In the United States, a barrel crafted from American white oak (Quercus alba) and used to age the spirit that will become Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, sour mash, or any number of craft whiskies can be used only once, as specified by law. After this use, most of the used barrels are sold to distilleries in Scotland and Ireland for maturation of their whiskies. In America, the barrels are generally used between three and eight years. Across the pond, they are used to age the spirit for three to upwards of forty years.
After contributing their distinctive characteristics to the aging spirit – primarily sweet, smoky, spicy and caramelized aromas and flavors – the oak barrels are ready for the next stage of their lives. This reincarnation sometimes takes exotic turns, both in use and geography.
I recently wrote an article about two such turns. In San Diego, a company makes connoisseur-quality furniture – chairs, tables, stools, benches, and designer accessories – from recycled barrel staves. In Glasgow, a company “unbends” the staves and recycles them into bespoke flooring.