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How To Identify A Genuine Oak Barrel

Oak barrels often get a bad rap in Australia.

Some sellers import imitation oak barrels in bulk from overseas and, for the most part, don’t know a thing about genuine barrels, how to use them or how to care for them. Importing from overseas might be cheaper for the seller, but the end result for the customer is a bad barrel that leaks and fails to add character to their wine and spirits.

It’s a waste of time, money and good liquor.

At the Barrel & Bar Gift Factory, we know the value of a real oak barrel. Rather than importing barrels in bulk, we invest in smaller and fresher batches of genuine rift-cut American white oak to ensure we can deliver high-performance, high-quality barrels that impart delicious, earthy aromas into your wine and spirits.

The question is: how do you identify a genuine oak barrel versus a cheap imported knock-off? Below, we’ve shared a few key elements to look out for while shopping for a new barrel — read on.

The wood

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You can’t use any old wood to build a barrel. A genuine barrel is made from either rift-cut American white oak or rift-cut French oak. These materials (and the charred interior surface) add unique aromas and notes to the alcohol. This is the primary purpose of an oak barrel.

  • American white oak barrels are used to store spirits and fortified wines. This particular oak imparts stronger, sweeter aromas into the barrel’s contents. Common descriptors include vanilla, coconut and sweet spices. Plus, American white oak is rot-resistant and has a closed-cell structure that allows the alcohol to oxidise while preventing alcohol from leaking through its pores.
  • French oak barrels are ideally used to store champagne and beer as it imparts firmer, silkier tannins. The notes are considered more savoury — common descriptors include cedar, tobacco and cashew nuts.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to visually distinguish between “rift cut” American white oak and common cut wood. Many imported barrels are made from common cut oaks like red oak, which does not add to or enhance the barrel’s contents.

The cut of the wood


The wood’s cut will also impact the barrel’s performance. The wood can’t be cut at right angles from an oak log — the grain direction of the wood has to be taken into account so that none of the radial vessels (i.e. what trees use to transport water and nutrients from the core to the bark) penetrates the side of the barrel. Otherwise, too much alcohol will evaporate, or the barrel will leak!

To avoid vessels and leaky barrels, the wood needs to be cut in a certain pattern — ideally, the “rift” cut so the tree’s rings stand vertically. This cut is considered the “elite” of all timber cuts and decreases evaporation and the risk of leaks in barrels.

The internal lining





Real American white oak barrels should be charred on the inside (French oak barrels are lightly toasted for subtlety). Cheap barrels often aren’t charred, which is a real shame — charring contributes a lot to the taste of wine and spirits! The longer a barrel is charred, the more you can taste natural notes of vanilla, caramel and toffee — a delicious result of a well-charred barrel.

There are multiple different levels of charring with their own unique benefits.


We think level three charring is always a smart choice for American white oak barrels. This level of charring works well with all spirits and fortified wines!

Aside from charring, it’s also important to note that cheap imitation barrels often have an internal bladder or lining that prevents the oak from imparting its character into the alcohol, which negates the ageing and maturing process.

An oak barrel should never have an internal bladder (even genuine American white oak barrels). It prevents an oak barrel from doing what it was designed to do!

The moisture


While genuine oak barrels feel dry to the touch, there’s actually quite a bit of moisture in the wood — and this is incredibly important for a long-lasting barrel.

Once the staves have been cut from an American white oak log, they must be dried until they reach 10% residual moisture. A freshly made oak barrel should retain this moisture — the wood will crack with any less moisture, leading to leaks, cracks and a poor-performing barrel.

The glue/sealant


If your barrel has glues, adhesives or sealants in its construction, it is not a genuine oak barrel. You should never buy a barrel that has been constructed with glue and adhesives as this can contaminate the barrel’s contents. Likewise, rivets may be used to produce the hoops of the barrel but should never be used to attach the hoop to the barrel.

An American oak barrel should be sealed by waterlogging, i.e. filling the barrel with plain tap water and allowing the oak to absorb water. During this time, the oak expands and seals the barrel, eliminating leaks naturally.

You should seal your barrel immediately. Once the process is 100% complete, you can pour alcohol into the barrel — if any leaks appear, sit the barrel somewhere safe and clear of furnishings and let it absorb the alcohol until it becomes watertight.

If you decide to shop with the Barrel & Bar Gift Factory, we’ll provide easy step-by-step sealing instructions with your new barrel. Plus, our team is always on hand to provide warranty support if you’re having trouble with the sealing process.

Shop American white oak barrels online at the Gift Factory!

At the Barrel & Bar Gift Factory, we don’t believe in selling cheap, imitation oak barrels because we understand the benefits of genuine American white oak. Your barrel should impart incredible earthy notes into the alcohol and last for years to come — a common oak barrel just won’t do the trick.

We produce our American white oak barrels in small batches so that the oak is still fresh in order to deliver a moist barrel that performs the way it’s supposed to. You won’t find dry, leaky barrels at the Gift Factory.

Shop online for custom oak barrels delivered directly to your door!

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