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Thread: Barrel Timbers

  1. #1
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    Barrel Timbers

    Ok, so Oak is the timber that produces whiskey. Is there differences in timbers ( Oak ) harvested from various locations that affect the whiskey differently ? or is there particular preferences for timbers from specific regions to be used in barrel construction ?

    Now I reckon thats Great Mate - woof!

  2. #2
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Barrel Timbers

    It is white oak and most of it comes from Arkansas. Although it all goes to one of the two Kentucky cooperages, some of the distillers do specify their own wood. I'm pretty sure Maker's Mark is one of them. If I remember correctly, they want theirs to be air dried while kiln dried is the standard. Don't hold me to any of this, though, as I'm doing it from distant memory and I am prepared to stand corrected.

    --Chuck Cowdery

  3. #3
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    Re: Barrel Timbers

    I think what you're about to open here is one area where there are a whole lot of "unknowns". Distillers are very fussy about their grain selection; a water source can be "perfect" in one location and "totally unacceptable" just a few hundred yards away; and everyone knows how jealously each distiller guards his "own" yeast strain. But no one seems to ever address the issue of variations in the actual barrels that make up so much of the bourbon's character. It's nearly all white oak, not because of any legal restriction (on the variety, that is), but because it makes the best barrels for holding alcohol for long periods of time. But does white oak from Arkansas have different characteristics than white oak from Illinois? Does it vary from one county to another? Are some groves better than others? Most distillers feel that way about the corn they choose. In barrel making, does the width of the staves, and thus the number of joints (which varies from barrel to barrel) have an effect? All the wood doesn't come from the same depth of the tree, so do density variations have an effect of the way the char is burned into it? Certainly some trees are "sweeter" than others, and barrels with lots of staves from those trees will produce a different bourbon from the same batch of white dog than most. These would be the "honey barrels" that Elmer Lee and Jimmy Russell speak of. I'd like to hear more about this from some barrel folks. Are there any out there?

    -John Lipman-
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

  4. #4
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    Re: Barrel Timbers

    I too am interested in barrels and in particular the process of charring the barrels on the inside. One of my life goals is to end the myth of Elijah Craig "inventing" charred barrels because of an accident. If anybody has historical references to the charring of barrels I would love to see them.
    Mike Veach


  5. #5
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Barrel Timbers

    John,

    I agree with everything you said except your comment about corn. In reality, and despite what they might tell you, they aren't all that picky about their grains either. As long as it's number two (I think that's the rating) it will do. They do check each load carefully for any kinds of mold or other deficiencies, but they don't walk the fields and interrogate the farmers or anything like that. If they perfer local corn it is simply because it is more economical to buy close to the growing source.

    --Chuck Cowdery

  6. #6
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    Re: Barrel Timbers

    Yeah, you're probably right :-(

    In fact, I suppose that decision is probably made by the "global resource development team", made up of middle managers whose only responsibility is to report to someone what someone else reports to them. Oh well, another pretty myth down the drain. And I did so prefer to imagine the distiller himself, holding that single kernal up to the sunlight and squinting as he speaks into the telephone, "Well, Zeke, you done it again this year. I don't know how you get such high-quality grain. Must be the water."

    -John Lipman-
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

  7. #7
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    Re:Crop Report

    Ample rains & moderate temps have made for a stellar early corn crop here in happy little Stuart's Draft Virginia. The Holloway Sweet will make a great run. I was just down in Danville and the young tobacco plants were the deepest most vibrant green I do believe that I've ever seen. Dark & rich. I would think that Kentucky farmers are experiencing similar results.

    Linn Spencer

    Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

  8. #8
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    Barrel Char and Variety

    In a post to another topic, Mark Mason mentioned that he'd like to see, "...more old bourbons 15+ years aged in a very lightly charred barrel".

    Now, in trying to visualize what these bourbons would be like, I ran up against a subject that still confuses the devil out me: All other things being equal, does a heavier char result in an "oakier" or less oak-y flavor and color over the years? It seems to me that the sweet, toasted "red-zone" of the oak staves, which is where all the oak, vanilla, and caramel flavors come from, is about the same thickness no matter what the degree of char. So the only difference is in how thick the charcoal layer is. Since that's the part that does the filtering and absorbing of both the raw whiskey and the oak-derived flavors, it would seem that a light char (thinner filter) would result in more, not less, flavor. And color, too, since the charcoal doesn't *add* coloring agents, it *removes* them. Therefore a thicker layer of charcoal would actually remove more color than a thinner layer would. So would using more heavily-charred No. 4 barrels allow you to get away with longer aging than you could with lighter No. 2 barrels?

    In another topic, Chuck Cowdery said, "On the other hand, I would like to see people experiment more in the category of American Whiskey..." "...You couldn't call it bourbon, though, and that may be one of the reasons it hasn't been done."

    One thing that might be interesting is different kinds of wood for barrel aging. Mike Veach may know something about this, since the use of charred barrels is one of his pet interests. Back in the days when the idea that picking up flavors and a reddish-brown color from the storage medium might actually be accepted as an improvement over the already popular and desirable raw, clear whiskey, there must have been a lot of uncertainty and experimentation going on. Before the laws that defined bourbon came along and put a stop to any more trials, did distillers try small batches in barrels made of woods other than oak? Of course, I guess pine wouldn't have been a very good choice (Greek resinata whiskey?), and I suppose you'd have a hard time gaining a growing following for hemlock. But what about walnut? Teak? Cherry? Maple? Mahogany? Now considering the cost of one-time use of barrels made from these woods, I would expect finished prices in the range now occupied by Distillers Masterpiece, but here I would have to agree that the whiskey would have earned it. By the way, the other day I was writing a message outside of the forum and came up with a new whiskey type designation I'd like to see, since I don't really expect to see the major bourbon distillers take on the stigma of producing an "American Whiskey". I suggest the designation, "Super-Bourbon", which would allow for more experimentation and still manage to allow the B-word to be used.


    -John Lipman-
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

  9. #9
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    Re: Barrel Char and Variety

    John, good questions. Some thoughts:

    On the subject of using different woods, somewhere I read that White Oak was used due to the grain structure causing less leakage. I bet that this was the driving force for choosing White Oak in the first place, back in the old days when the barrel was just a container and not necessairly an aging/flavor contributor, the resistance to leakage (more correctly, diffusion) would have been the overriding factor. That being said, I would still like to hear about any experimentation with different woods.

    Barrel char and barrel flavoring: The red zone must be the primary flavor contributor, but I would think that the char would add a burnt toast flavor, al la Four Roses, or the 10 and 12 year old HH's. Does the charring process add to the red zone? I would think so, since heat is involved. But on the other hand, there is a finite amount of matter in the oak that can be converted to sugars, how much is left after the stave bending?

    Joe at Sams in Chicago let on that spice in a bourbon is a result of less char, which makes sense, less charcoal filtering and more barrel effect.

    But alas John, your question strikes at the heart of the distillers art of creating a ballanced product: "So would using more heavily-charred No. 4 barrels allow you to get away with longer aging than you could with lighter No. 2 barrels?" It would appear to me (after giving this more thought than I did in my previous posting) that longer aging in either a number 2 or number 4 would cause the whiskey to become unballanced in one direction or the other. The answer must lie in Julian Van Winkle's court, as he is able to achieve quite balanced results at both ten and fifteen years. At this point I could not guess how he does it. Another example is Old Charter 12 Year Old, no char or burnt toast there.

    Another factor must be the barrel storage location in the warehouse. The top floors, with the most heat, must extract more of the red layer. Perhaps the longer aged product comes from the bottom floors.

    Perhaps I should update my wish list to: See a Bourbon aged to balance in tradtional barrels (7 to 9 years) and then transferred to used cuperage for more mellowing and aging without undue additional contribution by the barrel. Sort of a combination of the Bourbon and Scotch approach. I do not know if this would result in a better Bourbon, but it certaintly would go a long way toward driving the pricing into the single malt Scotch strata.

    Mark A. Mason, El Dorado, Arkansas

  10. #10
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    Re: Barrel Char and Variety

    Mark:

    As a raw beginner in the whiskey hobby, but someone who has read a bit in the field of traditional woodworking, I wanted to comment on your question about the amount of material in barrel staves which could be caramelized during charring after the bending of the staves themselves. This gets to an issue about the use of different barrel woods - the original way barrel staves were formed into arcs, at least in my understanding, was with steam-softening. This is also the way boat ribs, snowshoes and Windsor chair backs are formed. It's unlikely that the low temperatures involved with that process would caramelize sugars - remember, to caramelize the topping on a custard you have to put it under the broiler. The demands of the steam-bending process also affect the choice of barrel lumber - as I understand it, oak (particularly white oak) and ash are the best. Maple and cherry don't steam-bend that well. As I understand it, the convex shape of a barrel is important for mobility - I read somewhere that a standard whiskey barrel is the largest size that can easily be rolled and pivoted by one man. If that barrel were perfectly cylindrical it would be much harder to pivot. So the bending process is critical to producing barrels. Also remember that barrel staves need to be flat, so old-time coopers would have stuck with wood that could be easily hand-planed (that leaves out elm and a bunch of others). You'd never want to sand a barrel-stave - too time-consuming and it would leave sanding residue in the wood pores ("...Yes, the whiskey has an intriguing sand/glue midrange palate..."). Maybe I'm all wrong on the steam idea - I'd sure like to hear from someone in the coopering trade.

    Ralph Wilps


 

 

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