When Aric Schmiling took over as winemaker for Wisconsin\u2019s von Stiehl Winery in 1997, he had a lot to learn. His parents purchased the farm when Schmiling and his brother, Brad, were young, and he\u2019d grown up at the winery. To take on winemaking operations was a big step, but he was ready to make a few changes.\r\n\r\nTwo years into his new career, Schmiling met with the winery\u2019s longstanding barrel provider, T.W. Boswell. He wanted to experiment with aging his wines in French oak, known for its finer grain and high tannins. The cooper\u2019s suggestion? Use hybrid barrels, made from a blend of two or more species of oak.\r\n\r\nWhy? Because hybrid barrels offer unique aging benefits\u2014and it\u2019s less expensive.\r\n\r\nThe influence that wood has on a finished wine or spirit is immense, but to use 100% French oak barrels can be cost prohibitive.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe thought it would be a good way to experiment with French oak and not have to lay out upwards of $900 for a full French oak barrel,\u201d says Schmiling. \u201cIt started out as more of an economic [solution] and seeing how we liked them.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe hybrid barrel used American oak staves, which are the long, concave pieces of wood that make up the body of the barrel. They were joined by French oak heads, the circular pieces of wood that enclose each end. Schmiling channeled benefits from each type of oak into everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to Tempranillo and Montepulciano.\r\n\r\n\u201cAmerican oak is far softer and gives different components, like vanilla and toffee. French oak gives more spicy and botanical components, and more structure.\u201d \u2014Mar\u00eda Bar\u00faa, winemaker, Bodegas LAN\r\n\r\n\u201cAmerican oak has more lactone than French oak and requires shorter aging,\u201d says Vincent Nadali\u00e9, president & VP of Sales for France-based cooperage Nadali\u00e9. \u201cA winemaker uses French oak because they\u2019re going to age the wines longer. There are more floral notes from French oak and tannins.\u201d\r\n\r\nTo combine the two, he says, allows for more detailed spice work.\r\n\r\nThough Schmiling has begun to age some of his wines in French oak barrels, about 85% of the barrels currently in use at von Stiehl Winery are American-French hybrids like the ones he began experimenting with 20 years ago.\r\n\r\n\u201cI think the elegance of the hybrid barrel allows us to find balance between the oak and the natural flavor of the fruit,\u201d he says. \u201cI really feel like I was getting the good benefit of the French oak in these barrels.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nBroad but limited appeal\r\nMar\u00eda Bar\u00faa had a similar experience soon after she became winemaker for Bodegas LAN in 2002. Its cellars, which house about 20,000 casks, contain roughly 60% hybrids made from American staves and French heads. She says the winery pioneered the use of hybrid barrels in Spain.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe decided that when we play with the staves from American oak and the heads from French oak, we get good balance and structure,\u201d says Barua. \u201cAmerican oak is far softer and gives different components, like vanilla and toffee. French oak gives more spicy and botanical components, and more structure.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nFor Barua, cost savings were secondary to her desire to create a unique product. \u201cWe wanted a new style of Rioja Crianza that was more fruity,\u201d she says. \u201c[Our cooper] proposed this.\u201d\r\n\r\nTwo of the winery\u2019s prominent labels are aged in hybrid barrels. The Crianza spends 14 months in barrel to round out and soften sweeter fruit flavors with vanilla and cinnamon, while the Reserva sits at least 16 months to strengthen its aroma concentration and structure.\r\n\r\nOther wineries have had great success using hybrid barrels, like Pescatore Vineyard & Winery with its Barbera, with a trial run on Zinfandel coming soon; Messina Hof Winery\u2019s Private Reserve Double Barrel Tempranillo as well as their Fusion Series; LDV Winery's 2012 Viognier; and Steele's Cabernet Sauvignon Red Hills 2016.\r\n\r\n\r\nRoom for growth\r\nThough von Stiehl Winery, Bodegas LAN and others have embraced hybrid barrels, it remains a niche market.\r\n\r\nJason Stout, vice president of marketing and business development for Missouri-based Independent Stave Company (ISC), says it\u2019s far more common for winemakers to invest in 100% French or American oak barrels, and later blend wines to incorporate influences from each. ISC has made barrels for distilleries and wineries since 1950s. Since then, the company has acquired several other brands like T.W. Boswell to gain reach and influence worldwide.\r\n\r\n\u201cOn the wine side, we\u2019ve been selling hybrid barrels since the \u201990s,\u201d says Stout. He says that sales of these hybrid barrels have remained fairly static and likely represent less than 5% of the market. \u201cIt sort of fit in this niche of different programs, and it has a place in the market.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe primary incentive for winemakers to use hybrid barrels is still largely economic.\r\n\r\n\u201cI think that what hybrid barrels started out as and what they\u2019re becoming are two different things. It was a way to save a little bit of money, and now they\u2019re becoming a much more sophisticated product that is very customized and specific.\u201d \u2014Jason Stout, of marketing and business development, Independent Stave Company\r\n\r\n\u201cLast year French oak took a 30% increase [in cost],\u201d says Nadali\u00e9, whose cooperage has been in his family for five generations. It launched an outpost in Napa Valley in 1980, the first French cooperage in America. \u201cThe price of French oak barrels will increase 4\u20135% every year now. I see in the future more American oak coming back for this reason. Economically, [hybrid barrels] will be less expensive than the French oak, and more expensive than the American oak.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nWhat\u2019s next for hybrid barrels?\r\nWhen it comes to the creation of hybrid barrels with different species of oak, the sky\u2019s the limit.\r\n\r\nNadali\u00e9 began to sell American-French hybrid barrels in the 1980s, but its offerings, like many other cooperages, have expanded. They now include barrels made with French oak staves and Hungarian oak heads, French oak staves with American oak heads, and a 50/50 blend of American and French oak, among others.\r\n\r\nISC hopes that demand for hybrid barrels grows in a way to allows winemakers and distillers to target specific flavors and create a particular profile.\r\n\r\n\u201cI think that what hybrid barrels started out as and what they\u2019re becoming are two different things,\u201d says Stout. \u201cIt was a way to save a little bit of money, and now they\u2019re becoming a much more sophisticated product that is very customized and specific. I think that\u2019s great for the industry.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe company launched a \u201cfusion barrel\u201d program recently through its brand, World Cooperage. It allows clients to build custom barrels with their choice of oak.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe have some proprietary tech that we use that helps us arrange our staves into barrels, and we can use it to do, for example, 25% American oak staves and 75% French oak staves and European oak heads,\u201d says Stout. He says the company plans to keep certain oak blends proprietary.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s been interesting because not only are you able to build complexity into that barrel because you have different physiology and compounds in the oak itself, but it\u2019s also fitting this niche of bespoke barrels,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe reached out [to Radoux cooperage] to bring a full Wisconsin offering. Wisconsin grown, Wisconsin produced, Wisconsin oak through our estate grown wine.\u201d \u2014Aric Schmiling, winemaker, von Stiehl Winery\r\n\r\nWorld Cooperage has conducted chemical analysis of different kinds of oak on wine and spirits alongside taste tests for years. One such study sought to understand how hybrid barrels impact a wine\u2019s acidity, residual sugars, tannins and lactone, among other things.\r\n\r\nWhat they found was surprising.\r\n\r\n\u201cAnalysis showed that the chemical analysis of the wine was quite different, especially with the hybrid barrels,\u201d says Stout. \u201cThe extraction kinetics change. We don\u2019t understand entirely what\u2019s going on there, but we did see something very different in that hybrid barrel than what we saw in the [traditional] barrels.\u201d\r\n\r\nBoth Bodegas LAN and von Stiehl Winery are exploring the depths of such customization. Barua says that Bodegas LAN has begun to test how Spanish oak influences its wines. Schmiling points to Wisconsin oak as its next frontier.\r\n\r\n\u201cAnother company we work with is Radoux, and they were offering the Wisconsin oak hybrid,\u201d says Schmiling. He uses Wisconsin hybrids for the winery\u2019s estate-grown reds, like its 2012 Estate Grown Marquette.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe reached out to them on that to bring a full Wisconsin offering,\u201d he says. \u201cWisconsin grown, Wisconsin produced, Wisconsin oak through our estate grown wine.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nA collaborative spirit\r\nThe desire to innovate has also caught on with distillers in recent years. It\u2019s not hard to track down a whiskey, rum or Tequila aged or finished in anything from Sherry and Port to former wine casks. Stout says that hybrid barrels have started to creep into the fray over the past 15 or so years. Even some breweries, like Against the Grain, have gotten in on the action. Its "One Helluva Lass" brew employs a French-American oak hybrid.\r\n\r\nHybridization can also go beyond the combination of oaks in a single barrel, as producers experiment with blends from multiple barrels to find the ideal balance. In 2016, Indian distillery Amrut launched its Spectrum Whisky 005, aged in a combination of five different barrels: new American, Spanish and French oak, as well as ex-PX and ex-Oloroso Sherry barrels. The resulting whisky was such a hit that a second soon followed, Amrut Spectrum Whisky 004. Also in 2016, Jefferson\u2019s Bourbon released a selection of Wood Experiments whiskeys that included one aged in a hybrid wine barrel of French and American oak.\r\n\r\nThe blending trend also shows up in surprising places, like in Absolut Amber. That vodka gets its amber hue from a mix of American and Swedish oak. Tequila producers have also begun to utilize hybrid barrels.\r\n\r\n\u201cTequilerias have been pretty adventurous,\u201d says Stout. \u201cWe\u2019ve been doing trials with [Tequila distillers] with different kinds of oak for a good 15 to 20 years.\u201d\r\n\r\nPatr\u00f3n has embraced hybrid aging with great success. Its extra-a\u00f1ejo offering, Gran Patr\u00f3n Piedra, launched in 2014. It\u2019s aged for up to four years with new French Limousin oak staves and used American oak heads.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe American wood imparts the caramel and vanilla notes, while the French oak adds more wood, dry fruits and spice flavoring,\u201d says Antonio Rodriguez, production director at Patr\u00f3n. He says that it was important for the distillery to choose a blend of oak species that would create a unique offering.\r\n\r\nThis combination, he says, allows for a Tequila that\u2019s sweet, yet rich and complex and combines an herbaceous agave flavor with light vanilla, and fresh mushroom.