As the session was breaking up, I overheard another attendee, in all earnestness, explaining that the practice of infusing spirits with wood shavings and essences rather than straight-up barrel aging is a relatively new practice borrowed directly from home beer brewers during the last 20 years. Yeah, I know: it's hogwash, but I was hustling to another meeting and so didn’t stop to get all Cliff Clavin on his ass.
Clearly, as bitters and bitter wine recipes spanning the last 200 years show, the practice of adding small bits of wood to high-proof alcohol for flavor and color is well known among spirits blenders. Set aside all the woody barks, chips, and shavings one finds in old recipes for flavoring and coloring spirits to be used as tonics, cordials, and bitters—the cherry bark, slippery elm, spruce, birch, Angostura bark, Brazilwood, cinchona, cinnamon, logwood, and cassia with which pharmacists and DIY bartenders are familiar. Just look at recipes for imparting oakiness to whiskey meant to be consumed as whiskey and not medicine or sweetened cordials: we can see there's nothing new about it.
To correct this mistaken notion that putting the barrel in the spirit is somehow a conceit taken from 20th century beer brewers, I offer two specific recipes predating Prohibition's repeal that bypass barrel aging in favor of a quicker, if not wholly authentic, method of achieving an oaked finish.
The first is from M. La Fayette Byrn’s The Complete Practical Distiller (1875, page 144) —
A quantity of oak-bark shavings, deposited for some time in spirits of wine, will form a dilute tincture of oak; this may be added to colour spirits, instead of burnt sugar.The second is from a Prohibition-era distiller’s secret manuscript in my private collection.
Peach Flavoring for WhiskeyI'll pass on Byrn's recipe, but the secret 1920's recipe book looks promising, as peach, tea, and whiskey go together quite nicely. Fish House Punch, anyone?
Steep for one month ten gallons dried peaches, 10 gallons oak sawdust and five pounds black tea in 40 gallons proof spirits, strain & filter.