A roaster’s guide to whisky barrel-aged coffee

Josephine Walbank
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March 3, 2022
whisky barrel aged coffee

From espresso martinis to cold brew stouts, the coffee sector and the alcoholic drinks industry have long intersected and overlapped.

One of the most popular trends to emerge in recent years is whisky barrel-aged coffee, in which green coffee is stored in wooden barrels formerly used to manufacture wine, whisky, and rum.

As well as giving rise to new and interesting flavours, the process is considered to be both affordable and environmentally friendly. This has attracted the likes of coffee giant Starbucks, who have started to incorporate barrel-aged beans into their line of offerings.

For roasters, whisky-barrel aged coffee is a cost effective way to highlight creativity and offer consumers a distinctive drinking experience. To find out more, I spoke with the founder of Oak & Bond Coffee Co, Brian McCullen.

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What is whisky barrel-aged coffee?

Whisky barrel-aged coffee describes the process of ageing green beans in a whisky barrel before roasting. 

The process gives the coffee a range of complex flavour characteristics that commonly include a sweet aroma of wood and alcohol. Of course, the ‌result will largely depend on the coffee variety used. 

While former whisky barrels are the most popular choice for this process, rum and bourbon barrels can also be used.  

To age the coffee, green beans are left in an empty barrel for two to three weeks. The key to this process is finding the optimum ‌time to leave the beans to age. 

For example, if the beans are not aged long enough, the flavours of the barrel will not successfully transfer into the coffee. However, if left for too long, the coffee may develop an intense flavour that drowns out its more subtle notes. 

The whisky barrel-ageing process allows roasters to use any type of barrel and green bean they wish. 

As a result, it is up to them to identify beans that harmonise with the flavours absorbed through the barrel. Each whisky barrel has its own unique flavour notes, in much the same way as terroir affects green coffee.

Furthermore, the flavours absorbed by the coffee depend on the type of  barrel used, and the liquor that was prepared within it.

specialty coffee

What makes whisky barrel-aged coffee so popular?

The signature flavour of whisky barrel-aged coffee considerably contributes to its popularity. 

Its layers of bourbon, sweet wood, and alcohol make it perfectly suited for a richer version of the classic after-dinner coffee.  

Its unique flavour, coupled with the intriguing story of its preparation, means the product is almost certain to attract customers. 

“With the intense growth of ‘third-wave coffee’ and American whisky, the combination of both flavour profiles is an incredibly special experience,” says Brian, who runs Oak & Bond Coffee Co. with his wife, Lauren. “Now, consumers can experience the distinct flavours of specialty coffee and whisky combined in one (non-alcoholic) cup.”

Furthermore, Brain believes this process lets roasters share new and exciting flavours with consumers. When done correctly, whisky barrel-aged coffee highlights the roaster’s unique sense of flavour pairings and ingenuity.

whisky barrels

What to consider before offering whisky barrel-aged coffee

It takes more than adding green beans to a barrel and leaving them for up to three weeks to successfully make whisky barrel-aged coffee.

While the process sounds deceptively simple, roasters must invest time into its production to ensure their coffee is a success. 

For one, green coffee beans have a porous structure that makes them sensitive to their surroundings – particularly aromas. While this trait is what makes whisky barrel-aged coffee possible, roasters must exercise care in their techniques.

Several factors can affect the outcome of the coffee’s flavour profile. Therefore, each factor must be addressed to find the optimum conditions to achieve the desired result.

“Producing the highest quality barrel-aged coffee takes time to develop the craft,” Brian says. “It’s a wonderful experience and a continuous learning process, as every barrel is different – just as every coffee is different.”

However, when the right procedures are followed, Brian says it can produce an unbelievable cup of coffee and open new revenue streams.

Before producing whisky barrel-aged coffee at full scale, roasters must decide on the best green beans, barrel type, and ageing time, as well as the roast profile and brewing method. 

Determine roast profile

Typically, a medium roast profile is chosen for whisky barrel-aged coffee to help accentuate certain flavours.

Although, blonde roasts can also be used to give consumers a greater sense of the beans’ full complexity. 

Once the roast profile is determined, roasters must decide how to prepare the coffee to showcase the rich flavour notes to their full potential. 

Decide on a brewing method

The best brewing method for whisky barrel-aged coffee remains a contentious topic in the specialty sector. Specifically, many debate whether traditional brewing methods or cold brew would be best.

Usually, the cold brew method is most popular for whisky barrel-aged coffee. This is because the prolonged steeping of the ground coffee helps unlock an intense aroma.

Furthermore, it reveals the complexity of the notes inherent to the coffee bean, as well as the flavours produced through the barrel-ageing process. 

However, this option may not be viable for all coffee producers, as they may need to invest in the necessary equipment to produce cold brew on a large scale. 

Additionally, the cold brew process takes considerable time. When added to the weeks spent on the barrel-ageing process, this could reduce profit yields.  

While traditional hot brewing methods are faster and easier, roasters may risk losing the full extent of the coffee’s flavour. As a result, it may be difficult for roasters to convince consumers to pay more for or re-purchase this special blend. 

Another key point is if roasters ‌choose the cold brew method, it may deter some consumers if they do not have the equipment or time to do it at home. If roasters wish to sell whisky barrel-aged coffee beans in whole bean form, the packaging will need to provide consumers with instructions on the optimum serving style.

Consequently, traditional brewing methods such as using a French press or Moka pot, may be better suited when selling direct to consumers.

Whisky barrel-aged coffee can be a fantastic opportunity to showcase skill and innovation. However, before roasters begin, it’s essential they consider all the factors at play and determine the ideal processes.

Furthermore, it is vital that the coffee remains fresh, regardless of the chosen brewing method. Eco-friendly packaging such as sustainable coffee bags with a recyclable lining will not only keep coffee fresh, but let consumers know they are helping to protect the environment.

At MTPak Coffee, we can provide roasters with sustainable coffee packaging materials, such as kraft and rice paper coffee bags with recyclable LDPE and PLA linings. 

Additionally, our sustainable water-based inks can be used to print information for consumers about the best brewing methods for whisky barrel-aged coffee.

For more information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact the team

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A roaster’s guide to whisky barrel-aged coffee

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