View Full Version : Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

10-31-2003, 18:50
Maybe the resident historians can help out here.

I have heard, and now I don't remember where, that aging
whiskey, and aging whiskey in a charred barrel were
discovered by circumstance. Here's the myth:

Charring a barrel was a common way to clean and
sterilize a previously used barrel. To remove the taste
of pickles or fish, the barrel was burnt and scraped.

Whiskey was often stored in new but sometimes in used barrels.

As the frontier was opening, whiskey was beginning to be shipped
long distances. Whiskey from Pennsylvania and Kentucky
would spend months or years travelling down the Mississipi
and out by wagon. The used, charred, barrels were often sent
to this less prestigious "export" market.

By the time the whiskey reached its destination, it had
spent a good deal more time in the charred wood than it
would have if consumed in local markets.

It became apparent that the whiskey from charred barrels
were preferable to that in uncharred barrels, and the
longer in the barrel the better.

So we can thank the pioneer's thirst and Manifest Desitny for
the current glory of our ambrosia.

While our European forebears gave birth to whiskey, the
perfection is wholly American. In glorious
American fashion, we have taken greatest advantage of

Can anyone confirm if this story is true, in any part?

When did aging and the use of charred barrels become
a requisite part of whiskey production?


10-31-2003, 19:42
I am asking these questions from ignorance. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/confused.gif How long have they been making cognac/brandy? How long have they been aging it in barrels? Do they use charred barrels and, if so, how long have they been doing that?


11-01-2003, 22:27
In their "The Book of Classic American Whiskeys" -- a fine book, though a little bit dated today; it was most recently updated in Oct. 1995 -- Mark H. Waymack and James F. Harris address the oak-barrel history:

"Exactly how this aging process came about is a story which belongs more to legend than to history, so we can only speculate, as others have done, as to how this process was begun."
Then, they offer the many stories, including the ridding of fish or pickle odor. Most interestingly, however, they also note documentary evidence that one Harrison Hall, in 1818, describes using charring of barrels as a means of smoothing their insides as well as protecting against sap blisters which, if burst, would threaten the quality of the whiskey.

11-04-2003, 14:29
The Romans knew that char improved the flavor of alcohol. The expression "toast" comes from the practice of dipping toasted bread into wine, which improved the flavor of both.

The early distillers in Kentucky were often not well educated, so there were many things "known" in the larger world that these guys didn't necessarily know. Did they know charring the inside of a barrel would improve the flavor of whiskey? We aren't sure. Possibly some knew it and some didn't.

Nevertheless, aging wasn't practiced, primarily because it wasn't necessary. The product was satisfactory to customers as it was and as long as a distiller could immediately sell everything he made, there wasn't any incentive to improve the product by aging it. It was only later, as the industry matured in the mid-19th century, that it became practical to age whiskey. It seems likely that the individuals who began that practice knew what the results would be, due to their familiarity with the practices of the French Cognac producers. Remember that French-influenced New Orleans was a major market for frontier whiskey and their standard for quality spirits was Cognac. It is likely that some producers, wishing to capture a larger share of that market, began the practice simply in imitation of the Cognac producers.

None of the stories about the "discovery" of charred barrels and their effect on whiskey check out. They're all fiction.

For more information, see "The Bourbon Barrel, Mere Container or Active Partner?" (http://realbeer.com/maltadvocate/S95/S95COWDR.html)

11-04-2003, 15:29

I've been using the SEARCH function for the past couple hours, trying to find information regarding the degree of control distillers have in regard to the barrels used for aging bourbon. Imagine my surprise when your brand-new post showed up in my search results.

What got me started on this today is the fact that some products from a certain distiller have one flavor element that reminds me of green maple wood. That led me to wonder whether coopers may age the oak to varying degrees before it's cut into staves and made into barrels. A trace of oak sap, if there is such a thing, might account for the flavor that I have noticed. I also wonder about variations in the age of the tree at the time of harvesting and the tightness of the grain, both of which are allegedly major factors in the selection of bruyere burls for tobacco pipes.

Today I found an interesting post by John L., in which he posed some questions to Julian Van Winkle III regarding the barrels used in his products. Sadly, I found no reply.

I also found a post by Linn S., in which he explained in some detail that the major steps in the production process are exactly the same for almost all bourbons that come from a single distillery. Unless a different mashbill is called for to produce a legacy bottling (e.g., Old Grand Dad), the grain is all the same quality, the water is the same, and every step of processing is the same. The difference between Jim Beam white and Booker's is a matter of age, barrel location/selection, and bottling proof. The one point that he did not address is whether all barrels used by a single distillery are made to the same specification.

Because of the barrel's major contribution, which increases with age, to the flavor of the finished product, I wonder whether variation in barrels is significant in regard to variations in flavor profiles.

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

11-04-2003, 16:13
For a really informative article about the effect of wood on whiskey, go to "Let's Do the Char Char" (http://www.whiskymag.com/magazine/issue34/whisky_production/lets_do_the_char_char.html), an article in Whisky Magazine.

11-04-2003, 16:55
Thanks Chuck,

I'll chalk this one up to apocrypha.

While serendipitous discovery is the stuff of great
American tales, we will have to be satisfied with the
tasty result, and not the story!

Any chance the Bourbon mashbill was discovered
accidentally by a dyslexic master distiller trying
to make Rye? http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif



11-04-2003, 17:02
Informative, indeed!

Now I'm even more curious as to how Julian would answer the questions (http://www.straightbourbon.com/ubbthreads/showthreaded.php?Cat=&Number=319&page=&view=&sb=5& o=&vc=1) John L. posed.

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

11-04-2003, 17:05
>I've been using the SEARCH function for the past couple hours, trying to find
>information regarding the degree of control distillers have in regard to the
>barrels used for aging bourbon.

You might find it informative to poke around on the Independent Stave Company's
website: http://www.independentstavecompany.com/

Some of their stuff is obviously aimed at winemakers, but they say they
do whiskey barrels, too. I'm completely ignorant of which cooperages
supply which distillers... and whether or not any distillers keep
coopers on the payroll anymore.

Tim Dellinger

11-04-2003, 17:54
There are two barrel manufacturers that supply the bourbon industry. Independent Stave, (http://www.independentstavecompany.com) in Lebanon, KY, is one of them. Blue Grass Cooperage, (http://www.bluegrasscooperage.com) in Louisville, is the other. Blue Grass is owned by Brown-Forman. Blue Grass, of course, supplies all of the Brown-Forman distilleries, and I'm sure some others as well. Off the top of my head I know Independent supplies Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark. It's conceivable that some distilleries buy from both, though I don't know this to be the case.

11-04-2003, 20:54
All ( so they say) of Bluegrass cooperage barrels have "B" on the rivet heads. I have a barrel here that served Jim Beam and it has the "B" on the rivets. There is also an upstart of an operation of barrel making at the old Atherton Distillery of Seagrams. No idea what their name is.

<font color="brown"> Good God Give Ed Bowling Some </font>

11-05-2003, 08:54

That led me to wonder whether coopers may age the oak to varying degrees before it's cut into staves and made into barrels. A trace of oak sap, if there is such a thing, might account for the flavor that I have noticed. I also wonder about variations in the age of the tree at the time of harvesting and the tightness of the grain, both of which are allegedly major factors in the selection of bruyere burls for tobacco pipes.

Bobby posted a link to this article several months ago.
Courier article (http://www.courier-journal.com/business/news2003/09/21/biz-front-drinks21-11000.html)
Scroll thru to the bottom, and the guy from BF mentions the age of the tree affecting the flavor.

11-05-2003, 13:10
Thanks, Bj. (I have a nagging feeling that I saw that article back then but have since forgotten it.)

I see that Mr. Lioutas estimates that 60-80% of the flavor of bourbon comes from the barrel. I wonder what today's master distillers would say on that point. If that estimate is accurate, then why don't we bourbon fans pay more attention to the composition of the barrels and less to mashbills, yeasts and distillation techniques?

I have to admit that I really don't want to think about the wood. The article's description of analzying the soup made by soaking ground oak in alcohol made me squirm. On the other hand, if that's what it takes to keep producing good-tasting bourbon as the supply of old oak trees dwindles, then I applaud the chemists' efforts.

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

11-05-2003, 16:08
In addition to Blue Grass and Independent Stave there are several companies in Kentucky that handle barrels and have "cooperage" in their name, but their business is buying used bourbon barrels from the distilleries and breaking them down for sale to Canadian and Scottish distillers. That may be what's going on at Athertonville. Or do you know they're actually manufacturing barrels for bourbon?

11-05-2003, 18:46
Me , Amelia and BettyeJo rode by it one day, They are making new barrels , Have a largely Spanish speaking work force. I think BettyeJo said that selling barrels to HH was a tough proposition because they are very picky. I found one time on an Europian website claim that Jim Beam had it's own and the largest cooperage operation of all, I have not found anyone there that will verify that that is true.

<font color="green"> Good God Give Phil Cook Some </font>

02-21-2004, 09:35
You are right about the cognac barrels. My sources tell me that cognac has been aged in charred oak barrels since the mid 1400's. Since Kentucky whiskey had to compete with cognac in New Orleans it is my theory that they decided to age it in charred barrels like cognac and give it a French name "Bourbon" to entice these French people to buy the Kentucky whiskey at a price that would earn them a profit.

The earliest reference I have found to charring barrels comes from the mid 1820's and the letter is written in such a way that it indicates that Charred barrels is a new process (at least in Bourbon County where the Corlis family owned a distillery). This would make sense because before 1803 New Orleans was not an open market for Kentuckians. The French or Spanish governors (depending upon who controled the city at the time) would often close the market to Americans as a political tool. After 1803 Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase but there were several years of transfer of administration and such that kept the market confused. Even so there was also a repeal of the whiskey tax the year before so the first aged bourbon could have appeared in this time, but I don't think it was wide spread. Then you had the second war of Independence in 1812 and a whiskey tax that lasted until 1817. When you had to pay a tax on the whiskey as soon as it came off the still, you did not experiment with aging and sold your product as soon as you could to keep your losses to a minimum. After the repeal of the tax, distillers could better afford to experiment with aging so the 1820's fits as to when the process of charring barrels would spread.

Mike Veach

02-22-2004, 06:32
I like that theory!

It makes sense, even if it goes in the face of folklore.

We may never know the real truth, though.

02-22-2004, 08:00
Since we are on the barrel topic, let me ask a question relating to the subject. Last week I posted a pic of a Wild Turkey truck sitting outside a warehouse at the Old Taylor distillery in Millville. To bottle the bourbon in those barrels, they must be shipped about 25 miles on curvy roads after being aged. During the period of storage it has been established that a certain amount of evaporation occurs. Due to the fact that the barrel is not completly full, on the 25 or so mile drive back to the Wild Turkey distillery to be bottled, there is going to be a ton of movement and shaking around of the bourbon inside the the barrel. Could we assume that when the bourbon arrives at the distillery it would have a slightly different profile than when it was unloaded from the warehouse onto the truck 30-45 minutes earlier?
Also, does Wild Turkey send an employee down there to open and close the windows as often as they would at their warehouses right beside the distillery. All this make me wonder what quality of bourbon is stored at Old Taylor.

02-22-2004, 14:06
I think the only effect of agitation would be to break off more char. Don't think it would affect the taste of the whiskey at all. Barrels get agitated in the move from the rickhouse to the dump room regardless. Maybe it's two miles, maybe it's 25.

Don't know about the windows. Those are masonry houses so they may actually have ventilation systems.

02-22-2004, 14:26
We were practicing for the barrel rolling contest. The warehousemen brought the barrels to us in their big ole truck. They didn't have a ramp, so I asked them how are you going to get those barrels off that truck without bustin' em?

They said watch this...They threw a big tractor tailer tire on the ground, (no rim inside). They took a barrel, laid it on its side and pushed it off of the back of that truck...

http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/blush.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/shocked.gifI screamed http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/shocked.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/blush.gif...That barrel, landed dead center of that tire...

Geeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzz http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/blush.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/blush.gif... it cushioned the blow and gently rolled off. They then pushed it to the rick for loading so we could practice.

We used real (full of bourbon) barrels...Not full of water http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif Good thing it does not affect the taste or those would be really different from the rest of our bourbon http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

Can't shake em any better than that http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif Bettye Jo http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

02-22-2004, 20:20
Interesting, that's the way we used to unload hydraulic oil drums at the farm implement dealership because, well, there were a lot of old tractor tires lying around.

02-23-2004, 07:00
Barrels made by Independent Stave Company, Lebanon, Ky. have a "K" on the rivets. The barrels made at their Missouri plant a "M" is on the rivet.

http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif Bettye Jo http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/grin.gif

02-23-2004, 08:48
I will not say that we will never know for sure. There is information out there if it can be located and made available to the public. For example, the Corlis-Respess family papers here at the Filson has the earliest mention I have found to the charred barrels question. The Corlis family actually ran a distillery in Providence, Rhode Island before moving to Bourbon County in 1815. Their distilling operation seems to have ended with John Corlis' death in the 1830's but they did have a member of the family that was a government gauger in the 1880's. There is a great description of him crossing an ice packed Ohio River to get to the distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana one winter.

The point is that there may be more papers from families who were distilling at the time, but are not families that remained in the industry. They may have descriptions of distilling operations such as mashbills and equipment descriptions and maybe even earlier mentions of charred barrels. Only time will tell what may be found in an attic somewhere.

Mike Veach

02-24-2004, 18:36
> The earliest reference I have found to charring barrels comes from the mid
> 1820's and the letter is written in such a way that it indicates that Charred
> barrels is a new process (at least in Bourbon County where the Corlis family
> owned a distillery).

I think an upcoming reprint of a historical distilling book might provide
an earlier reference to barrel charring, or at least the use of fire to
sweeten barrels.

I don't have the book in hand yet, but according to the table of contents,
available online as a pdf, The Practical Distiller, 1809, by Samuel M'Harry
To sweeten, by scalding, hogsheads p.41
To sweeten, by burning, hogsheads p.42

and the re-publisher's description includes the following:
"More early evidence of the coming of bourbon is that he advocates burning
straw in the hogshead to "sweeten" the hogshead. This could possibly be the
pre-cursor to modern day barrel charring!"

More info at

needless to say, I've already ordered the book...

Tim Dellinger

02-24-2004, 18:47
> Since Kentucky whiskey had to compete with cognac in New Orleans it is my theory
> that they decided to age it in charred barrels like cognac and give it a French
> name "Bourbon" to entice these French people to buy the Kentucky whiskey at a
> price that would earn them a profit.

I just noticed something in the M'Harry table of contents that might
support this theory:

To make a brandy, from rye, spirits or whiskey, to resemble French Brandy p.103

I'll post an update when I recieve the book!

Tim Dellinger

02-24-2004, 18:53
Based on some research I did for Southern Comfort years ago, I believe that product was created as a way of making raw, white corn spirits more closely resemble brandy through the addition of a fruit concentrate. That is still how Southern Comfort is made, i.e., by combining GNS with flavorings and colorings. The primary ingredient, after GNS, is apricot concentrate.

The point of this post is that Southern Comfort was created in New Orleans where French brandy, i.e., Cognac, was considered the pinnacle of the distilled spirits art, so it is very logical that anyone trying to sell a spirits product in the New Orleans marketplace would try to imitate Cognac in any way possible.

02-24-2004, 19:08
> Based on some research I did for Southern Comfort years ago, I believe that
> product was created as a way of making raw, white corn spirits more closely
> resemble brandy through the addition of a fruit concentrate.

What did you find in your research? And can you corroborate the 1874 date
that the current SoCo marketing people use?

Tim Dellinger

02-24-2004, 21:29
That date is pretty good and it shows that the appeal of French things and the quest to imitate Cognac continued pretty late. M.W. Heron operated a bar in New Orleans and in 1874 he started promoting his "Southern Comfort Cocktail," with the slogan, "No gentleman will request more than one."

02-25-2004, 10:07
I have been refering to early bourbon as the "corn brandy" concept. This book seems to be agreeing with that idea. The 1809 date also agrees with what I was saying. If distillers in Kentucky (or even farther up river in Pennsylvania as John Lipman argues) started experimenting with aging whiskey to make it taste more like cognac after 1803, then by 1809 they would be looking for printed material to teach them how to do so. Even so the majority would not experiment since it does cost in capital for barrels and storage space with the angels drinking their share of the product. Only after some people did the initial experiment and made a profit would others look into doing it as well. Then of course the War of 1812 brought back the whiskey tax and would delay the process farther as people would not want to pay tax on whiskey that was going to be lost.

Mike Veach

02-25-2004, 10:55
I would add a couple of thoughts. The table of contents of that early distiller's text being released refers to "sweetening" of barrels, i.e., cleaning or disinfecting. While we must await review of the chapter in question to see what it says, that to me implies a simple cleaning, not using charred barrels for long aging. In fact, if whiskey was put in a truly charred barrel - if these sweetened barrels were in fact charred that early - the whiskey may have been sold just as quickly as if put in an uncharred barrel so the benefits of long aging might not have been noticed. Once emptied of new whiskey the charred barrel would have been refilled with even newer whiskey, lessening further any effect of the charring. The sweetening was of interest to those acquiring used barrels from people that had used them to hold things that could contaminate whiskey. E.g., ex-molasses barrels would hardly hurt whiskey and I have seen references in the later 1800's to the desirability of using such barrels to hold moonshine whiskey made in Western Pennsylvania. We need to see what that chapter says though, possibly the author does claim that a straw-fired barrel can age whiskey better than an uncharred barrel, and if so, that is different..

Also, we must remember that the toasting (at least) of barrels has been done from time immemorial. Originally this was done to make the staves pliable so they could be worked more easily to make and repair the casks. People saw that the toasting caramelised the sugars in the oak and that this improved the wine. This knowledge is trite, but its connection to the charring of barrels in U.S. whiskey-making is less evident. I have been searching cognac brandy sites. So far I have not found a reference to the charring of casks there. I am not saying cognac producers do not use a true char, but have seen no evidence to date. Nor do any cognacs I have tasted really show the kind of oak char effect a well-aged bourbon does. (And one would think they should if, as we are always told, 60-70% of the taste of aged spirit is from the barrel).

Finally, even if cognac was stored in charred barrels in the early 1800's, that alone would not have impelled necessarily producers in Kentucky to do the same. In Byrn's Practical Distilling text published in the 1870's in Philadelphia, he refers to the fact that aging in oak lends colour to the spirit stored within. Then he says, not that U.S. distillers should do the same, but that they should copy the effect by adding various substances to the whiskey, e.g., burnt sugar. Now maybe he was strictly looking for shortcuts and Kentucky distillers took the long route, but who really knows just from the fact of French aging of spirits in oak? Also, spirits so aged can take colour from the wood without it being charred, Scotch whiskies prove that amply, so we come back to the question of whether cognac really was aged in charred wood in the early 1800's..

This area is replete with uncertainty and conjecture. While I agree with Mike that one day the answer may come out (as to the origin and rationale for storing whiskies in heavy-charred casks in Kentucky) at present I don't see that we have any clear answers yet!


02-26-2004, 06:30
To make a further useful contribution to the discussion of the history of using new charred barrels to age whiskey, I continued my web research on whether brandy makers including those in Cognac, France use the charred barrel to age their products. I came across the site of a small California producer of fine brandies, Osocalis. See www.osocalis.com (http://www.osocalis.com) which describes the operation and products produced. This craft distillery, established 10 years ago but just starting to release its brandies to market, makes products inspired by the Cognac tradition. For example, they use a beautiful old alambic (pot) still brought in from France. They use wines made from local grapes to make artisanal brandies of fine character that give every indication of combining the best the old and new worlds can offer in brandy-making. I decided to write the owners to ask about any use of charred casks in their operation or in brandy-making in general. Very kindly, both owners, Bob Mackey and Dan Farber, responded to me. Dan's experience with fine brandy goes back to the 1980's and he has spent time in France learning from the work of cognac masters there. Also, he has tasted cognacs that were made as far back as the early 1800's. Here is a summary of what they said: brandy makers, themselves included, employ barrels that have been toasted using either a light or medium toast. They said charring is not utilised, nor is mention made of the practice in texts on French brandy production. Bob said the barrels used to age fine brandies are reused barrels and while they make a contribution to the taste profile, the grape characteristics and distillation method impact flavour more than the barrel does. The function of the barrel is to permit a very slow oxidation of the aging spirit and yet last upwards of 30 years (since fine brandy famously is aged for very long periods). Both were pleased to receive a communication from the bourbon community (Bob enjoys a Baker's once in a while!). Our pleasant chat reminded me that while bourbon and cognac are different drinks they are both noble spirits and there are areas of common interest.

This of course does not mean cognac did not have an influence on bourbon development in the early 1800's. I would think the color of cognac was noticed by bourbon sellers in New Orleans and they must have known that long aging of brandy contributed to the fine color. Maybe (and here is another twist), after learning that cognac barrels were toasted, they also inferred the toasting caramelised sugars in the oak and improved, to a degree anyway, the flavor. Possibly then they hit on the idea of firing bourbon barrels deeply (more than had ever been done in France) to hasten the advent of the fine red colour and mellowing of flavor. Indeed we know that some bourbons acquire a lovely colour and good taste even after only 3 or 4 years in the barrel (especially in the old days when bourbon was bottled at around 100 proof). In a word maybe Kentucky distillers thought that deep charring - particularly of new barrels - would accelerate in whiskey the maturation produced by (longer) aging in casks of cognac that had been toasted prior to first use. This would enable the bourbon dealers to sell a competing product faster and at an increased profit especially as cognac was an import (although bourbon, as Mike has pointed out, would have been an import too until the Purchase).

Or maybe there is a completely different reason for the origin of the charred barrel in bourbon making..

This is a fascinating question and of all the historical matters discussed on these boards, it is the one I have found most absorbing to date.


02-26-2004, 14:53
You inspired me to a little online research of my own. Anyone interested in this subject may want to check out this web site. (http://www.bouchardcooperages.com/website/research/barrel_lore.html)

02-26-2004, 16:39
Chuck, you have sharp eyes, and in fact I had found this too. The word charring drew my attention as it did yours. I don't believe though its use has the significance it does to bourbon producers. First, the language in the whole piece seems awkward, a literal translation from French. Second, the discussion refers to medium toasting and (at most) medium toasting plus. This is different in my view from deep black charring of (invariably, in the bourbon context) new casks. Bob Mackey indicated to me that medium toasting is not charring in the sense he knew I meant it. For example, he suggested a burned wood taste is not part of the traditional taste profile for brandy.

Moreover, it appears used casks are used indifferently to new in Cognac tradition. This lessens the importance of toasting adding a taste accent to the contents of the cask when new. This current French scientist has noticed flavor differences in wine resulting from different types of stave heating processes used in France. It seems no one in France (from what he says) noticed or took much account of this before the 1990's. The taste effect when the barrels were used second or third hand by the brandy makers, as likely frequently occurred, would seemingly have reached the vanishing point..

This does not mean Cognac makers in the early 1800's did not possibly use a medium plus, or even plus plus (!) toasting - in mostly new casks. If they did, the practice may have been recognised as contributing to the maturation and color characteristics of fine Cognac. As I indicated in my previous e-mail, this might have influenced contemporary bourbon aging methods.

But the message I get from reading this wine cask web site and from other sources is that deep charring, much less in new wood, was and is not a keynote characteristic of wine, and still less of French brandy, production.

At bottom, I guess I hew to the theory that barrels were burned accidentally, or intentionally to rid them of a nettlesome contaminant; the casks were used nonetheless to store whiskey; the beneficial effect was noticed; and the practice of aging in new charred wood was followed methodically thereafter.

But in the present state of knowledge, who can really be sure..?


02-27-2004, 14:05
My conjecture is that the process was evolutionary, but that an interest in appealing to Cognac drinkers was one motivation. Knowing that some burning of barrel interiors was practiced in Cognac (and the words "toasting" and "charring" may not have had as distinctively different meanings then as they have to us now), the producers experimented and found that a fairly substantial burning of the barrel's interior gave them the best result. It may even have been, in part, accidental as the old Elijah Craig story has always held. Remembering the level both of education and communication at the time, it may have been a happy accident based on imperfect information about practices in Cognac. As virtually all writers on the subject have correctly noted, some burning of the barrel's interior was an inevitable result of the way staves were heated to soften the wood sufficiently to bend it into shape. A simple examination of a barrel that produced a particularly good batch would reveal its level of char and inspire the maker to increase it subsequently. The overall point is that since the benefits of "toasting" a barrel's interior were widely known, it's a small advancement from that to charring.

I would also note that in addition to communication and education being limited, so was technology. Today, barrels are charred by fireballs created from bursts of natural gas, the timing of which is precisely controlled. The wood is charred but it all happens so quickly that the wood does not continue burning. In the 19th century, they probably had to build a fire inside the barrel using something that would burn quickly, such as straw, or possibly they would put the barrel over a fire and then use a bellows to cause the fire to flare briefly, neither technique being as precise as the current practice.

03-01-2004, 06:11
One of the things less understood (speaking for myself certainly) than other areas of bourbon production is barrel production.

I wonder how wood was chosen and how it has been charred at different times since the early 1800's. If today a natural gas flame does the work, does this make the same kind of red layer and favour the kind of extraction of caramelised sugars as occurred, say, in 1840, 1918, 1938 and 2004? Are younger varieties of oak being used than formerly? Have seasoning methods changed? How important is seasoning, or natural seasoning, etc.? Will the same whiskey taste different if aged in a barrel seasoned out of doors twice as long as one dried with artificial methods? Will it taste different if the barrel was charred over a fire of smoldering oak embers than using a natural gas method? It would make sense that the shavings and left over pieces were used to make the fires that did the charring in the earliest days. Did this result in a "better" bourbon than is now produced? Is the reverse the case, possibly?

This area of bourbon production seems less discussed here than issues related for example to mash bills, mashing, backset, distillation methods and warehouse location and types.


03-01-2004, 09:48
Cooperages provide both natural air drying and kiln drying, according to the customer's specification. Barrel wood today comes from trees that are 40 to 100 years old. A century ago, the trees were older. Older trees contain more lignin, which gives a vanilla flavor. There may be other differences as well.

03-01-2004, 13:01
I know a number of forum contributors own whiskeys from the 1960's or even earlier. It would be interesting to hear their taste impressions with reference to vanillin extraction. It makes sense older trees were used in the old days. I would think too traditional methods of cooperage (i.e., as practiced from the mid-1800's) prevailed at least until the 1960's (if not to this day in some cases). Can one say that a Beam eight year old from, say, 1960 has a clearly more defined vanillin profile than Beam whiskeys do today?

While a certain "charcoal" aroma and flavour are in all genuine bourbon I would not say that most bourbon today has a pronounced burned wood and vanillin taste. Some bourbons do, but most do not. (Knob Creek scored well a few years ago in these areas but not as much lately in my view). I wonder if this results from the use of younger wood and wood fired with modern methods. Or maybe it results from marrying practices designed to deliver an ever lighter taste spectrum..

I'll say this: recently I had an Old Grandad and thought it was great: rich, complex, good body and mouth feel, in a word, lot's happening. I thought Old Forester of today didn't approach it for traditional qualities. Even Woodford latterly seems a bit thin and youngish. A recent sampling of Evan Williams 7 year old struck me as less rich and clean-tasting (with moderate barrel character) than a few years back, and a tad "congeneric". All these drinks will change somewhat over time so I don't ascribe any absolutes here but I thought this current Grandad was just tops, inclduing as to barrel character. It wasn't the bonded version but maybe the regular Old Grandad trumps the Bonded on complexity (due to marrying of different seasons' and years' production). I'd like to have had the chance to do a side-by-side..


03-02-2004, 09:40
I was talking with Chris Morris about this subject about a year ago and he told me that Brown-Forman was working with just the man I needed. He is a Professor from France who specializes in the chemistry of cooperage. Chris asked my question for me and this is what I was told was the answer.

Cognac has been aged in charred barrels since 1440. They use a variety of barrels - toasted, new char and used char. New barrels are not used for extended length of time probably 1 year or less before the liquor is transfered to another barrel. This is second hand information, but the source does seem reliable.

Mike Veach

03-02-2004, 10:57
Thanks, Mike. This does seem reliable and yet somewhat at variance with what I understood from the California brandy people who kindly took the time to respond to my request. I do think however Chuck's previous message kind of ties it all together, i.e., some toasting of some degree (it may have varied in practice at the time) was used for Cognac, this was noticed by bourbon sellers, they sought perhaps to emulate toasting/charring and found by experience that a heavy char in new casks produced the best results. So I think likely everyone is sort of right here. Did toasting exceed for Cognac in the early 1800's what was used for, or rather to make, the barrels that held Scotch whisky at the time? Don't know, but it doesn't really matter, I think we have our answer by putting it all together in the way Chuck suggested.


04-30-2004, 12:19
What about the use of other woods? I realize that the legal definition of bourbon requires oak, but have other kinds of wood (maple, for example) ever been used to store and age whiskey?

02-19-2005, 16:43
By no means do I claim to be a historian but I do recall hearing or reading that it was the Rev. Elijah Craig who had experienced a fire in his storage house. Barrels were among the casualties of the blaze but not completely destroyed. Some reference his Scottish heritage as the "thrifty-type" when he decided to use the charred barrels anyway to transport grain alcohol from Paris, KY to Lexington. During the bumpy journey via horse & buggy, the charred wood created bourbon as we know it as it flavored the alcohol. Has anyone else heard it this way? I'm sure there are some incorrect facts in this story but like I said, I don't remember where I absorbed this information.
This link somewhat hints at it.
Elijah Craig/BBS Webpage (http://www.bardstownbourbonsociety.com/brands_elijahstraight.html)

02-19-2005, 17:01
Joe, this is a large topic and the theory you advanced is controversial. There is much earlier discussion on this board which you can pull through searching, "charred barrel".

For what it is worth, I think the Scottish-descended and Scots-Irish-descended distillers like Elijah Craig and James Crow and others did mature whiskey in charred barrels, not because of an accident or thriftiness (lots of wood in America then) but to copy the smoky flavour that Scottish whisky has. Scotch gets its smoky taste from peat (a soft form of coal) which is burned to cure the barley malt. The smoke taste gets into the mash and ultimately into the whiskey. I think these distillers remembered fondly that tangy smoky taste and wanted to copy it - ergo, burn the inside of the barrel because there isn't any peat in Appalaichia (but if there is, I know someone on this board will tell me pretty soon http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif). Of course there is coal in them hills, but I don't think they found it until after Bourbon was invented.


02-20-2005, 09:44
For what it is worth, I think the Scottish-descended and Scots-Irish-descended distillers like Elijah Craig and James Crow and others did mature whiskey in charred barrels, not because of an accident or thriftiness (lots of wood in America then) but to copy the smoky flavour that Scottish whisky has.


This makes much more sense. The story I heard now seems a bit of a tall tale. Thanks for the input.

06-07-2005, 21:51
My sources tell me that cognac has been aged in charred oak barrels since the mid 1400's.

Yep. Supposedly started during the Hundred Years War when brandymakers buried some of their stock to keep it from being taken by the invading forces. When they finally returned and dug them up, lo and behold, they had aged liquor. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif

06-08-2005, 03:41
Burying the barrel to assist in aging has a long history in some parts of Europe. In Poland, well-off families would put a cask of rye spirit (essentially rye whiskey) in the ground to be dug up years later to celebrate the marriage of a son or daughter. It is possible the practice started to hide valuables from maurauding bands. But I don't see (an obvious) connection to the fact that some barrels used to make cognac are charred. E.g. if building and other holdings were razed and burned to the ground I can see that intense heat might char buried barrels but this would not affect (significantly) the aging of the spirit and is not the type of burning done to assist aging since barrels of course are burned on the inside. My view on the origin of barrel charring is it started as a coopering practice. Staves need to be heated on the inside to be bent inward and made pliable, and lightly burning them assisted that and that probably led to the perception that a toasted and charred interior improved the aging of liquors. The other commonly heard explanation is barrels were burned on the inside to sanitize and sterilize them for the next use. Probably both practices led to the realization that liquors were improved by being stored in such barrels. I have been trying to find coopering manuals from the 1800's, they might shed more light on the connection of certain coopers' practices to aging of spirits, but I know that a traditional, "London coopering" method to sterilize barrels was to smoke them on the inside. In fact, the earliest bourbon barrels were so treated, the barrel would be placed over burning hay or other dried grass. Hay burns with a quick and intense, but not super-hot, flame, and one can see in the gas-jet methods used today an echo of the original method. But that original Evan Williams or Elijah Craig or whatever whiskey it was so treated may have had an extra layer of taste because of the good Kentucky rye or other grasses burned in those barrels; stands to reason. Here's an idea, Ken: bourbon finished in hay-burned barrels. Take a whiskey aged normally for 4 years, then place it for a couple more years in a second new oak barrel the inside of which has been burned with a burst of fire from a heap of Kentucky hay! Alright!


06-08-2005, 04:03
Wasn't the practice of hiding goods from tax collectors or greedy Lords of the Manor also reason for the good peasants to bury their goods? It seems that practice would have probably started back in feudal times in Europe. Now where did I bury that goat?

06-08-2005, 04:06
Certainly a possibility, Dane. Burying of comestibles has been done in many areas for many reasons. In my native Quebec, in the old days a whole lamb would be buried over the winter to preserve it. Today that is harder to do because climactic changes have meant the winters are not what they were. So you aren't so far off with that goat idea. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif


06-08-2005, 12:21
The other commonly heard explanation is barrels were burned on the inside to sanitize and sterilize them for the next use.


Even though commonly heard, that explanation may be anachronistic.

Relying upon a vague recollection of long-ago reading, I believe that the connection between disease and microbes was not discovered until the mid-19th century. From comments I've read on this board, I gather that charring of barrels pre-dates that time frame.

OTOH, history suggests that people believed in the purifying power of fire even without any knowledge of microbes.

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

06-08-2005, 12:45
Quite so, Dave, perhaps sterilize isn't quite correct and sanitize (with its more general sense) can stand alone. Purify works well, too - the idea of cleansing is really what I meant.


06-08-2005, 15:06
Whoops, looked like I missed a key word there. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif Hundred Years war story was only about how aging liquor in barrels for lengths of time above and beyond a year-long trip across the continent began.

As to the char connection, I'm not so sure, although the idea of charring used barrels to remove offensive smells (fish, pickles, etc.) seems the most reasonable.

As to charring new barrels for aging, that's still a bit of a mystery. Cognac makers didn't do anything like that, as far as I know that's a Bourbon original.

My best guess is that someone trying to imitate cognac saw that they were shipped in charred barrels, and didn't understand that the charring was from cleaning used barrels, so when they tried making their own "corn brandy" they charred new barrels from scratch as a mistake.

Ken Weber
07-05-2005, 10:15
Interesting idea! We currently are in the midst of some rather indepth barrel experiments that had us trying everything imaginable (and some things that only Mark Brown could have dreamed up). I will update you guys in about 4 - 5 years.


Ken Weber
07-05-2005, 10:21
I know the Scots often burn a sulpher "candle" inside a barrel to sanitize it. It also imparts a less than pleasing taste since sometimes the burning residue is deposited on the inside of the barrel and is therefore in contact with the aging whiskey for several years. Burning just seems an easier way to rid an old barrel of the scent of tobacco or fish or whatever the first barrels of bourbon held prior to being used to store whiskey.


07-05-2005, 14:31
It just seems to me, no matter what you do, if a barrel previously held fish, no amount of burning in this world could keep it from passing into the spirits. Maybe that analogy is to only serve as a bad example. I would hesitate to cook a steak over fish treated oak! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/puke.gif

Can you imagine the tasting notes?

Nose; Fresh Sea Bass, Perch.............

07-05-2005, 17:45
Bobby, I cannot recall where I read this, but I know that circa 1900 barrels of some Canadian whiskies were regularly found with detritus floating in them from prior uses and I recall the account stating barrels of whiskey contained things like chunks of salt pork! No doubt many whiskies were adulterated in this way, or by odors clinging to barrel staves, before barrel making and dumping pratices became what they are today. As lawyer once told me when I asked what it was like to work in buildings before air conditioning when it was 100 degrees F. outside, "man it was rough". http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif


07-05-2005, 18:08
I'm sure, Gary, that anything we can imagine and a few things we can't have happened. It just seems the cart is in front of the horse, probably a lot of good flavors could have been imparted had the barrel first been used to age Bourbon and then to store the smoked salmon, or salt cured pork. The reverse........ as you say, it was rough! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/lol.gif