Oak barrels have been used by winemakers, spirit makers, and beer makers for centuries. French researchers revealed barrels lose their effectiveness after eight years. A high quality, new barrel is usually discarded after "three years" if used to condition products. But it can be given an extended life as a storage container for another five years. However this is affected by the initial quality of the barrel and the environmental temperature where the barrels are stored. Cheaper, lower standard barrels, often have a shorter conditioning life.
Viable alternatives to buying expensive oak barrels, are inexpensive, oak wood chips, or oak saw dust made from disused winery barrels. The chipping process causes less affected timber to become exposed. The chips then regain some conditioning ability. The advantage of using these alternatives is that they rapidly impart their flavour notes and conditioning on the product: often in just a few weeks. Oak barrels to have the same effect on a product may take years. This makes re-cycled barrel chips or dust ideal for home brewing where a fast product turn around often occurs. Home brewed products can be inexpensively conditioned during the ferment, or in glass demijohns using either chips or dust in the latter stages of manufacture. It should be considered that chips will also lose their effectiveness and will need to be replaced by the brewer.
Samuel Willard's Oak chips used to smooth and flavour rum.
Whiskey Oak chips to smooth and flavour home brewed whiskey.