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  1. #1
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
    Join Date
    Sep 1999

    A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    You have two barrels of bourbon, next to each other in a warehouse. One barrel holds 5 gallons, the other one 53. The warehouse is neither heated nor cooled. Temperatures inside, like those outside, can exceed 90 degrees in summer and drop below zero in winter. Ambient temperature can change 30 or more degrees within a 24 hour period.

    Does the whiskey's response to these temperatures vary according to the size of the barrel. It seem that the whiskey in the five gallon barrel would follow the ambient temperature more quickly and closely than the whiskey in the large barrel, which would tend to change temperature more slowly. Am I right? How much difference would there be?

    Also, the volume of a liquid expands when it gets warm and contracts when it gets cold. Would the liquid in the small barrel expand/contract more, as a percentage of its volume at the baseline temperature? Or would they expand/contract to the same extent?

    This isn't a quiz. I'm asking because I don't know the answers.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2008

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    I also believe it would have greater contact with wood in the smaller one (better liquid to wood ratio). I might be wrong.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2010

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    the temp in the small barrel will change in temperature quicker than the temp in the big barrel. I know this, becuase I have watched it with a thermometer.

  4. #4
    Bourbonian of the Year 2010 and Guru
    Join Date
    Aug 2005

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    These two theoretical barrels are in a warehouse full of other barrels, right?

    That warehouse full of barrels holds a lot of thermal mass, which regulates temperature swings of all the barrels. Yes, the barrels on the outside and near the roof will swing more quickly, but even that is tempered a bit by the overall volume of whiskey.
    2010 Bourbonian of the Year

    As long as you have good whiskey you're not "unemployed", you're "Funemployed!!!"

    I'm no Pappyophile

  5. #5

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.


    I'm in a physics department, so let me give this one a try.

    The amount of heat (thermal energy) in a barrel depends upon the volume of liquid. The change in heat depends upon the surface area since heat is gained or lost to the environment through the surface. So the rate at which heat is gained or lost depends upon the ratio of surface to volume. Surface is proportional to R^2, where R is some dimension of the barrel, say, its width. Volume is proportional to R^3. So surface-to-volume is proportional to 1/R. That is, if R is smaller (smaller barrel), then the surface-to-volume ratio is larger, and the barrel changes temperature more quickly in response to its environment.

    If you compare a 5 gallon to a 50 gallon barrel, the volume ratio is 10, so the ratio in R is the cube root of 10, about 2. So the 5 gallon barrel should gain or lose heat (hence, change its temperature) about twice as fast as the 50 gallon barrel.

    All of this sounds rather pedantic since it just reflects what you intuitively know (and what Tom McKenzie determined directly). Smaller things heat up or cool down faster. So if you cut a hot baked potato into small pieces, it cools off faster. And, by the same token, the smaller Moon has cooled off inside much more than the bigger Earth. So don't go the Moon expecting to see active volcanoes. Go to Hawaii, instead, where the climate is much more agreeable.

    As for thermal expansion or contraction, the fractional (i.e. percentage) change in volume of a liquid with temperature does not depend upon the volume. At 20 C, for example, the coefficient of thermal expansion for water is 0.0002 per degree C. So if the temperature changes, say, 10 C (18 F), then the fractional change in volume is 0.002 or 0.2 %, independent of the total volume. This is not a very large change!

    Of course, all this physics means very little compared to taste. At least in whiskey. And you recently reported on the failed Buffalo Trace experiment with small barrels. Turns out, they don't work very well. Evidently, small barrels are just a shortcut to get lots of color and wood flavor in a short period of time. But there is much more to aging whiskey than color and wood flavor.

    So, did I pass the quiz?

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2001
    Pelham, AL

    Post Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    The change in density as temperature changes is dependent on what the liquid substance is. Here is a chart for pure water:


    There is a chart for ethanol on this page. Scroll to the table "Properties of aqueous ethanol solutions":



    Self-Styled Whisky Connoisseur

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jun 2010
    Northern Indiana

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    I don't disagree with any of the answers stated previously, but I think there's another variable that exagerates the results. Because of the higher surface area / volume ratio of the small barrel, there is more empty space (proportionately) within the smaller barrel. I've heard varying reports on how much the barrel absorbs in the first 24 hours, but we can assume it is noticable.

    A small amount of liquid will change temperature faster than a large volume, but even at the same size a liquid that fills a container half way will fluctuate more than a liquid filling its container.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Mar 2011
    SE Minn

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    i think Tom has put out some good stuff, but there still is a rather perplexing variable still left out.

    Them angels still take their fair share.

    One would have to also figure in, at some fixed variable that may or may not hold true for every barrel in every warehouse everywhere, of the ever diminishing amount of whiskey in the barrel. As the volume goes done, i'm assuming that the ratio of liquid to wood contact will also change. Which then changes the above mentioned figures.

    Sounds like a good topic to write some doctoral dissertation on.

    "Life is life and fun is fun, but it's all so quiet when the goldfish die."

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2011
    Lexington, MA

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    Quote Originally Posted by BFerguson View Post
    Sounds like a good topic to write some doctoral dissertation on.
    Anyone good at writing grant requests? I'm thinking a ten-year study, including well-constructed experiments involving close work with the bourbon manufacturers, a Scotch whiskey control group, with the future vision of creating a permanent Bourbon Aging & Tasting Institute. I wonder if UKY has any lab/office/lounge space to spare...

  10. #10

    Re: A Physics Problem, With Bourbon.

    For raising or lowering barrel temperature, response to temperature varies dramatically by MASS of the liquid in the barrel. The smaller barrel will change temperatures much faster in relation to ambient temperatures.

    Assume full barrel of 63% ethanol by weight (weight, not volume): to raise the temperature of the liquid by one degree celcius it requires 51.36 kilojoules for the 5 gal barrel and 544.45 kilojoules for the 53 gallon barrel.

    Calculations were my own based on density of solution of 0.88 g/ml and heat capacity of solution of 3.0838 J/(g*C) for 63% ethanol/water by weight beginning at 20 degrees celcius; and assuming constant pressure (atmospheric pressure, volume can change).

    For change in volume of liquid, it is as Tom said. Easier to calculate based on ethanol since thermal expansion coefficient for ethanol is much greater than water. There are experimental papers with specific data for different ethanol/water mixtures if that is needed.
    Last edited by B.B. Babington; 12-19-2011 at 19:26.



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