Bourbon and wine barrels are easiest to find. Bourbon barrels are plentiful (at least if you can reach barrel dealers) because bourbon, by law, must be aged in new oak barrels for at least three years. That means most bourbon distillers are unloading barrels in a handful of years, creating generous turnover. The United States now has a large enough of a wine industry that wineries have plenty of new barrels to unload because wineries use barrels once or a small number of uses. Unlike domestic whiskey, which is far more concentrated in the midwest and Appalachian states, the wine industry is very spread out. That makes obtaining fresh wine barrels from local sources easy. However, other barrels are more difficult to find. Many barrel-aged liquors are produced in lower volumes and tend to be produced in a limited geographic region. If you're after Canadian whiskey barrels, for example, you're not going to find those locally in Texas. Conversely, if you want a tequila barrel you might find one in Texas but probably not near our northern neighbor.
Commercial brewers have no choice but to buy actual barrels to inject liquor/wine flavor into their beer. Barrels are practical storage vessels for beer, which gives them a utility beyond just flavor. It is also illegal for brewers to fortify their beers by adding liquor, so they have to rely on whatever the barrel will give up (although an argument could be made that the barrel is still fortifying the beer). However, as homebrewers, we don't have the same need to move our beer out of fermentors while they adopt new flavors. Nor are we at risk of a TTB raid if we add some liquor directly into our beer. Instead, we can soak some oak cubes or chips in liquor or wine and add those to the fermentor to replicate some of the effect of barrel aging (obviously any aeration caused by barrel aging would not be replicated). I'll leave the debate whether this process closely approximates barrel aging to another post (and I will discuss it soon) but if you are interested in trying to brew a tequila barrel-aged beer, you're probably not going to find a tequila barrel any time soon.
What beer to add to which "barrel"Not all liquors or wines will go well with all types of beers. Pairing the base beer with the "barrel" flavor is a lot like any other flavor combinations you might create in other areas of brewing or cooking.The three easiest ways to start pairing barrel flavors with beer is to: (1) match the same flavor combinations you see in cocktails; or (2) match the flavor combinations you find in food normally paired with the liquor; (3) or pair similar flavors together to create complexity. For example, bourbon is often paired with cola, which has similar vanilla and caramel flavors you can find in imperial stouts. Makes it an easy combination. Pairing other liquors and wines with beers can be more complex. Below is a chart of various liquor and wine options and some examples of how to pair them.
|Wine/liquor||Flavor description||Possible uses|
|White wine||Range of flavors depending on the specific style; can range from sweet to dry; chardonnay is probably most commonly used and adds some buttery character along with the grape flavor and some sweetness depending on how dry it is||Versatile use, common with sour beers and lighter colored beers but can be used with surprisingly good results with brown-colored beers (e.g. Hops and Grain Chardonnay Alt)|
|Red wine||Diverse styles result in wide variety of flavor options; quality of wine may play a role in what flavors are contributed, will add tannins and general red grape flavors along with the specific flavors of the grape varieties used and any fermentation-created flavors||Versatile use, common with sour beers and gaining use in very small quantities with light-colored beers where it adds some complexity without overwhelming; plays nicely with dark beers like stouts and quads; works well with many hop varieties|
|Bourbon||Sweet whiskey variety mostly known for adding caramel and vanilla but some variants like Jack Daniels have unique flavor profiles; derives a lot of flavor from oak||Versatile use, extremely common in imperial stouts but can be generally used in most beer styles; particularly dry beers may not benefit from the added perception of sweetness from bourbon; in small quantities can give oak flavor without adding strong bourbon flavor or sweetness, mirroring well-used barrel with most of the flavor already stripped out|
|US Rye whiskey||Rye whiskey is more assertive than bourbon with a spicy, earthy rye character that some find harsh and unpleasant||Can be used anywhere bourbon can be used but can give the impression of being more boozy because the flavor is more assertive; good starting point is any beer that could stand up to a rye addition in the grain bill, e.g. an imperial stout turned into a rye imperial stout would likely stand up to a rye whiskey barrel; careful putting beers with strong rye content in rye whiskey, use "barrel" sparingly; works extremely well in sweeter dark beers like porters and scotch ales where the more assertive flavor is balanced better than a beer like an imperial stout that already has a lot of aggressive flavor from dark malts|
|Canadian (blended) whiskey||Blended whiskey with a mild flavor and subtle rye character; may range from very smooth to harsh depending on the quality (and cost). Most often mixed with cola, which makes it pair well with beers that have similar vanilla and caramel flavors, but also works in other traditional whiskey cocktails; less assertive in rye character than most US rye whiskeys||Can be used like bourbon but will add less obvious flavors; can also be used in low amounts in lighter beers where it can add to grain complexity and some oak notes without being as assertive as bourbon or US rye whiskeys. Be careful about using low end Canadian whiskeys because they can be particularly harsh and add unpleasant character|
|Irish whiskey||Irish whiskey tends to be very smooth and mellow in flavor which makes it a poor choice for beer because it lacks a particular flavor contribution and is not likely to stand out as an independent flavor contribution. This is a similar problem with Canadian whiskey and Scotch||Even less assertive than Canadian whiskey so it will be hard to find an obvious pairing. May work best to round out grain complexity and some oak character rather than expecting it to make a distinct contribution to the flavor.|
|US blended whiskey||Can have a wide variety of flavors from very aggressive oak or grain flavors to very mellow flavors similar to Irish whiskey and other blended whiskeys; most are not well known for their flavor profile, instead they are commonly used in mixed drinks for a generic whiskey addition||Depending on the flavor profile it can be used like bourbon, Canadian whiskey, Irish whiskey or Scotch|
|Scotch (blended)||Like Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey and other blended whiskeys, blended Scotch has a mellow and smooth character than tends to lack an assertive flavor. Commonly used in Scotch-based cocktails||Use like any other blended whiskey|
|Scotch (single malt)||Single malt Scotch can range from smooth and mellow to aggressively smokey; tends to have a deeper flavor profile than Irish whiskey and blended whiskeys but the flavors are normally delicate and easily lost in a beer, probably too expensive to lose the flavor and end up with a more generic whiskey flavor||Milder Scotches could be used like blended whiskey, some have interesting flavor profiles that could add gentle flavors as long as they are not easily overwhelmed by the beer; peated Scotches could be used to add smokey character to the beer but could probably obtain the same result with peat malt. IMO using single malts is not good value|
|Tequila||Good tequilas will not contain the burn of cheap mixto; depending on the origin of the agave, tequila may be sweet and citrusy or earthy and herbal; pairs well with fruity flavors as well as coffee||Tequila is easily overdone for Americans who tend to think of tequila as an unpleasant-flavored shot but in small amounts can add interesting earthy or citrus flavor; could work well with sours or yeast-forward Belgian beers; also works surprisingly well with beers with a light roast or coffee flavor like schwarzbiers, may be able to create a very unique stout/tequila combination|
|Mezcal||Mezcal is thought of as cheap tequila because most mezcal is mixto, but mezcal is tequila made with agave other than blue agave (or grown outside of Jalisco); can range from tasting very similar to tequila to having a salty and smoky flavor; can be used the same way as tequila but holds up to earthy flavors better than most tequilas and is often served with a strange ground worm garnish||Use similar to tequila; due to its pairing with earthy flavors may be interesting with sour beers or brett beers|
|Gin||Gin is herbal with a strong juniper note, making it a good option for beers that can hold up to herbal additions; not just English beers that may have started life as gruit (or the traditional definition of ale) but also Scandanavian beers and hoppy beers where herbal and earthy notes are common||Gin has not been well explored in beer but has appeared in some Scandanavian beers and a few gin barrel-aged IPAs; could be interesting with Belgian beers where spicy yeast notes could play well with gin; good starting point would be to find beer recipes using juniper and either layer gin barrel on top of that flavor or take out the herbs and substitute in gin barrel flavor|
|Sherry||Sherry ranges from sweet to very dry, it has a diverse range of flavor from fruity and sweet to dry and nutty; sherry barrels are often used in Scotch aging where they impart fruity and nutty notes; could be used similar to white wine barrels but providing a different flavor profile from chardonnay or other popular white wines||Not commonly used in beer, could be interesting for sour beers, big beers like Scotch ales or barleywines; would be careful about using sherry that has not been pasteurized or filtered because the sherry flor may be present and could go to work on the beer|
|Port||Ports range in style from sweet to dry but most port is a sweet and heavy red wine; could be used similar to other red wines but where a bolder flavor may be desired||Unexplored in brewing, port "barrels" could provide interesting red wine flavor; probably a good candidate for bigger beers where the beer's flavor can hold its own against the more assertive wine flavor of port|
|Madeira||An unusual wine made to withstand warm temperatures, madeira is often very acidic with smoky, almond or caramel flavors; most commonly used in cooking these days in sauces and soups; commonly used in cooking with rich meats and earthy flavors||Also unexplored in brewing, could provide an interesting wine flavor to beers with earthy notes such as brett beers; avoid madeira wines meant for cooking because they may have salt and pepper added|
|Rum||Rum barrels are gaining popularity among brewers as an alternative to wine or bourbon; range from light rum that is fairly bland and sweet to darker rums with strong sugar cane or molasses flavor; works well with cola flavors like vanilla and caramel as well as fruity flavors like fruity cocktails, also works extremely well with mint in mojitos||Light rum works as a more pleasant alternative than vodka for soaking oak for a barrel flavor without a strong liquor flavor; dark rums with molasses flavor, rather than just a strong oak flavor, can contribute a lot of interesting flavors that would pair nicely with darker beers|
|Brandy/Cognac||Brandy is a distilled wine and usually is grape-based although there are some apple-based brandys on the market, can find other fruit-based brandy; often sweet with flavor that ranges from fruity to oaky; can be drank straight but also included in many cocktails||Sweetness is diluted out with barrel aging, leaving behind fruity flavors along with oak; works with sours and Belgian beers but could be interesting with barleywines or German beer styles|