View Full Version : Charring a Barrel, the Old-Fashioned Way.

08-30-2009, 12:20
Charring a barrel the old-fashioned way, with straw. On the bank of Glenn's Creek, Woodford County, Kentucky. August 27, 2009.

09-03-2009, 15:13
I think I'll have this made into a tattoo!!!

"Hey Patty, where do want this one?"

09-04-2009, 05:18

Is there a specific legal definition of "charred" ? (I couldn't find one in a search of CFR 27)

If not, might B-F's "toasted" barrels (used in the new WRMC issue) meet the definition of charred?

09-05-2009, 04:20
Good question John,
are those toasted barrels legally charred?

09-06-2009, 10:43
Charred means the wood burns. In toasting, the wood is heated but not ignited.

In the absence of an explicit legal definition, the common dictionary definition will rule. The dictionary says: 1. To burn the surface of; scorch. 2. To reduce to carbon or charcoal by incomplete combustion.

09-06-2009, 11:31
Charred means the wood burns. In toasting, the wood is heated but not ignited.

In the absence of an explicit legal definition, the common dictionary definition will rule. The dictionary says: 1. To burn the surface of; scorch. 2. To reduce to carbon or charcoal by incomplete combustion.

So, let it be written....So, let it be done. :)

10-19-2009, 07:00
Charring a barrel the old-fashioned way, with straw. On the bank of Glenn's Creek, Woodford County, Kentucky. August 27, 2009.

The part I missed when I read this earlier, was the "straw" part. I take it that they filled it up with straw, and set it on fire? Did actual distilleries do this on some sort of large scale? If so, when did they stop? What I'm getting at, is it would seem to me that the straw could (maybe even, "would") impart some sort of lasting taste profile on the barrel, that the whiskey might pick up.
I should be thinking about selling plastic right now, but somehow this seems more important...:D

10-19-2009, 07:15
Joe, using straw to char oak barrels was a technique of some artisan whiskey-makers. I believe it was Tim (Ratcheer) from Pelham, Alabama who first mentioned this on the board, he was reading an old distilling text, either by Harrison or Krafft I think. Later, I found a reference to the practice in Samuel M'Harry's Practical Distilling text (1809). I mentioned it would be nice to do experiments to char barrels today in this way and I said I assumed that some flavour would impart to the barrels. I believe I said this might have lent an extra layer of complexity to the whiskey. In recent years, barrels have been charred with straw experimentally as Chuck has mentioned. No doubt distilleries or some of them have known of this lore for 100 years or more, probably it was handed down. M'Harry said to use a handful only, which would not seem that much, but apparently dry straw can burn quite fiercely. M'Harry seemed concerned with sanitizing vessels used to manufacture raw spirit (e.g. fermenting vats), not with barrels used to age whiskey, but it is easy to imagine that the process applied to mashing and fermenting barrels got transferred to barrels for the storage of whiskey. Maybe - I think Carson suggested this in his Social History of Bourbon - disused mashing and fermenting vessels were used to hold whiskey for a time, and it was seen that they improved the whiskey, and ultimately people just charred the aging barrels.

I hope one day we will be able to taste a bourbon aged or at least re-casked into such a barrel, it will be a taste of history.


10-19-2009, 12:28
Just to reiterate one of Gary's points, it's a handful or two of straw, not the whole barrel full.

Also, look at the bottom of the barrel. You can see a little bit of glow on the left side. The barrel was propped up on one side with a rock to permit air circulation. If you don't do that, you get a nice smoked barrel but it doesn't burn hot enough to char.

The idea is to burn just enough straw to ignite the barrel itself. You let it burn for a bit, then use the head to extinguish it.

The hard part is getting an even char over the entire internal surface of the barrel.

Natural gas would have replaced straw sometime in the late 19th century.

Even before it became common to char whiskey barrels, it was necessary to heat the wood to make it pliable. A small pot with a fire in it, kind of like a hibachi, would have been placed inside the barrel. The fuel was likely wood, charcoal or coal, something that would burn more slowly than straw. A cooperage would have had plenty of wood scraps to burn.

10-22-2009, 06:53
Wouldn't heating the staves to make them flexible effect a sort of toasting? It would have been inconsistent as I imagine fine grain and coarse grain would require different amounts of heating to achieve the desired results.

10-22-2009, 07:23
Yes, and one of the materials I posted on the current toasted and charred thread, from about 1825, suggests that coopers' practices to help fashion staves into barrels may have led to some barrels accidentally being charred (or parts of them) with a consequent effect on the spirit, darkening it for one thing. But I think where this did occur, the burning was accidental. Toasting at most was more commonly the result of a cooper's work since there would have been surely a concern not to damage the barrel structurally or otherwise. Even the toast that was "normally" imparted may not have been very pronounced since, later, coopers intentionally toasted barrels to different levels of darkness to satisfy customers who were wine-makers and distillers.

I think is it is reasonable to infer that casks that were burned a little too much from normal coopering methods were seen to improve spirit being transported in them, which led later to a more systematic toasting and charring of barrels for wine and spirits maker clients. At the same time, this development intertwined and reinforced the one, described in the other thread, which was science looking at how charcoal in various ways, including via the charred barrel, could remove off-flavours from new spirit. These flavours were of two kinds: "empyreumatic" or burned flavors resulting from the mash sticking to and burning on the base of a fire-heated pot still, and the fusel oil and other off-flavours of any new spirit distilled at a low proof.

Of course, ultimately, it was realised that not just charcoal did this work, but oxidation via the spirit resting for long periods in oak wood pervious to air.

It must have been from all of the above that new charred barrel aging emerged, i.e., distillers trying to rectify spirits in charred barrels under scientists' teachings, importers and wine merchants noticing the effects on spirit when carried a distance in accidentally charred barrels, possibly local practices here and there which had hit on the idea themselves (perhaps accidentally under one of the lore stories such as a barrel burned in a barn fire). But I incline to science as the main driver.


10-22-2009, 07:50
It's a small point but I'm not convinced that scientific research was the driver - my inclination is to see science of that era as applying nascent scientific principals to test preconceived notions and commonly held beliefs. I'm not sure published scientific papers were commonly reported on in the press so a lot of the work languished in the few journals of the period.

There were no NSF grants, no dedicated science faculty at most universities that needed to publish to keep their jobs, not much in the way of structured R&D at large businesses, no big government initiatives like weapons research or the space program. It's the interaction of these four elements that propel scientific inquiry today.

Anything that made for better whiskey at one distillery weather from accident or deliberate experiment was probably soon known by other distilleries via the word of mouth of employees. These were relatively small town after all.

10-22-2009, 08:23
This may be, it is hard to say. Certainly science often results from testing existing practices, no question of that. It seems for example Bertholet may have known that Cognac brandy (made since the 1600's at least) was aged in very well toasted casks.

I do think it is significant though that James Crow, a trained Scots scientist, is associated with the early methodical development of bourbon whiskey including new charred barrel aging. He did not devise the method, but he would have known of the benefits via the literature I mentioned and is known to have insisted on its use. The other contribution he is noted for is the sour mash method.


10-22-2009, 10:06
The mistake that is often made is assuming that whiskey wasn't aged, or that barrels weren't charred, because the distillers were unaware of the benefits. It had nothing to do with that. They sold their whiskey straight from the still because they could. In time, as the frontier became more settled, there came to be more competition and some people chose to compete by making a better product. It wasn't that they didn't know how to do it before. There was simply no incentive.

10-22-2009, 10:35
I haven't seen any references to the aging of whiskey in the early 1800's and before of the type you see from the mid-1800's on in both America and Britain, e.g., whiskey aged from 1-6 years or more. It is just "whiskey" or "common whiskey". Clearly it was known that aging, in any kind of container, improved it, e.g., in M'Harry you find references to an "aged" taste and tips on colouring whiskey. This might have referred to the kind of age that resulted from a voyage in a ship or down-river. But there is no reference to any organized way of doing this that I have found, either on the part of distillers (whose job then clearly was to sell off the still) or brokers or other intermediaries. Mike Veach has discussed that grocer's letter from the 1820's I believe it is, Corley, which refers to the advantages of aging whiskey in a charred barrel. That is the first I know of any reference to barrel aging of this type.

I think it was not done because apart from frontier issues (not a problem in the UK), whisky was an emerging product. It was kind of the bad boy of the spirits market. It had no cachet and for much of the century certainly in the UK had a down-market image. It was new make and it took later developments to make it into something different. I don't think anybody thought of aging it and trying to emulate brandy until this actually happened, for whatever reason, and people saw the quality that resulted. Once they did, a market emerged for aged whiskey. There were always well-off people in the Eastern cities and certainly the UK who might have bought expensive aged whiskey but they bought rum or (more typically) brandy - whiskey wasn't where it was it, it was a frontier/rural drink by definition.

Brandy was different, it was aged in wood from a very early time and histories I have of Cognac document this. However, I cannot locate any statement that it was or is today aged in a new charred barrel. It seems to have been aged and still is in different woods of different types and toasts over its aging life since it is a blend. The counsel of numerous scientists to age spirits in charred wood towards the end of the 1700's suggests to me that the practice was not generally known, if it was, why would they suggest doing it as something new to try?

I have inferred from this that methodical aging only started for whisk(e)y from the early 1800's onwards with the local feature that for the best straight whiskey in America, this evolved as new charred barrel aging.


10-22-2009, 14:50

Here is a book from 1869 by Gilbey, a famous name in gin and I would doubt unrelated to the gin-making family of that name. He has chapters on Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky and brandy amongst other drinks. In the whiskey chapters he states that aging is essential to best quality. He states that special attention "of late" has been given to Scotch whisky in this regard and states the same essentially of Irish whiskey. (American whiskey is not mentioned). He refers to a "straw colour" as ideal and, in another book of some 20 years before this one, I read that Jameson in Dublin got three years aging in sherry butts which gave it the self-same "straw" colour, as if the sun shone through, the account said.

In histories of Canadian whisky and numerous bourbon ads I have seen the story is the same, by the mid-1800's spirits were aged from 1-3 years, sometimes more but not a whole lot in general.

But what about the period up to, say, 1840? Except for Cognac where one can infer such aging from the many recipes given for brandy colouring, and from some other statements, whisky did not, from what I can see, get any aging anywhere. A history of Gooderham and Worts' distillery I have makes this point for the earliest output of that famed company in the first decades of the 1800's. Out of the still and into the gills, and till, so to speak.

Only later did aging became accepted for whisky and did whisky itself become considered an acceptable substitute for brandy. Gilbey makes the argument, in terms that clearly are novel for the time, that aged fine scotch is as much a fine product of "corn wine" [beer fermented from grain] as brandy is a fine product of Europe's wine regions. The product was slowly becoming accepted but it hadn't the cachet of brandy, in the UK at any rate, until decades after Gilbey wrote.

In an earlier source, some testimony about mid-century in a State house, a merchant testifies that formerly spirits were aged for "the voyage" and now it takes place faster in "heated store-houses" (ancestor of cycling warehouses clearly). One can see again that before this, there was no clear commercial category of aged whiskey, except possibly in pockets here and there where artisans or commercial distillers knew what was good and kept it for themselves. M'Harry states as much in his 1809 text. But this was something rare and unusual.

Today we regard 36 month old whiskey as aged to the minimum. As late as the 1860's, that denoted a high quality product.