Last Updated on August 25, 2022 by Lydia Martin
As far as regulations go, bourbon whiskey must mature inside new oak barrels for it to qualify as bourbon. Most of the time, the oak barrels used are charred, with the charring done by coopers.
Depending on the desired char levels, they subject the barrel’s interior to literal flames for about a minute or so.
However, there seems to be a new kid on the block who’s hell-bent on giving charred oak barrels a run for their money: the toasted barrel.
What is a toasted barrel bourbon, and how does it differ from the traditional charred oak barrel bourbons? We’ll talk about that in today’s article.
Table of Contents
About Toasted Barrel Bourbon
Instead of the quintessential charred oak, a toasted barrel bourbon has matured or finished inside toasted barrels.
If charred barrels are the result of subjecting the interior of oak barrels to literal flames, a toasted barrel is, well, a toast. Instead of the quintessential charred oak, a toasted barrel bourbon has matured or finished inside toasted barrels.
In toasting, the insides of the wood barrels are warmed more tenderly and slowly. The insides of the oak barrels are exposed to smaller flames for longer, which means that the heat penetrates deeper into the wood.
Whereas the charring process results in the oak barrels having a blackened and burnt interior, a toasted barrel is a lot lighter in color, almost like a dull, earthy-toned toast.
Usage & Effect
Toasted barrels are usually used in wines, but you will probably find a few whiskey brands adopting this atypical process. It is said that bourbon that has matured inside toasted barrels will typically have a more vanilla flavor profile and a lighter hue.
On the other hand, bourbon whiskeys that have been aged inside charred oak barrels will have a darker hue because they will have taken on the color of the charred oak barrels.
They will also have a sweeter and more honey-like flavor, owing to the wood sugars having caramelized during the charring process.
The char in the barrels also acts as a filter to eliminate the bourbon whiskey’s harsh alcohol profile, resulting in a smoother, more mellow spirit.
Toasted Barrel Bourbon Tasting Notes
- Palate: A toasted barrel bourbon typically has a vanilla-forward palate, less oakiness, and a shaper profile.
- Nose: A toasted barrel bourbon typically has a buttery-caramel aroma with spicy undertones.
- Color: This spirit will typically have a light amber color.
- Finish: Bourbon whiskey matured inside toasted barrels will have a spicy finish.
What’s A Toasting Process?
The toasting process subjects the insides of the oak barrels to low temperatures for a long period.
Because of this, the heat seeps through the wood of the barrels more, and the interior takes on a dull, earth-colored hue.
Toasted barrels are more commonly used in maturing wine. Still, it’s not uncommon to find a few whiskey brands adopting them for their aging period, as these also contribute to unconventional flavors.
How Toasting is Different From Charring
Toasting differs greatly from charring. During the toasting process, the interiors of the barrels are subjected to low flames and less extreme temperatures, albeit for a longer period.
As the name suggests, the interiors of the barrels are only slightly toasted and turn into a light, earthy brown color.
On the other hand, literal flames are used for charred oak barrels. A cooper fires the insides of charred oak barrels and burns them to a crisp for a few seconds, depending on the level of char needed.
The most common char level is No. 3, which takes 35 seconds. The No. 4 Char, known as alligator char, is equally popular.
It is named as such because, after 55 seconds of charring, the interior of the oak barrels takes on the scaly and shiny texture of alligator skin.
Is It A Requirement for Bourbon?
No, toasting barrels is not a requirement for bourbon. According to regulations, bourbon whiskey must be aged inside new oak barrels, but they don’t specify if the barrels need to be charred or toasted. 
Although it’s not a requirement, some brands still incorporate maturing whiskeys inside toasted barrels to bring forth unique, unconventional flavors.
This comes at an additional cost to their production process, so you’ll notice that toasted barrel bourbons are slightly more expensive than bourbons that have aged the traditional way. But why is bourbon called bourbon?
Some Toasted Barrel Bourbons To Try
Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel
The Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon is produced much like their original iteration, but it goes through a round of finishing inside toasted barrels.
The time it’s spent inside toasted barrels contributes to a silky caramel profile alongside the traditional oak, dark chocolate, and baking spices.
Michter’s US★1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon
Michter’s was one of the first brands to try toasted barrels for their bourbon whiskeys, which resulted in Michter’s US★1 Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon.
This dram reminds us of campfire and smoke, with lots of creamy vanilla and toasted marshmallow notes. It has a smooth and silky mouthfeel.
Wheel Horse Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon
The Wheel Horse Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon is a limited edition bottle from the label.
There are only 150 cases for their 2022 release, with the bourbon whiskeys pulled from three toasted barrels that have been aging for at least four years. These are non-chill filtered and bottled at a whopping 101 proof.
We expected more heat from its high proof, but we found this quite mellow and tame. It has a great balance of sugar and spice, with brown sugar and molasses tickling the tongue.
Are all bourbon barrels toasted?
No, not all bourbon barrels are toasted. In fact, it’s less common to find toasted barrels in the bourbon industry than charred oak barrels. Toasted oak barrels are more popular in the wine industry.
Are toasted barrel bourbons expensive?
Yes. Toasted barrel bourbons are more expensive than those that have not matured/finished inside toasted barrels.
Toasted barrels are often custom-made and will be an extra expense to the brands, which is why they charge more for these bottles.
Toasted barrel bourbons have aged or finished inside toasted barrels instead of the quintessential charred oak. They often have a spicier, more subdued flavor profile.
Toasted barrels differ from charred oak barrels because their insides are exposed to lower temperatures for longer, as opposed to the latter, which uses literal flames to char their insides.
As a result, toasted barrels have a dull, earth brown tone, unlike the burnt, black hue of charred oak barrels.
Bourbon whiskeys that have used the traditional charred oak barrels will often be bold and robust and take on the wood’s caramelized sugars. They will also have plenty of oaky and woodsy flavors.
Lydia Martin hails from Redmond, Washington, where you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars and distilleries that offer a great mix of local drinks. She used to work as a bar manager in Paris and is a self-taught mixologist whose passion for crafting unique cocktails led her to create Liquor Laboratory. Lydia can whip up a mean Margarita in seconds! Contact at [email protected] or learn more about us here.