By Tom Bender

Whether it is wine, whiskey or beer, for more than 150 years, the American oak barrel has had an important influence on each of these popular alcoholic beverages.

Used as storage, transportation and aging vessels, producers also took advantage of the resulting oak flavors, which became a big factor in styling wines and many distilled products. Unlike some whiskey production in the U.S. or wine production in certain European regions where both are faced with barrel aging requirements, our California winemakers have the freedom to do whatever they like when it comes to barrels. And lately this includes combining these flavor components with increasing interest in aging red wines in used whiskey barrels.

My first exposure to one was about a year ago when a customer requested one. It was the 1000 Stories Zinfandel. A week or two later I spotted it at a newly opened bourbon bar in downtown Sonora where, among their handful of wine options, was this California Zin that was aged in bourbon whiskey barrels. My first chance to taste it was a short time later when it was featured along with about a dozen other Zins at a special holiday tasting I organized. It got a mediocre response, and several of the tasters, including myself, felt it was lost among the other traditional Zins. You could tell it had picked up some byproducts of the whiskey, including a smoky caramel character and a warm full-bodied finish. It sat on the shelf and seemed to get little play until recently when several other big players in the wine industry have reds that have been aged in whiskey barrels and jumped in big time.

Earlier this month the Gallo family released a version called Apothic Inferno and, while they refer to it as a limited release, it is getting big play nationally. I found it funny that my local Gallo rep indicated it was so limited our store would be allocated only three cases, and he was unable to sample the wine with accounts. Ironically, because I am on a list of media contacts, a couple of days later I heard from a marketing firm in New York City offering me Inferno info and a sample if I’d like. So much for my local pull.

Same thing happened with the Robert Mondavi Selection Series Bourbon Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon, which was released earlier this summer. When I recently inquired about ordering this red for the store, I was informed it was not available to us and what they still had in stock became a restaurant and bar item. Once again, a few days later I got an email from a different East Coast media marketing firm wanting to send me a sample and tech info. Sounds like there is no problem getting these unique wines back east.

In any case, they are an interesting approach to aging red wines.

The Robert Mondavi Cab sources their fruit from Monterey County, and a portion of the wine is aged in bourbon barrels for about three months.

Another whiskey-barrel-aged red is one called Protest, which is produced by Chateau Diana Winery in Sonoma County. Using mostly Syrah, the winemaker then ages the blend for 45 days in rye whiskey barrels. You can definitely pick up the rye notes in the finished product.

Most of the barrels used offer little oak extraction flavors but instead pick up some of the remaining charred interior and absorbed whiskey. And whether it is in their aroma or flavors, they all are high octane reds. Their alcohol contents ranging from 15.4 to 15.9 percent, and the wines’ flavors finish on the warm side.

All of them are dry with a good core of fruit and would warm you up on a cool wet evening like this past Sunday. Or it might work with some heartier foods such as grilled marinated tri tip.

Prices are modest, ranging from $12 to $18.

Breweries have also been using whiskey barrels for brewing or aging limited release beers for several years. They usually show up just before the holidays and can be even harder to find and more expensive than the wines I mentioned. I just heard about an arrangement between Jameson Whiskey and Guiness Stout rotating barrels so that that a special offering of their Irish beer and whiskey pick up some of each others flavors. And some West Coast brewers have taken to aging their sours in used wine barrels.

So, if there is someone on your upcoming holiday shopping list that enjoys a good whiskey but does not drink much wine, you might have found the perfect present.