Oak casks are used for the aging of spirits and wine, and add their own flavor to the liquid they hold. Many people who choose tomake their own wine at home purchase oak casks for the aging process to age their wine and add color and change the flavor and tannin profile. Oak casks also can be referred to as wine barrels and come in a variety of sizes. In some cases, they are also used during the fermentation process.
About Oak Casks
The majority of oak barrels used in wine making are either American Oak or French Oak. Oak casks in American generally come from a couple of areas-primarily Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin as well as the Southeastern states where the species of oak used for making barrels thrives. French winemakers prefer white oak casks from specific regions of France, although other types may be used. Oak casks are also produced in other parts of the world, including Croatia and the Baltic region.
French and American Oak
There are a few differences between the two main species of oak that are used in wine barrels. French oak must be split while American can be serrated, which means an American oak tree produces more useable wood for barrels than oak. That aside, they are different in how they affect the wine that they contain.
Sweeter, with vanilla flavors
Wines with heavy tannins, wines requiring a shorter aging process
Light sweetness, fruitiness, spice, almond
Wines with lighter tannins, wines requiring a longer aging process
American oak will reduce harshness in wine faster than French oak, and it is good for wines that will age between half a year and a year. French oak, on the other hand, will mellow wine more slowly, but has more complexity to the flavor profiles, making it good for wines that need more complexity added and a longer aging process.
How Casks Work
Casks age wine by allowing oxygen to be very slowly introduced to the wine, aging it over time and allowing the harshness and alkaline nature of young wines to be reduced and mellow. Wine casks also allow the character of the wood to be introduced to the wine over time. The wine will draw out the flavors inherent in the type of wood used; therefore, the profile of the wine will be changed and enhanced.
New Casks Versus Used
As a general rule, a cask loses most of its ability to impart flavor to the wine after three to five uses. New casks will impart the strongest flavors, and most winemakers prefer to use them no more than a few times before going to new barrels. On average about half of the available flavors of the wood will go into the first batch of wine. This tends to increase the price of oak casks, making the larger ones difficult for the average home-winemaker to afford. After being used to age wine, however, oak casks are often used in the aging of spirits, which means winemakers can re-sell the casks to people looking to age spirits such as whiskey, in which the flavors left by the wine add to the profile of the spirit.
Oak Casks Versus Stainless Steel
Some winemakers use stainless-steel casks as another option for aging wine. Generally, they are used for specific types of wine, especially whites like chardonnay. Stainless-steel barrels can be used repeatedly, unlike wood wine barrels, which makes them economical and earth-friendly, but they won't impart the flavors that oak can give to the wine. Winemakers sometimes combine the two methods by adding wood chips to the wine inside the stainless-steel cask. This is a cost-effective method of getting some of the oak flavor in the wine, but it is not as effective as true oak-cask aging.
Buying Oak Casks
Oak casks are available from wine-making supply stores, both brick and mortar and online-as well as on eBay. They come in a variety of sizes from very small, even a single gallon, to very large ones that are intended for aging large quantities of wine. The size you purchase will depend on the size of your wine batches, but keep in mind that the bigger the barrel, the more expensive it will become. And, since they can only be used a few times, you will need to replace them after a few uses. Casks are sometime sold in sets or can be purchased individually. If you plan to use a number of casks, buying them in bulk is a good way to defray expenses.
Casks can be purchased plain, or they can be purchased with several decorative options. Because they are made of wood, casks can be decorated with lettering or even images using wood-burning and other techniques. This usually adds to the cost but is something to consider if your casks will be on display during aging. Decoration on casks can be personalized, or may already be determined by the maker.
If you are not looking to use the cask but merely want to purchase a wine cask as a decoration for your home, a small decorative cask is a good choice. Some people also like the rustic look of older, used casks as home décor, with large ones being popular as end tables or for other surface use. These are more affordable once they can no longer be used for the aging of wine or spirits, and are often found for sale as decorative items or turned into furniture.
If you are making wine from a kit, it's likely you will be making a five-gallon batch, although some make a ten-gallon amount. You will need a cask large enough to contain the full amount of the batch of wine, unless you plan to age some in oak and some in another container or even in the bottle, which might be kept in a wine cellar or wine fridge. Determine how much wine you plan to age, and then purchase the correct cask size to correspond. Casks are available in smaller sizes as well if you want to age three gallons or a five-gallon batch and bottle the rest. This will allow you to taste the difference between the two.
Buying on eBay
One of the online sources for oak casks is eBay, and you will find a variety of sizes of oak barrels available for sale among many other wine making supplies. Oak casks can be sold either new or used, so be certain you know which you are purchasing before you buy. Using both "cask" and "barrel" in your search will produce the most results. Also, eBay offers a buyer protection plan that adds to the security of buying through this reliable, online source.
Shipping of Oak Casks
Depending on the size of the casks you are going to purchase, you might find that shipping costs can be on the high side. Some eBay sellers offer free shipping, but if not, be sure to discuss the shipping method and cost with the seller before you purchase. You might be able to negotiate a less expensive shipping method or combine shipping if you are purchasing more than one cask from the same seller.
Oak casks are an age-old method of aging wine and imparting to it the flavor and characteristics of the wood. Because casks can be used to age wine only a few times and lose more of the characteristics of the wood with each use, they can be expensive, but can be re-sold for aging spirits.
Oak casks can be purchased in plain and decorative options and in a variety of sizes to meet your needs. Save on oak casks by shopping eBay and buying only the size you need. While you're browsing, be sure to check out the many other items available to satisfy your taste buds.