View Full Version : Charred vs Toasted

10-20-2009, 07:52
We had a discussion on here the other night If a distiller put white dog in a toasted barrel and let it mature would it legally be bourbon? I said no because it's not charred the other person said I was splitting hairs and it would be bourbon. What do you think?

10-20-2009, 08:47
I'm pretty sure it's not bourbon if they used a toasted barrel, the regs state that it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels as far as I can recall.

edit: I think Old Potrero was not allowed to refer to their 18th century rye whiskey as straight rye because they used toasted barrels while they were allowed to refer to their 19th century rye whiskey as straight rye because they used charred barrels for that. I know it's rye but I think the same specific requirement applies to bourbon as well.

10-20-2009, 09:14
The regs say "charred." Toasted is not charred. "Charred" means burned.

Not charred, not bourbon, period.

10-20-2009, 11:20
What about toasted then charred? Seems like I read recently that that was the procedure at some of the distilleries use.

10-20-2009, 11:33
The regs say "charred." Toasted is not charred. "Charred" means burned.

Not charred, not bourbon, period.

Yep. And in addition,

Not charred, not bourbon taste.

I've aged young brandy in small barrels; one time I filled a toasted and a charred with the same juice at the same time. After only a few weeks, the charred barrel tasting ,more and more of bourbon than brandy, while the toasted aged exactly as you'd expect of brandy.

We talk incessantly about a few percentage points of mashbill here and there, but as to what contributes most to the essence of bourbony goodness - it's the virgin charred barrel!


10-20-2009, 13:05
That would make sense. I'm going to quote Mr Cowdry;

I believe it is Jim Rutledge, at Four Roses, who originally said that the flavor of bourbon is 25% from the grains, 25% from the yeast, and 50% from the barrel.

10-20-2009, 14:35
What about toasted then charred? Seems like I read recently that that was the procedure at some of the distilleries use.

That's what Brown-Forman does.

10-20-2009, 15:53
The rules say charred so the barrel has to be charred. The rules don't care what else you do it. You can soak it in elephant urine if you want to, but if it's new and charred you can use it to make bourbon.

10-20-2009, 16:53
Wouldn't the elephant urine (or anything else, for that matter) techically be adding something other than water to the spirit thus negating the bourboness by some sort of variation of the Lincoln County Process rule?

10-20-2009, 22:07
Wouldn't the elephant urine (or anything else, for that matter) techically be adding something other than water to the spirit thus negating the bourboness by some sort of variation of the Lincoln County Process rule?

Except that the so-called "Lincoln County Process rule" is itself a myth. There is no such rule.

I suspect pre-soaking the barrels in elephant urine would be disallowed for some reason, but you won't find the reason in the Standards of Identity. The rules say the barrels have to be oak, they have to be new and they have to be charred. That means only one thing: that the barrels have to be oak, new, and charred. Extrapolating some other requirement from those requirements will always lead to false conclusions.

10-21-2009, 05:20

This is from an American journal in 1807, published in Philadelphia. I draw attention to the discussion of charring barrels, at pg. 45.

This discussion summarizes research in France a few years earlier by Bertholet, a French scientist. He advised to char barrels to keep water fresh on sea voyages. He also advised to use the process to improve wines and spirits, which advice is repeated in the attached link. The experiments with charcoal in general as a purifier started apparently with Lovitz, another European scientist working in the later 1700's.

Charred barrel aging for bourbon became typical around this period or shortly after.

Does this mean artisans hadn't hit on the process themselves earlier? No, but I rather think that word got around from scientific circles that spirits were improved in this way and this kick-started the aging of bourbon and straight rye in charred wood, at least for the best qualities.

Why didn't scotch end up being aged in this same way? I theorise there wasn't as much cheap wood in Europe even then, they needed to reuse casks.


10-21-2009, 06:56
I needn't add I think but will anyway that no doubt it was seen by those who placed new spirit in charred barrels that the magic effects worked if the barrels were new, not used.

You can re-char (a used barrel) all you like, but it does not work anything like the same effect on the liquor as when the barrel is new.

Buying new barrels for the emerging scotch and Irish whiskey industries was probably too expensive: not so for America with its still-standing expanse of forests. Or perhaps the Irish and Brits didn't like the taste a new charred barrel gives to a barley-based liquor.

And to be sure, we are talking about charring here, not toasting. Ultimately I think it was probably seen that toasting suits certain wines, and barrels today are not charred for wine storage.

Cognac seems a case apart or partially so in that its barrels are not charred but heavily toasted, which may have provided a partial inspiration for bourbon development. It seems Bertholet knew that brandy improved in heavily toasted barrels, and he appears to have thought that if the process was taken a step further both wines and brandy would benefit.

Where does this leave the stories about fish barrels being deodorized by burning and then perceiving the chance improvement on the spirit when used to age whiskey? Or the other tales that have been handed down about how the charred barrel became typical for bourbon (e.g., use of barrels accidentally burned in a premises fire or in the barrel-making process)? I think it leaves them in the realm of folklore and myth. On the other hand, there will never in all likelihood be a clear answer to the question of why the new charred barrel became used only to mature bourbon and straight rye whiskeys.


10-21-2009, 09:03
When visiting the Woodford distillery 2006 Chris Morris told me that the barrels they store the whiskey distilled at the distillery are heavily toasted and lightly charred. That he claimed was the reason of the reddish collar and part of the taste. The 110 proof sample he offered me in the dumping room tasted excellent and after that my belief are that the "Woodford problem" are all proof related.


10-21-2009, 09:26
Leif, probably he meant the barrels are charred but not to the heaviest toast (of which there are generally 4 grades made by the coopers).

For those with an historical interest, here is part of an amusing exchange in 1828 in an English newspaper:


Pasche and Clavis were pseudonyms of readers who were arguing about why some rum brought to Britain was coloured and some not and the colour varying when it was present. One felt that the puncheons were responsible because in some cases they retained burn marks from being heated to make the staves. The other, a little under the gun in this exchange - he sniffs that he generally does not take notice of how coopers make barrels - argues that colouring is the main reason (burned sugar, caramel). He argues that barrels might contribute some colour to rum but that can't explain all of it and the rest of the colour has to come from caramel or other agents added when the rum is made. He states that he knows barrels are sometimes burned but to his knowledge, that only occurs when they are "musty" and need to be restored to pristine condition.

It can be seen as early as 1828, consumers at any rate were unsure why their liquor was coloured (when it was, since the article makes clear that much of the rum came in a clear white).

I think perhaps they both were right, in that sometimes a burned barrel might explain the colouring, other times addition of caramel by the distiller, and a bit of both sometimes.

Clavis though gives us a clue that perhaps the positive effects of the charred barrel were indeed discovered accidentally, in that barrels that happened to be carbonized inside from coopers' heating practices were seen to make for a better spirit, and dealers and distillers in the U.S. cottoned to this.

How does this relate to the earlier scientific teaching mentioned? Hard to say. The impetus may have come in different ways from different directions.

To find the rest of the exchange, search Pasche and Clavis in the same issue of the Mirror.


Bourbon Geek
10-21-2009, 10:35
There is a process whereby the barrels get toasted first ... and then get charred. It seems to bring out a slightly different flavor profile from the wood. There is also a practice of toasting the heads and charring the staves for a similar rationale.

There presently is more science being applied to toasting barrels than to charring them ... You can actually contact certian barrel manufacturers and stipulate the taste profile you are looking for in a particular wine ... and they will run a custom toasting profile to assist in that endeavor.

Most bourbon guys still just ask for a #3 or a #4 char ... and nothing more. A handful have applied a little science and are combining toasting and charring ... some are even putting limits on the char time because of particular tasting notes that are either more or less desirable.

As for the Rev. Elijah Craig and the barrel char ... I've always believed that this was, at best, folklore that was propigated by the "wet" forces during the battle that led up to national prohibition ... what better poster child to put up for the "wet" forces than a Southern Baptist Minister who supposedly made whiskey and "discovered" the charring process.

I believe there was more likely a scientific type spread of information about char "helping" to age spirits ... especially when the use of charred barrels in KY and the Lincoln County Process in TN came on the scene at roughly the same time ... Two serendipitous events happening at approximately the same time, for the same purpose, in two different states seems far fetched to me (and I like to believe in fairy tales)...

10-21-2009, 11:29
Good points Dave, thanks, the toasting-and-then-charring you mentioned probably explains it.

Here is another old reference (at pg. 579), from 1815, an English book on science with a detailed chapter on distillation. The author, James Smith, states that liquors are sometimes placed "for a few weeks" in charred casks to cleanse the spirit of off-flavours resulting from burning in the still, pot stills of course. I believe this is the earliest reference I have read to the actual practice (as opposed to a theory) of placing new spirit in charred barrels. This provides another twist, in that people may have seen, through this practice intended as temporary, that charring improved the spirit in a more fundamental way.



10-21-2009, 12:34
I really don't know much about this subject, but I'll add my two cents anyway. It seems to me that some times when I drink bourbon, (which is is always aged in charred oak barrels) I tend to get a little toasted. :slappin: Joe

10-21-2009, 14:31
There is a process whereby the barrels get toasted first ... and then get charred. It seems to bring out a slightly different flavor profile from the wood. )...

This is exactly how they describe what they do at the Brown-Forman cooperage.

10-22-2009, 05:29

Early this year I found this and the references mentioned earlier via Google Books, and mentioned them on another bourbon site devoted often to historical inquiries. I will place some of them here as well, for their intrinsic interest to anyone inquiring after the theory of charring and how it started.

The link above is from The Bee, in 1793, and refers in more detail to the Lovitz experiments mentioned also a little later in some of the literature. The Bee was a Scottish learned journal. Note the footnote at pg. 108 reflecting the writer's admiration of charcoal for rectifying spirits. One can see that the Lincoln County maple charcoal filtering process for new make is a variation on this idea, as is charred barrel aging. Then as now, it was seen that charcoal removed strong and off-flavours from spirits. At first it was thought the charcoal in the barrel protected the wines and spirits from receiving flavour from the wood; later, evidently this was seen (due to the red layer) not to be true, but withal the palate of bourbon was felt a huge improvement over white dog spirit, whence derived ultimately the great American specialty of bourbon whiskey.

What I conclude from these early sources, all written around the time whiskey was not aged methodically or for very long, is that it was perceived the off-flavours in new make whiskey could be corrected, or rectified, by application of charcoal in various ways. This was something that may have been folk knowledge in some places, or not, but in any case was propounded by science, which surely had an effect on practical distillers in America. The American distiller Harrison Hall in 1818 mentions in his text charring of vessels to sanitize them, but like Samuel M'Harry writing in 1809, he seems more concerned about the mashing and fermenting stages, not aging of finished new make. These authors wanted to ensure that their ferments did not run sour especially in the summer. What The Bee, Lovitz, the Philadelphia journal a little later I mentioned and other contemporary sources were propounding though was an improvement in the palate of new make itself. New make could be burned in the pot still, and in any case contained strong flavours from fusel oils and other co-products (as it still does). Slowly I believe distillers or merchants buying their whiskey were influenced to age the whiskey for a time in charred barrels, ultimately new charred barrels, to secure the cleansing effect they had on the liquor. Indeed, even a non-charred barrel will have this effect, and this must have been noticed too (e.g., in Scotland for malt whisky), but the use of a new charred barrel surely was seen to hasten maturation and also its use imparted a pleasing smoky sweet taste from the red layer which was ultimately valued. Transport of spirits in new charred wood (charred intentionally for rectification or not) also probably contributed a skein to the story, and all these influences combined to make new charred barrel aging for quality American whiskey invariable before very much of the 19th century was consumed.