Inventor staves off bourbon boredom

Chris Harrigan is the inventor of aging staves.

You can’t turn swill into Pappy Van Winkle. But as a Clemson University MBA student discovered, you can at least turn the effort into a viable business.

Short of the thousands of dollars needed to buy some of the whiskey world’s best bottles, Chris Harrigan decided to try improving affordable bourbon by resting it in a tiny oak barrel sold as part of a home whiskey-aging kit. He produced lousy liquor, but decided to explore whether there was a better do-it-yourself solution.

Eventually, Harrigan came up with skinny wooden staves designed to be dropped into a bottle or batched cocktail, mimicking the effects of long-term wood exposure. Harrigan allows that the Beyond Barrels staves won’t magically transform lesser bourbon into a high-quality spirit, but they’re useful for small-scale projects, such as making a unique drink for a special event. It takes two weeks for a stave to replicate a months-long barrel aging process, Harrigan says.

Since introducing the product eight months ago, Harrigan has sold it to 43 restaurants. Charleston restaurants using the staves include The Gin Joint, Poogan’s Smokehouse and 492, which favors Cherrywood staves soaked in sherry.

Because each stave measures approximately 5 inches by 1 inch, Harrigan can use exotic woods that aren’t adaptable for barrels.

Additionally, he says, the dimensions are optimized so the liquid gets plenty of wood exposure, but not too much. The problem with personal-sized barrels is their surface area is too large, he says.

“The best analogy I can come up with is cooking temperature,” Harrigan says, pointing out you wouldn’t cook a Thanksgiving turkey at 1,000 degrees. “That’s what happens when you use one of your smaller barrels.”

So why not just toss a paint stirrer from the hardware store in your pitcher of Negronis? Harrigan says wood that’s been kiln-dried won’t have the desired effect on drinks. It’s also likely that any wood designed for construction has been sprayed with pesticides, and may well feature more end grain than side grain. For flavor purposes, the latter is preferred.

Harrigan is encouraging Beyond Barrels buyers to char or smoke their staves for different results. But he admits he hasn’t yet added related instructions to the company’s website: Right now, he’s focused on competitive cycling and finding a job. Still, he plans to keep marketing his staves, which this week debut in California.

“It’s definitely gone beyond the stage of being a hobby,” he says.