Bigger than Zin - Is Bourbon Barrel Wine a Passing Fashion or Here to Stay?

Maturing whisky in sherry casks has a long and distinguished history, but traditionalists scoff at the idea of briefly storing wine in barrels previously used for whiskey. With highly profitable sales of around 20m bottles per year and the involvement of top US brands, however, bourbon barrel-aged wine is a sector that needs to be taken seriously. Sarah Phillips McCartan reports. 

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1000 Stories Spirits Barrel-Aged Wines
1000 Stories Spirits Barrel-Aged Wines

 

  • Wine aged in bourbon and other sprits barrels is a success in the US – with sales of 20m bottles – and a growing presence elsewhere.
  • If these wines were a category, it would be bigger than Zinfandel.
  • 60 brands, including Mondavi, Fetzer, Beringer and Apothic offer examples of the style.
  • Spirits-aged wine can command premium prices while being inexpensive and quick to produce.
  • Wine purists may not like them, but these products are popular with bourbon fans, and US whiskey is a fast-growing premium sector.
  • Bourbon used to be associated with male consumers, but it increasingly appeals to women.
  • Wine is also being matured in barrels used for other spirits such as tequila and rum.
  • Initially focused on the US market, spirits barrel wines are now doing well in export markets like the UK.

 

In a wine world where minimal intervention is hailed by leading critics as the key to success, an unlikely victor has emerged that turns that theory on its head. In the past year, US wine consumers have purchased 1.6 million cases – close to 20 million bottles – of spirits-aged wines according to Nielsen data. To put this into context, if the spirits-aged category were a variety, it would beat Zinfandel and Syrah, among others to rank 14th among still wines. Around 60 brands now participate in the most important sub-category, bourbon barrel-aged wines. While it was once described as a ‘gimmick’, it’s more than a market niche.

This success has come about quite quickly. Bob Blue, winemaker of 1000 Stories by Fetzer Vineyards, was using second-hand bourbon barrels in winemaking back in the early ‘80s. Traditional French casks were hard to get hold of, and American oak was mainly used for spirits. Instead, he used new and used bourbon barrels. But back in the 80s, this was just a necessity and he did his best to avoid the whisky influencing the flavour of the wine.

A decade later, however, an alcoholic drink that unashamedly displayed the rich sweet character of US whiskey hit the market in the shape of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. This popular ale created by Greg Hall at the Chicago brewery, using casks he had obtained from Jim Beam, was soon followed by a number of competitors.

It wasn’t until 2014 – just eight years ago – that wine joined the fray, when Blue launched the 1000 Stories bourbon-barrel aged Zinfandel into the American market, using its link to bourbon as a selling point. This marked the beginning of a modern era for the category.

Like other oak casks, used bourbon barrels impart unique characters into the wine. “Just like the choice of French or American oak influences a wine, using bourbon barrels brings complementary characteristics to wine, such as char, smoke, dried herbs and vanilla”, says Blue. But since the barrels are heavily charred, and infused with bourbon, this happens quite quickly. This is why wine typically spends a much shorter period – around three months – in used bourbon barrels compared to their more traditional equivalents.

A Divisive Style

This style has attracted some criticism from within the wine trade. In the context of growing excitement around natural wine, especially among those who believe it is the key to engaging younger consumers, this is unsurprising. Writing for The Washington Post in 2020, wine writer Dave McIntyre asked “In a time when many winemakers strive for less oak influence in their wines, adding bourbon flavours through extra barrel ageing seems nonsensical. So, I’m still asking: Why?”

One simple answer is that the complexity and intensity of these wines that often exceed 14.5% or even 15% in alcohol content, are attractive to some drinkers.

“These are not wimpy wines”, quips Clay Shannon of owner of Shannon Family of Wines, whose Buck Shack range includes a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Red blend matured in bourbon barrels for a minimum of three months each.

Retailers agree. “Customers who prefer bold wines tend to prefer this selection during the peak barbeque months of summer, and the cool months of winter”, says Dewayne Rabon, Senior Vice President and Chief Merchant for Southeastern Grocers, one of the largest supermarket companies in the US. He adds that the group has increased its range of bourbon barrel-aged wines to over 15 brands and is in the process of developing its own private label. Today, apart from Fetzer and Buck Shack, there is a formidable range of examples on offer. Some, like Fetzer, Robert Mondavi, Beringer , Apothic, Bogle, Sebastiani and Josh Cellars are from familiar wine brands. Others such as Stave & Steel; Cooper & Thief are directly related to the style.

Bourbon barrels (Photo: BRBN~LVR/AdobeStock)
Bourbon barrels (Photo: BRBN~LVR/AdobeStock)

Attracting Spirits Drinkers

A second answer is that this style is attractive to a growing sector of the US wine market: bourbon fans. The state of Kentucky is responsible for producing around 95% of the world’s Bourbon. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, over the first two decades of the 21st century, bourbon production in that state grew by 250%. In 2021, it produced around 2.4 million barrels – a new record for the modern era, and the third year in a row where production has exceeded 2m barrels. The association also points out that demand for premium small-batch and single-barrel brands is driving the bourbon renaissance. In other words, it’s the premium segment that is performing.

And anyone who imagined that the people buying all this whiskey are bearded, male, Harley Davidson riders in the southern states of the US, needs to change those perceptions. Today, wealthy Manhattan hedge funders of both sexes happily pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for old bottles of bourbon. Thirty years ago, only 15% of its consumers were women. Today, according to the Bourbon Women’s Association, that figure has doubled.

This trend and its implications for wine has passed largely unnoticed by many wine professionals fixated on orange wines and pet nat, but not among producers like Fetzer.

“We see 1000 Stories bringing in customers who weren’t previously interested in wine but have an affinity for spirits”, says Blue. Shannon agrees, describing them as a “bridge” which brings new consumers into the wine category – especially those who favour brown spirits, which are popular with millennials and GenXers. This news should be welcomed by members of the wine trade who are worried about wine losing market share to other alcohol categories, especially among younger consumers.

“It’s attracting younger and more affluent consumers, without alienating older shoppers. This is what everyone has been wanting to do in the wine category”, says James Hick, Commercial Manager at the UK offices of Concha y Toro, owners of Fetzer, which distributes 1000 Stories in Britain. The brand’s Zinfandel is, Hick says, the best-selling US red wine in its £12+ ($15.60) retail price category. He adds that the wines convey a sense of exclusivity – each bottle comes with a batch number – and authenticity. “Using bourbon barrels is how it actually started”, he says, referring to Blue’s start in the 80s.

Higher Prices

These wines maintain relatively high retail prices – perhaps due to the link with bourbon: the 1000 Stories Zinfandel’s £14.99 ($19.30) price tag, is well over twice the average price for a bottle of wine in the UK market. On their own soil, on the other side of the Atlantic, bourbon-barrel aged wines also mostly command premium price points. Several, such as the Agitator range which come in spirits bottles, are priced above $25.

These high retail prices come at an attractively low cost to producers. Where wineries are used to paying up to $1,500 for a new French oak barrel, thanks to the millions of new American casks Kentucky distilleries are getting through every year, one of their used ones might be as cheap as $100.

And it’s not just bourbon. Today, wine is being aged in a growing range of other spirits barrels, So Mondavi and 19 Crimes both come in rum barrel-aged versions, Jacobs Creek Double Barrel has been aged in Scotch whisky casks and Beringer offers a tequila barrel Chardonnay.

The fusion of these categories will not please everyone, but there are good reasons why it’s likely here to stay. Shannon sums it up: “With lines blurring between all segments of the alcohol beverage category, and with consumers and their drinking occasions, the brands that make bold moves are the ones that will capture the hearts of new consumers and create incremental category growth in the wine category.” Some may still call it a gimmick, but others might say the same about pet nat. Perhaps the wine world needs some gimmicks, and to accept that they won’t all appeal to the same people.

 

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