Consider the Humble Whiskey Barrel
Posted on June 23 2021
Even though George Thorogood is Yankee born, we’d likely accept him as an honorary Southerner due to two songs that speak to our Southern culture. When George growls out “one bourbon, one Scotch, one beer,” or croons about staying home with “just me and my pal Johnny Walker and his brothers Black and Red,” he almost sounds Southern. He’s also waxing poetic about the alcoholic beverages that are most closely aligned with our Southern heritage. In particular, whiskey, and, more specifically, bourbon. Beer is certainly beloved, but bourbon (and its Tennessee offshoot) is to the South what coffee (and cocaine) is to Columbia. As for Scotch, well, it’s essentially the direct ascendant of bourbon, and thus holds a distinguished, yet amorphous, position within the South’s drinking heritage annals. To put this another way, them that don’t favor bourbon tend to savor Scotch.
No matter what your whiskey of choice—bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Tennessee—they all share something in common. That is, the bulk of their existence entails curing in a wooden barrel to help each attain the unique characteristics and flavors that will make it your whiskey of choice.
If your choice is Jim Beam Original, it spent four years in a new charred-oak barrel prior to bottling. If your choice is a bit more highfalutin, with perhaps a taste for Pappy Van Winkle (no relation to “Rip”), then your liquid gold spent 15, 20 or 23 years in a barrel before you shelled out big bucks for that fifth of a gallon bottle. If you’re into fine Scotch and perhaps favor Lagavulin, the distillery offers varieties that have been barrel aged anywhere from eight to 37 years.
Bottom line is that you probably give little thought to the long life your favorite whiskey enjoyed before you and your buddies settle into a bottle during poker night or some other good times with good friends event. Of course, we here at the Southern Drinking Club like to educate and entertain our fans, so please read on to learn more about how important barreling is to your favorite whiskey. Heck, you might never look at the humble barrel the same way again.
A Little Historical Perspective
Even absent barreling, whiskey proved to be a hit with consumers back when its precursor was first distilled by European Christian churches sometime in the Dark Age years of 500-1000 AD. While initially distilled as, ahem, “medicine,” its intoxicating popularity had spurred huge demand throughout Europe by the onset of the Renaissance. In fact, the name “whiskey” evolved from the Celtic “usquebaugh” and Gaelic “usige beatha,” which were translations of the Latin “aqua vitae,” which literally means “water of life.” Whiskey’s first appearance in written history comes to us from the 1405 “Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise,” which included reference to a clan head dying from excessive consumption of aqua vitae while celebrating Christmas—any sense of irony apparently lost in the translation.
While distillation methods on the European continent utilized fermented grapes (AKA “wine”), Scottish and Irish monasteries lacked vineyards and so turned to the distillation of fermenting grain mash. Good thing, because they started producing and perfecting the spirits that we refer to as whiskey today. Whiskey production in Scotland and Ireland got a further boost when King Henry VIII dissolved the kingdom’s monasteries in the late 1530s, which moved whiskey distillation into the public sphere. This created more competition, which spurred efforts by distillers to improve its taste, and, at some point, a distiller discovered that letting the potion age in a wooden cask dramatically did just that.
Barrel Aging of Whiskey as a Standard
Thus, barrel aging became the final touch in giving every whiskey its distinct flavor, with curing time dictating the final product’s chemical composition and taste. During the aging process the whiskey extracts flavors and coloration from the wood. The flavoring is also influenced by other organic chemical reactions relating to evaporation and oxidation. For an added taste sensation, some distillers age their whiskey in barrels that had originally been used to age other spirits, such as sherry, brandy or wine.
Barrel aging is such an important component of whiskey making that governments have long regulated it. According to their respective country production laws, Scotch, Irish, and Canadian (Rye) whiskies all must be aged in barrels for a minimum of three years. U.S. laws mandate that bourbon must to be aged in “new, charred oak barrels,” though there is no mandated duration of the aging period. That said, labeling requirements and foreign laws influence barrel aging of bourbon. “Straight” bourbon must age for a minimum of two years and display the age if under four years. Additionally, bourbon that ages for less than three years cannot be legally referred to or labeled as “whiskey” in Europe. Corn whiskey, a bourbon offshoot typically modelled on moonshine concoctions, is the only whiskey that is often sold without any barrel aging at all.
Know that the aging process ends with bottling and, unlike with many wines, the whiskey’s taste will not improve or mature over the ensuing years and decades. In short, that 12-year-old bourbon or Scotch will always be a 12-year-old whiskey no matter how many years or decades you store the bottle.
Barrel Making’s Long History
Also known as cooperage, barrel making has been an important business since at least ancient Egyptian times, with a tomb wall painting dating to 2600 BC showing a wooden barrel-like tub being used to measure wheat. Another ancient Egyptian tomb painting shows a similar barrel-like container being used to hold grapes.
Roman historian Pliny the Elder provided some of the first written descriptions of barrel making by reporting that European cooperage originated in Alpine Gaul. His descriptions identified three different kinds of Gallic cooperage, and subsequent historians have determined that the art was heartily adopted by the Romans, as well as most other civilizations that followed. These early wooden barrels were constructed in similar fashion to today’s wooden barrels, with perhaps the biggest difference being that the barrel staves were girded with wooden hoops and/or rope rather than metal hoops. Metal hoop girders, which are much stronger and take up less space, came into widespread use starting in the 1800s.
As a storage container, barrels have been historically used to hold and transport a wide variety of goods, from food and beverage items to gunpowder to nails and other fittings. They were even used to transport bodies, with British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson being among the most famous people to be so transported—preserved in a barrel of brandy for shipment home after falling during the Battle of Trafalgar. While for more ignoble purposes today, similar storage and transport is practiced by Mexican drug cartels, though they tend to use plastic or steel barrels for such use.
Beverage Maturing Naturally Came of Age
Given a wooden barrel’s utility in transporting and storing liquids, it was only a matter of time before people discovered that such storage could affect the taste of beverages. Not only does the wood impart compounds such as tannins and vanillin into beverages, but it also stimulates chemical reactions that further influence flavor. Winemakers discovered that some grapes could be fermented in barrels and that different flavors could be created depending upon the type of wooden barrels used for storage, as well as duration of storage periods.
Naturally, other spirit makers experimented with different wood types and storage times, which turned barrel aging of spirits into an art of sorts. Today, barrel aging is a crucial component in the production of:
- Balsamic vinegar
- Tabasco sauce
- Some beer (stouts, in particular)
- Some tequilas
Without this modern day barrel aging, cooperage as we know it would likely no longer exist and wooden barrels would be a relic from the past.
Barrel Making Numbers
Due to international production and a lack of any centralized cooperage information portal, figuring out how many whiskey barrels are produced every year is a tall order. But we do know that the state of Kentucky, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s bourbon, fills just over two million barrels per year and has about nine million filled barrels currently in storage for aging. Keep in mind that each one of those barrels produces about 250 bottles of whiskey.
With between 52 and 53 gallons per barrel that comes out to a production rate of about 106 million gallons of Kentucky bourbon per year and almost a half billion gallons currently in the maturation stage. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like it would be enough to meet worldwide, let alone Southern, demand. Then again it does add up to about 530 million fifth bottles per year, of which we only need a few dozen per year to sate our local collective tastes.
After bottling, many of these used Kentucky bourbon barrels will be shipped around the world for future barrel aging of other spirits such as Scotch or more recently Rum. Some of these barrels even find a 3rd home being used to age a beer like a stout. The real lucky barrels end up in the workshop of Southern Drinking Club where we turn them into some fantastic Drinking Gear such as Whiskey Flight Trays or Cigar and Whiskey Glass Holders. However, this used-barrel market does not satisfy the need for additional barrel making worldwide, due to volumes and the need for barrel wood type variations to produce different flavors. Thus, there are likely more than 100 other barrel making operations around the world producing millions of other barrels to ensure that all our favorite beverages are perfectly aged.
For example, there are more than 40 cooperages in California that specifically handle that state’s wine production, and likely similar numbers in other major wine-making regions around the world. There are at least a dozen cooperages in Scotland and Ireland, with four major Scotch distilleries having their own on-site barrel-making operations. And India, which is one of the world leaders in whiskey production (who knew?), must have a robust cooperage industry. That said, India reportedly lacks any significant production regulations, and some of what passes for whiskey in that country might not pass the smell test in the rest of the world. Thus, a portion of their non-export “whiskey” may not even undergo aging.
How Barrels are Made
Whether for whiskey, wine or some other beverage, barrel making entails the same process and delivers similar barrels, though sometimes differentiated by size. The 53-gallon charred white oak barrel is standard for bourbon producers, a size that has become the standard with other whiskey producers worldwide. That said, whiskey barrels can be found in sizes ranging from 50 to 60 gallons and, as previously noted, some whiskies are aged in barrels previously use for other spirits or wine. Oak is typically the wood of choice, though its treatment with regard to drying, cutting, sanding, and charring, can differ in relation to specific flavorings sought. This is most noticeable when comparing a wine barrel with a whiskey barrel, as wine barrels are typically given a much smoother finish inside and out.
Barrels are made out of staves, hoops, and heads (each end of barrel). After appropriate treatment, short planks of oak are dowelled together into squares, which are then cut into perfect circles with rounded edges. Longer planks are cut and planed to create a trapezoid cross section to account for the inside barrel circumference being smaller than the outside. The staves are also cut with a convex curve in the middle section to account for the barrel’s expanding midsection circumference. Between 31 to 33 staves are placed into a temporary steel ring that holds them in place. The managing cooper makes sure that staves are evenly distributed and then applies steam to the wood to make it more pliable, while a machine bends the staves at the other end to create its unique shape. After further treatment, such as charring, is conducted, the nascent barrel is allowed to cool before the heads are inserted into the ends and the temporary rings are replaced by the steel hoops, which are then riveted into place. After a bunghole is drilled, the barrel is tested for leaks and, upon passing inspection, ready to begin working its magic on whiskey curing.
How’d You Like to Be in a Barrel?
Climbing into one of today’s standard-size whiskey barrels would prove quite uncomfortable, if not impossible for some of us. A hundred or so years ago, though, when larger-size whiskey barrels were more common, a few folks decided that taking a ride down river in a barrel might be fun. And not just any river, but the Niagara River, which culminates with its plunge down Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario.
Retired school teacher Annie Edson Taylor took the first-known barrel-ride down Niagara falls in 1901, though apparently more in a bid for retirement money than it was for the joy ride. Lord knows, you’d think a 63-year-old schoolteacher could find a smarter way to make money, but she was a Yankee (New Yorker, no less) and, as such, probably a touch light in receipt of hereditary common sense genes. To give her credit, stuffed in that barrel with an improvised mattress and her lucky, heart-shaped pillow, she survived the plunge with just a gash on the head. As a money making scheme, though, the stunt was a flop, as her memoir failed to spur interest from publishers and the little money she earned from a speaking tour was used to hire private detectives to chase down her wayward manager who had absconded with her famous barrel.
Nineteen years later, the second person to make the attempt in a wooden barrel became the first Niagara thrill seeker to die. Rather than mattress material and a lucky pillow, Englishman Charles Stephens brought along an anvil to provide ballast. Attached to his leg, the anvil burst through the bottom of the barrel during the plunge and took poor Charles with him, leaving only an arm left in the remains of the barrel’s safety harness.
We’ll close by saying that this just serves up more proof that a barrel is best used for whiskey and other libations. The thought of one containing the equivalent of 265 fifths of Maker’s Mark is far more appealing than considering what a human body—dead or alive—might look like in one.