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  1. #1
    Apprentice
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    Oct 2003
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    Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    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
    serendipity.


    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?

    -AJ


  2. #2
    Guru
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    I am asking these questions from ignorance. 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?

    Tim

  3. #3

    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    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.


  4. #4
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    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?"

  5. #5
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    Chuck,

    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

  6. #6
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    For a really informative article about the effect of wood on whiskey, go to "Let's Do the Char Char", an article in Whisky Magazine.

  7. #7
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    Informative, indeed!

    Now I'm even more curious as to how Julian would answer the questions John L. posed.

    Yours truly,
    Dave Morefield

  8. #8
    Enthusiast
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    Mar 2000
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    Midland, MI
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    455

    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    >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

  9. #9
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    There are two barrel manufacturers that supply the bourbon industry. Independent Stave, in Lebanon, KY, is one of them. Blue Grass Cooperage, 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.

  10. #10
    Bourbonian of the Year 2003 and Super Moderator
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    Re: Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

    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>

 

 

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