Rogue's Rolling Thunder Barrel Works keeps the tradition of aging whiskey alive

A finished product: Rogue's Dead Guy Whiskey spends a year in Rolling Thunder Oregon white oak barrels before it's bottled for sale.

At Rogue Ales and Spirits's sprawling World Headquarters, there's something magical at work -- a mix of science, tradition, and good old American risk-taking.

In the unassuming warehouse on the far end of the bay-side complex, Rogue whiskies and Imperial Stouts rest in stacks of wooden barrels. The barrels themselves are created from scratch in the shop next door to the Ocean Aging room.

It's called the Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, and it's another way Rogue is keeping it local, while also preserving a tradition that's millennia old.

"The Romans were making barrels back in the day, so it's been around a long time," says Nate "N8" Linquist, a longtime Rogue employee who's now the brewery and distillery's cooper, or barrel maker. "Two thousand-plus years. We just have better machinery."

Linquist learned the craft by apprenticing with Rick DiFerrari at Oregon Barrel Works in McMinnville for six months. He started from scratch.

"Until they asked me to become the cooper, I had no idea that this machinery existed," he says of his planers, saws, routers and hydraulic presses.

That machinery was purchased sight unseen by Rogue's president, Brett Joyce. It's World War II-era equipment, machines whose sole purpose is to make barrels, and they've made thousands of them over their long lives. But it's the raw materials they're shaping in this modern time that set Rogue's cooperage apart.

"The flavor that the barrel imparts is what everyone wants for the liquids that we put in them," says Linquist. "I mean, there's no better way to do it than a barrel."

And he makes his barrels out of Oregon white oak, a species native to the valleys and foothills of the Northwest.

"Primarily, 90-95 percent of all the world's cooperage is American oak. So that's Scot, that's Ireland, that's Canadian, that's American," says Jake Holshue, Rogue's 'Level 10 Spirits Wizard.' "So, Oregon oak for distilleries is a very new thing."

Holshue gets to work, and play, with the one or two barrels a day that Linquist turns out. Over three years, that's more than 400 of them. Pretty much all of them are stacked in Rogue's Ocean Aging room, a short barrelroll away from the Rolling Thunder Barrel Works.

"There's about five to eight different major compounds in oak that give aroma and contribution," says Holshue. "We've done some studies on Oregon oak; we've actually chemically analyzed two different spirits in two different barrels."

Those analyses determined Oregon oak is quite different from the red oaks used by most of the rest of the world. It's higher in an organic compound called eugenol, which gives whiskey a clove, spice flavor. And while American red oak has lots of lactone, which gives aged spirits a coconutty sweetness, Oregon oak has almost none of it. Those flavors emerge after Linquist toasts and chars the barrels to the specific darkness that Rogue prefers.

The barrels have three primary effects on the spirit they're aging: oak influence, estering, and, as Holshue explains, Magic.

It all adds up to Rogue's Oregon oak-aged spirits and stouts tasting and smelling different from almost any other whiskey you can buy.

The barrels have been used for Rogue's Dead Guy whiskey, which is Dead Guy Ale, without the hops, that's distilled and aged. They're also used to age Rogue Farms Oregon Rye and Rogue's Single Malt. And after a year with one of those whiskeys, Rogue's been aging its powerful Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout in the whiskey barrels. The Rolling Thunder Barrel Works was started, in part, to create that complex, 14% ABV beer, with Rogue co-founder

"Up until now, we've told the story that the stout was the end of the line and the good news is, it's not," says Holshue.

This summer, Rogue plans to unveil a special treat that's aging right now in some of the barrels in the Ocean Aging room.

"We age the spirits in those barrels for a year, take the spirits out, put that Imperial Stout in, age that for a year, then we take that Imperial Stout out and put that original spirit back in the barrels," says Holshue, with a gleam in his eye. The whiskey Jake and the team at Rogue plans to unveil this summer is clearly a proud accomplishment, although it's still a bit of a secret.

One thing we know for sure (thanks to a special tasting straight out of the barrel) is that it is complex, smooth, and packs a wallop. Rogue plans to bottle it at cask strength, close to 120 proof. It doesn't taste like it's that strong. In fact, it tastes like some of the best whiskey this writer has ever had.

"The caramel, the vanilla from the barrel, it's just a beautiful dram," boasts Holshue.

A dram that wouldn't be the same without the cooperage next door.

"It's kind of silly in the coolest way possible," says Holshue. "This isn't for financial gain; this is for the CRAFT!"

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