wood Barrel is made of 100% genuine used whiskey or wine oak barrels. Additionally, the bands of this half-barrel have been reinforced with nails for structural stability.

Reviewers say that barrels from Lowe’s last for decades with no noticeable rot. One reviewer says that the bands can be quite loose and soaking them in water helped tighten them up. It is also suggested to drill drainage holes. 

Lowe’s has a lot of barrel-style options, but some are merely decorative so they may be of lower quality than the barrels used to store whiskey, rum or wine. 

Recommended Whiskey Barrel Accessories

If you’re not into buying your own used whiskey barrels, Vintage Gentlemen has some great whiskey barrel accessories that can be added to any collection. Here is a list of some of their coolest items:

Final Round

Bourbon barrels have a lot of great uses after they’ve been used to age whiskey. They can be reused to age whiskey and wine, imparting unique flavors and color. Most people use them to make planters. Others use them for furniture. 

If made out of American white oak, they will last for many years. By making sure they are out of too much sunlight and away from a lot of moisture, you can easily keep them around for decades. Adding a finish could make them last even longer.

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