Have you ever wanted to age your own whisky at home? Well, Master of Malt campaigns manager James Evans took the plunge recently and bought himself a little oak cask. Here he shares his experiences and offers some tips for mini oak cask ageing so you too can become a whisky master.

Like most whisky heads, there comes a time when you fantasise about opening your own distillery, creating weird and wonderful whiskies to share with friends. And make a boatload of freaking money in the process. Then you look at the capital such a venture would require and your dreams get well and truly crushed. 

It’s not just money, or lack of, that’s the problem. During one of these episodes of fantasising about life as a whisky maker, I found myself googling home distilling and discovered that within the UK it is illegal to distil spirits without a licence. Which is something of a roadblock.

Tips for mini oak cask ageing

But these online forums of backdoor distillers did reveal that you can get your whisky creation fix from experimenting with oak casks. Now we at MoM are no strangers to a good mini cask experiment (see old post here from 2013) but it was all new to me so I wasted no time in gathering research, writing down some best practices and asking others for advice who had experimented with mini casks previously.

Before you know it, I was in deep. Does my descent into madness sound familiar to you? Has this intro piqued your interest? Well, worry not friends! I shall share with you my process, my learning, and my advice for the budding mini caskers amongst you.

mini cask

Behold! The mini cask!

Step one: preparing the mini cask

The process began with the mini cask itself. When selecting a vessel for your liquid baby, take extra care. Many mini casks found online will be plastic lined suitable only for storing liquids and not imparting any oaky flavours at all. You’ll also need to ensure the vessel is made from oak and is suitable for “ageing” (it’s not really ageing, more finishing, but we will say that anyways because it sounds more exciting). 

Now once you have your vessel it’s important to remove any wood chip debris that may be lingering in the cask itself. Take the plug out of the bunghole (heh, heh, bunghole), then rinse out the cask with warm water a couple of times to ensure you get any debris out.

After rinsing a few times over with warm water, fill the entire cask with warm water again, plug the top and let that bad boy sit for about two days to allow the oak to saturate and expand, turning upside down at the end of day one to ensure the whole cask gets coverage. These mini casks have a tendency to be leaky fellas so you want to ensure that you close the gaps in the wood as you would rather spill some water rather than your precious liquid gold. I left my cask sitting in my old and battered baking tray to catch any leaky water.

Mini cask ageing

Finally found a use for that Haig Club

Step two: the sacrificial liquid  

Once you have thoroughly soaked your mini cask, empty it out again. Now that the cask is saturated, whisky should be able to be safely deposited without any spillage (if leaks stay persistent after saturating the cask, try rubbing some wax on the outside to plug any troublesome areas). 

For the first fill, you want to use high percentage alcohol such as whisky or vodka to tame the initial new oak explosion. Do not use the whisky you are ultimately looking to experiment with as these strong oak flavours will most likely spoil the desired outcome. In my case, I had some whisky leftover from a crazy party civilised dinner party, which I then funnelled into the mini cask as my sacrificial liquid. You then want to leave this in the mini cask for a further two days turning the cask again after day one. 

Mini cask

Tawny Port – superb for seasoning casks

Step three: season the mini cask (optional but encouraged) 

Okay, now this is the moment when the experiment really starts to get interesting because you get to decided whether to season your cask. You could use Tequila, rum, wine, syrups… really anything you want. Go crazy! In my case, I played it safe and went for a classic Port seasoning for my mini boy. Let it be known that I spared no expense in my choice of the finest Port, picked up from an exclusive little wine merchant I know. I believe they call it Tesco.

Now, at this point, I emptied my mini cask of the first-fill whisky and re-filled it with my decadent Port. I left this to sit in the cask for about three weeks. Admittedly I don’t think it required this much time but it worked for me and I was entirely happy with the outcome. Again, I was turning the cask every couple of days with the Port fill and did experience some spillage from the bunghole (gets me every time). I resolved this by tying some elastic bands to the plug and placing it back in. 

Step four: the final fill 

At the end of the three weeks, I emptied my cask and actually found the over-oaked Port to be quite delicious! So I would highly recommend trying the liquid you seasoned the cask with as the strong flavours might be to your liking. Once the cask was empty, I left it for about a day to dry out a little before re-filling for the final time with the whisky (or another spirit) of choice to experiment with. I went for a cask strength Machrie Moor single malt in order to draw out the oak and Port goodness and incorporate it into this lightly peated dram. I filled the cask and then followed up by wrapping the mini cask in clingfilm in an attempt to keep those pesky angels off my precious liquid! I’m referring to the angel’s share here for anyone not aware, I’m not suggesting my flat is in heaven.

I then placed my cask outside on my balcony (it was winter weather when I did my experiment) in order to keep the temperature low and slow those angels down further. At this point, it is up to your personal preference as to how long you leave your liquid resting in the mini-cask. But, I advise tasting every couple of days until you are satisfied with the outcome. Do keep in mind that you can always leave longer but there is no going back, so once it’s good for you, be safe and take it out, don’t assume longer means better. 

You’ll also need to be aware that evaporation occurs much faster in a small vessel like this so be sure not to leave it there for too long as you may find it returning much less liquid than putting in. For my taste, a week in the mini cask was spot on and upon sampling the glorious whisky I had created(ish) with my own two hands, I immediately decanted into some empty bottles and admired my creation in all its beauty.

Mini Cask

Check out the difference in colour

Step five: enjoy, share and compare

The result was a subtle oak forward nose, lightly peated malt with some deep red fruit influence from the Port on the palate. Overall it introduced some heavier flavours and aromas from the oak and Port in a way that wasn’t at all overpowering but nicely integrated. It made for a superb dram that was everything I love in a sit, sip, and share whisky. That’s the key to this experiment right there, sharing. The most enjoyable part of this type of experimenting is being able to share your creations with friends, get their opinion, inspire them to try their own, compare results and just have a ton of fun with it. 

So, that’s it, go forth and create something uniquely wonderful! And make sure to share your results with us as we would love to see your homemade drams, mini cask competitions with your mates and hear about any disasters you encountered along the way.