Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
bandit

Origin of the Charred Barrel ??

Recommended Posts

bandit

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ratcheer

I am asking these questions from ignorance. 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?

Tim

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
TNbourbon

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

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?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bluesbassdad

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bandit

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? grin.gif

Cheers!

-AJ

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bluesbassdad

Informative, indeed!

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

Yours truly,

Dave Morefield

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
tdelling

>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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bobbyc

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>

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
brendaj

Dave,

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

Scroll thru to the bottom, and the guy from BF mentions the age of the tree affecting the flavor.

Bj

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bluesbassdad

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

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?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bobbyc

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>

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bourbonv

Chuck,

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
dhooch

I like that theory!

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

We may never know the real truth, though.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
BSS

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
boone

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...

blush.gifshocked.gifI screamed shocked.gifblush.gif...That barrel, landed dead center of that tire...

Geeeeeezzzzzzzzzzzzz blush.gifgrin.gifblush.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 grin.gifgrin.gif Good thing it does not affect the taste or those would be really different from the rest of our bourbon grin.gif

Can't shake em any better than that grin.gif

grin.gifgrin.gif Bettye Jo grin.gifgrin.gif

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
gr8erdane

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.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
boone

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.

grin.gifgrin.gif Bettye Jo grin.gifgrin.gif

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
bourbonv

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
tdelling

> 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

lists:

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

http://www.raudins.com/BrewBooks/default.htm

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

Tim Dellinger

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
tdelling

> 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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...