While your average wine drinker has likely never heard of bourbon barrel-aged wines, it's a trend that began of necessity: Re-using old bourbon barrels is cheaper than purchasing new barrels.
But by happy accident, winemakers found that the charring and increased wood-to-wine ratio of the bourbon barrels, which are taller and skinnier than traditional wine barrels, actually lend an all new profile to the wine, one that's richer and more intense.
Cabs, zins, and chardonnays produced in bourbon barrels naturally take on notes of caramel, maple, vanilla, and brown sugar. In the glass, the toasted oak bourbon barrels add a hint of smokiness for wines that pair well with steak and bold cheeses but are also drinkable enough for your average Tuesday night.
Six years after officially hitting the market, bourbon barrel-aged wines keep trending upward. If you love bourbon (and even if you don't), you may love these five bourbon-barrel aged California wines from Napa, Mendocino, and Lodi.
Beringer Bros.' Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Beringer's spirit-aged wines pay homage to Jacob and Frederick Beringer who,150 years ago, were reusing barrels from their distillery to produce some of Napa's earliest wines. In those days, the decision was an economic one—recycling barrels just made sense financially—but the Beringer brothers found that their thriftiness added a new layer of complexity to their wines.
Today, Beringer is back in the business of producing wine in spirit barrels, with four affordable varietals sold under the Beringer Brothers label. Their 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), aged for 60 days in American oak bourbon barrels, is rich and warm with aromas of ripe black cherry, dark chocolate, and a finish of vanilla, toasted hazelnut, toffee, and blackberry preserve. // Get a taste at Beringer's St. Helena tasting room or order online // 2000 Main St. (St. Helena), beringer.com.
1000 Stories' Bourbon Barrel-Aged Zinfandel
The bourbon barrel-aging boom began with Fetzer Vineyards, a Mendocino winery with a half-century of production under its belt. In 2014, Fetzer winemaker Bob Blue launched the first modern bourbon barrel-aged wines under the name 1000 Stories. (Fun fact: The bison on the label is a nod to a collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society to restore America's bison population).
The 2017 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Zinfandel Batch #59 ($19) is rich and full-bodied with notes of dried cherry and hints of butterscotch, vanilla spice, and mocha absorbed from the bourbon-saturated oak. Other varietals, including a cabernet sauvignon, a carignan, and a chardonnay have similar warm tones with subtle smoky notes. // Purchase at 1000storieswines.com.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection's Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chardonnay
A pioneering Napa Valley estate, Robert Mondavi Winery has also embraced bourbon barrel-aged wines. The winery sources bourbon barrels from a Kentucky bourbon distillery to produce their 2017 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chardonnay ($14), which won gold medals at the 2019 Denver International Wine Competition and 2018 Monterey County International Wine Competition.
The recycled oak casks add notes of vanilla and baking spices to a decadent palate of grilled pineapple, lemon custard, graham cracker, and toffee. Try a glass at Clooney's Pub or Hi Dive in San Francisco. // robertmondaviprivateselection.com
Cooper & Thief's Red Wine Blend
This cutting-edge Lodi winery specializes in spirit-aged wines with two bourbon barrel-based red varietals and a sauvignon blanc aged in tequila barrels straight from Mexico.
Cooper and Thief's 2017 Red Wine Blend ($25), made from merlot, syrah, zinfandel and cabernet grapes, is dark and jammy with aromas of plum, a bit of smokiness on the nose, and a subtle heat at the finish. Get a taste at The Homestead in SF. // cooperandthief.com
Cosentino Winery's Cigar Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Forty-year old Cosentino Winery was the first in Napa Valley to create a Bordeaux-inspired meritage, so it's little surprise these innovative makers would be early to arrive at the bourbon barrel-aged trend.
Made with coastal California cab grapes, their 2017 Cigar Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon is a smooth, intense beauty. It is first aged for a year in French oak barrels before being transferred into heavily charred American oak barrels for an additional four to five months. The result is a bold wine with aromas of blackberry and black cherry that gently blend with hints of caramel, vanilla, and coffee. Although the vintage is currently sold out on Cosentino's website, you can find bottles at Whole Foods, BevMo, or Solano Cellars in Berkeley and,you may be lucky enough to get a taste at their Napa tasting room. // 7415 St. Helena Hwy (Napa), cosentinowinery.com