The Oak Bottle promises to add expensive flavour to cheap wine

(Photo credit: Shareba Abdul)

Winemakers have been aging wine in oak barrels for centuries, using the wood to add complex flavors to the juice of grapes. This process can take years to complete, and requires a skillful hand to do it correctly.

Now, a new product on the market and on KickStarter is promising to deliver similar results, in just a fraction of the time.

“The Oak Bottle is practical for the home wine maker, as well as anybody who just wants to buy an average bottle of wine at the store and make it taste like an award-winning Napa wine, but with a quarter of the cost,” said Oak Bottle Creator Joel Paglione of his invention.

The Oak Bottle is a handcrafted wooden bottle that is made from sustainable American white oak. When alcoholic beverages are added to the bottle, they take on an “aged” oak flavour.

“It converts wine from an acidic fruity young-tasting wine and makes it taste like a bold wine that has a lot of character,” explained Paglione. “It really just highlights the existing flavours in the wine, it doesn’t add flavour or remove alcohol content.”

The Chicago-based company launched a funding campaign on KickStarter last week, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In four days, the campaign has seen over USD$77,862 pledged, more than doubling its initial goal of $30,000.

“The smaller the barrel, the faster the oak infusion.”

Paglione says the secret behind the fast oaking process has to do with the size of the Oak Bottle. The amount of wine touching the oak is greater than it would be in a barrel, allowing the wine to take on oak flavour very quickly.

As someone who enjoys wine, I liked the idea of being able to improve on the flavour of a wine that I didn’t pick out for myself, like when a friend brings a less-than-stellar bottle to a dinner party. I could see the appeal of the product, but I wondered if it would be as appealing to a more serious wine drinker. 

I reached out to Marissa Ross, the wine blogger behind the website WINE. all the time. She states on her blog that she “has no qualifications to write about drinking wine”, aside from the fact that she has been drinking wine daily since 2012. So how would she, a “casual wine professional”, react to the Oak Bottle?

Adding flavour to cheap wine

“As someone who drinks a lot of wine professionally, and personally, I can’t understand the purpose of this,” said Ross. “Trying to mask a cheap wine with oak flavour seems like the equivalent of trying to mask body odor with cologne.”

Ross also pointed out that not all wines would benefit from the addition of oak flavour, something that I hadn’t considered at first. 

The Oak Bottle is available in eight flavors other than oak, but it’s possible that they are better suited to whiskeys and bourbons, rather than wines.

The Oak Bottle in Cinnamon flavour. (Photo credit: Oak Bottle)

“It’s a little insulting to wine makers,” Ross said. “[Oak Bottle] says on their company page that wine makers can’t invent flavors, as if they can. Wine makers create flavors through an intense process of growth, harvest, fermentation and aging. These bottles aren’t inventing flavors. They’re just throwing it on top.”

She did add that the Oak Bottle “could be very beneficial for people making wine at home,” but was unable to speak to that particular feature.  

So, does the Oak Bottle simply mask the flavors of a cheap wine, or does it actually evolve the wine into something better? My editor and I decided to put the Oak Bottle to the test.

Testing out the Oak Bottle

The first step to using the Oak Bottle is to prime it. This is done by filling the bottle with water and letting it sit for 24 hours. This allows the wood to swell and seal any open wood grain that could cause leaks. Paglione says that this step is crucial because otherwise it would be very easy to over oak your wine in the first use.

For this test we purchased two bottles of a Malbec Cabernet that retails for $8.75 at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) store. The wine had a fruity flavour that was almost too sweet, with noticeable metallic notes. 

We poured out the water and added one bottle of the wine before the Oak Bottle had a chance to start drying out. We noticed that the entire bottle of wine couldn’t fit into the Oak Bottle at first. After about an hour the level of wine in the bottle had decreased and we were able to add the few tablespoons that couldn’t fit before.

(Photo credit: Tori Floyd)

The instructions that come with the Oak Bottle say to let the alcohol sit undisturbed for 24-48 hours. However, Paglione stressed to me the importance of tasting the wine often during our interview, so I knew not to wait that long.

We waited two hours before tasting the wine, comparing it to the second bottle that we had set aside as a control. There were noticeable differences in the wine that came out of the Oak Bottle.

My first observation was that the wine smelled earthy compared to the original version. After taking a few sips, we both concluded that the oak flavour was prominent – very prominent. We knew that this wine wouldn’t need to sit in the bottle for much longer. 

My editor (who is more of a wine enthusiast than I am), noted that the oaked wine was less sweet, warmer, bolder and had lost the off-putting metallic taste. I found the flavour quite strong, but much more pleasant than the original version. 

The wine on the left spent two hours in the oak bottle, and is slightly darker in colour. (Photo credit: Tori Floyd)

We left the wine in to see what would happen to the flavour. After four hours, the wine had taken on an intense oak flavour. My editor still enjoyed the flavour, but I found that I preferred the taste at the two-hour mark.

For the sake of research, I left the wine in the bottle for the full 24 hours after our first two tests. After 24 hours, the oak flavour had completely overpowered the wine, rendering it unpalatable. It tasted like wine that had been steeped with tree bark, and was incredibly bitter.

It’s all about balance

To fully understand what we had experienced, I consulted with Tony Aspler, a wine professional who has been working in the industry for over 40 years, including a 21-year stint as a wine writer for the Toronto Star.

“Oak has tannins, and tannins are bitter,” Aspler explained to me. “So if you leach out wood tannins, you’re going to get a bitterness in the wine.“

He agreed with my assumption that because the bottle was new, the oak flavour was extremely intense. The flavour is likely to become less harsh after several uses.

Aspler also believes that the Oak Bottle’s selling point is actually one of its downsides. He says that the small volume of the bottle forces the oak flavour into the wine too quickly, which can throw off the flavour profiles.

“Whereas when you put the wine in a barrel, you’re leaching out the flavour very slowly and wine makers know when to take it out to get a balanced wine.”

He is also concerned by the price of the Oak Bottle, which retails for USD$80.00.

“It’s not a cheap thing. You could get the same effect by putting oak chips in your wine. If you like oaky wine you can make up a little sachet of oak and just dip it in for ten minutes or whatever,” he suggested, adding that it’s not any more effective than using the Oak Bottle.

Paglione has been anticipating some backlash from wine professionals. While some sommeliers have been receptive to the Oak Bottle, he knows that others won’t be as supportive.

“We’re going to skepticized a lot by the people who get paid a lot of money to be experts,” he said, mentioning that the product isn’t intended for “the upper echelon of wine drinkers.”  

Yet Aspler’s criticisms aren’t unreasonable, and he even admits that there may be potential for the Oak Bottle to improve other types of alcohol.

““If you like a Bourbon with a lot of oak - sure why not?” he said.

Bartenders have been using the Oak Bottle to win cocktail competitions (Video credit: Oak Bottle)

But as far as wines go, he would prefer if consumers saved their money on fancy flavoured Oak Bottles, and just bought a good bottle of wine instead.  

“Wine is wine. It’s the fermented juice of fresh grapes, why do you want to add extraneous flavors like fruit flavors or cinnamon or anything like that? I guess I’m a purist.”

Aspler says that there are very good wine options between the ten and 12 dollar range, from places like Chile, Portugal and Ontario.