The Flavor Difference Between 'Toasted' And 'Charred' Bourbon

Bourbon whiskey has layers of flavor. Those flavors come from the mash (grains) used, the time aged, and the type of barrel it's aged in. There are differences that make a bourbon a bourbon, rather than just "whiskey." To be bourbon, certain rules apply, and they're taken very seriously. First, the mash must be at least 51% corn, distilled at no more than 160 proof, and added to a barrel at no more than 125 proof, according to New Riff Distilling. No additives are ever allowed in the mash.

Bourbons are aged anywhere from a few years to a couple of decades and even more. That means each one makes their home in a barrel for a significant amount of time. The barrels play an essential role in bringing out the tasting notes in bourbon. As the bourbon ages, it picks up flavors that are in the barrels. Sometimes the flavors are new. Sometimes they are left behind from previous bourbons, which fabulously adds to the aging liquid. 

Barrels are never randomly chosen. It's a purposeful process, and each distillery has its own method for how its bourbon ages. However, when it comes to bourbon, charring an oak barrel is the most common — and is actually one of two methods allowed that are legally required to call it a bourbon (via Angel's Envy). The other permissible way to add flavor to a barrel, although not seen as often, is toasting the barrel. So what's the difference?

Charring vs toasted

As mentioned, charring is the most common method of preparing an oak barrel to age bourbon. According to Oak and Eden, to char a bourbon barrel, it's set on fire and allowed to burn for around 30 minutes. However, different distilleries have their own requirements, and some may want less or more charring for a particular flavor. After it's burned, the barrel is cooled down and then the bourbon can be added, and the barrel is then sealed.

Bourbon truly does have strict rules, and if you don't meet all of them, you can't call your whiskey a bourbon. Recently, the method of toasting instead of charring was added to the bourbon rule book as "allowed." Toasting is a bit different than charring. Rabbit Hole Distillery explains that a toasted barrel is heated slowly at a lower temperature, compared to charring which burns fast at an extreme heat level. The low and slow method causes the heat to penetrate deeper into the wood, exposing more layers and allowing the bourbon to pick up flavors that would otherwise not be available. It's a rare treat to find a toasted bourbon, since the method is more often used for wine instead of bourbon.