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The Origin of the New Charred Barrel to Age Bourbon - European Science Circa 1800?

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Richnimrod

Thank You, Gary!    I never thought, much less was ever convinced, that any of the "accidental" explanations for the beginning, thence expanding, and now virtually universal (for Bourbon, at least) use of charred barrels for storing spirits were valid. 

Your digging around in Europe and finding the possible scenario(s) showing the most likely explanation(s) is very much appreciated; and I find the article very interesting to boot.

Again thanx, Gary for all your research and for clearly gathering and presenting the facts for us.

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Gillman
34 minutes ago, Richnimrod said:

Thank You, Gary!    I never thought, much less was ever convinced, that any of the "accidental" explanations for the beginning, thence expanding, and now virtually universal (for Bourbon, at least) use of charred barrels for storing spirits were valid. 

Your digging around in Europe and finding the possible scenario(s) showing the most likely explanation(s) is very much appreciated; and I find the article very interesting to boot.

Again thanx, Gary for all your research and for clearly gathering and presenting the facts for us.

 

Thanks Rich, appreciate the input. There is always more than meets the eye ... 

 

Gary

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fishnbowljoe

The Reverend Mister Elijah Craig is probably rolling over in his grave. :lol: FWIW, I was always just a wee bit skeptical of the burning or charring of barrels that at one time had been used to ship and/or store nails. ;) Nice article. Very cool. Thanks Gary.

 

Cheers! Joe

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Tennessee Dave

Thanks for sharing.  Very interesting.

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Gillman

Thanks guys and I always enjoy discussion, whether people agree or not...

 

Gary

Edited by Gillman

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Harry in WashDC

Again, thanks for finding and posting the old info for discussion.  Toward the end of your essay, you mention that some 20 years after the writing of the English study touting charring, the distillers in the US likely would have had access to the information of that study, thus undercutting the "accident" theory for barrel charring.  I could see some distillers, upon learning of the study, telling their friends, competitors, and customers: "I TOLD you charring was a good idea."-_- 

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flahute

Fantastic stuff. I had recently heard the theory about the cognac producers using toasted barrels as a reason why it may have been emulated here but this takes it even further.

I do appreciate your willingness to dig into these old journals and publications in an effort to unearth the old secrets.

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jsrudd

Gary, thank you for doing this alternative take on the origin of bourbon.

 

Inspired by your article, I did a little digging of my own to try and find some additional corroborating information. In this research, I found some interesting articles from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Journal of Institute of Brewing. Although this journal focused on brewing, articles relating to distilling appeared from time to time.

 

All in all, these articles are a snap shot of generally known scientific knowledge at the time. In these articles, the authors do not place any importance on barrels that have been charred or display any knowledge of the beneficial effects. This doesn't disprove your theory, but it would require that American knowledge and practice developed separately from British knowledge during the 19th century. The specific articles are discussed below.  

 

In an article titled "The Chemistry of Whiskey" (1897), the author does not evidence knowledge of any additional benefits provided by charcoal compared with the benefits provided by wood generally. The author does show an understanding of the filtering effects of charcoal, but believes that the pores in the staves of the barrel provide the same effect (see e.g., pp. 41-42).

 

In both The Chemistry of Whiskey (see above) and another article titled "The Character in Pot Still Whiskey" (1929), the authors do not mention aging Scotch whiskey in ex-bourbon casks. In The Chemistry of Whiskey, the author states that "Sherry casks are preferred to plain wood casks for storing whiskey" (p. 27). In The Character of Pot Still Whiskey, the author acknowledges that the final process for maturation in cask is "very imperfectly understood" and goes on to describe what is known about the maturation, assuming that the barrels were previously used for sherry (p. 217). 

 

Finally, in an article titled "Hints with regard to Timber and its Preparation for Brewers' Casks, and their Structure from a User's Standpoint" (1906), the author notes that he has witnessed casks at exhibition in which fully 1/8th of the barrel is charred and that such an extent of charring affects the structural integrity of the barrel (P. 470). There is no mention of any benefit of such charring and, from his tone, I believe the author considers it an anomaly. Though this article focuses on beer barrel, the author does display a knowledge of the use of cooperage in other contexts.  

 

 

 

Edited by jsrudd

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Gillman
3 hours ago, jsrudd said:

Gary, thank you for doing this alternative take on the origin of bourbon.

 

Inspired by your article, I did a little digging of my own to try and find some additional corroborating information. In this research, I found some interesting articles from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Journal of Institute of Brewing. Although this journal focused on brewing, articles relating to distilling appeared from time to time.

 

All in all, these articles are a snap shot of generally known scientific knowledge at the time. In these articles, the authors do not place any importance on barrels that have been charred or display any knowledge of the beneficial effects. This doesn't disprove your theory, but it would require that American knowledge and practice developed separately from British knowledge during the 19th century. The specific articles are discussed below.  

 

In an article titled "The Chemistry of Whiskey" (1897), the author does not evidence knowledge of any additional benefits provided by charcoal compared with the benefits provided by wood generally. The author does show an understanding of the filtering effects of charcoal, but believes that the pores in the staves of the barrel provide the same effect (see e.g., pp. 41-42).

 

In both The Chemistry of Whiskey (see above) and another article titled "The Character in Pot Still Whiskey" (1929), the authors do not mention aging Scotch whiskey in ex-bourbon casks. In The Chemistry of Whiskey, the author states that "Sherry casks are preferred to plain wood casks for storing whiskey" (p. 27). In The Character of Pot Still Whiskey, the author acknowledges that the final process for maturation in cask is "very imperfectly understood" and goes on to describe what is known about the maturation, assuming that the barrels were previously used for sherry (p. 217). 

 

Finally, in an article titled "Hints with regard to Timber and its Preparation for Brewers' Casks, and their Structure from a User's Standpoint" (1906), the author notes that he has witnessed casks at exhibition in which fully 1/8th of the barrel is charred and that such an extent of charring affects the structural integrity of the barrel (P. 470). There is no mention of any benefit of such charring and, from his tone, I believe the author considers it an anomaly. Though this article focuses on beer barrel, the author does display a knowledge of the use of cooperage in other contexts.  

 

 

 

 

 

John thanks very much for this, exactly the kind of discussion I appreciate. I have come across all these articles before and they are very useful as snapshots as you said at different periods. My main reaction would be, of course this is three generations and more after William Nicholson was writing. Science had progressed enormously, especially organic and inorganic chemistry.  So what might have influenced bourbon makers at a much earlier stage, and then become fixed, would not have been affected much later by these writings.

 

Allen's theory was that fusel oil and other secondary constituents are absorbed by the wood, or cork, or "animal charcoal" (bone dust and similar but he would not exclude wood charcoal which is a form of wood of course). Whether this is true or not for matured whiskies I can't say, however I can point to an article in the 1910s (I'll dig it out) in the States where a scientist stated that, contrary to belief then prevailing, fusel oil content actually increased the longer whiskey was aged. It couldn't be because of build-up in the wood because he was analyzing straight whiskeys (new casks or predominantly then).

 

Apart from that, Allen in his comments in the discussion portion states that new wood (meaning uncharred) lends a raw, astringent flavour to spirits. I believe this is the "bad" part Nicholson wrote about, probably due to saps and raw vanillins entering. Charring does solve this problem. Some whiskey is aged I think in what is called virgin oak, probably toasted in some way but not charred, but I believe it is almost always blended or mingled with much more spirit aged in reused wood.

 

Re-using any cask, charred or not, leaches out those new objectionable flavours, and that became the Scots and Canadian way.

 

So two options: char new casks, or use old well-seasoned containers. Both solve the problem, but I think it is fair to say that new charred wood matures the spirit faster. Certainly it colours and flavours it (red layer) in a way that aging in non-charred reused wood doesn't. And so you got the two major national styles of matured whiskey, Scots (and Irish) and American.

 

Charring of course  doesn't affect cask integrity unless pushed past a #4 char as it is termed today. Also, I know Guinness used charred casks in the 1800s and had no objection to American oak. (Unlike the British for their pale and mild ales in England).

 

It's true that re-used charred wood was not the norm in Scotland in the 1800s, as the articles you posted made clear, sherry wood was used. But these were re-used barrels, in other words, not new barrels. Even the ones Macallan fills intentionally with sherry in Spain later to use for whisky become reused after the first dump of sherry, and of course some are  re-used many times.

 

No question in 100 years after the c.1800 of Nicholson and Berthollet science had made giant leaps. Just as from c. 1900 to today when the calculations in a text of distilling science can be mind-boggling. But my point was just that extensive experiments with charcoal filtration and use of charred barrels to hold water, liquors, foods, had been made in the 18th century and given bourbon emerged at the high point of this early experience, it is likely the two are linked.

 

Gary

 

 

Edited by Gillman

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Gillman

John, just one more point. It's true that in the 1800s and still today where used, ex-sherry barrels are not charred black. Yet they still can mature Scotch whisky. They do it well though only if the whisky is left in for a long time. In 5-7 years, using new charred wood, you get a matured taste for bourbon. In 5-7 years using those re-used sherry barrels, you would get an immature whisky ("fuselly"), drinkable, but consider how many single malts are sold at that age. Very few. So, you get, for the same time period, faster maturation with the new charred barrel. This is why Americans stuck to it I think. (I'm not saying Nicholson forecasted all that or a Berthollet, but trying their suggestions, distillers may have seen these extra-good results with the new charred barrel).

 

The Scots' solution was to blend, almost all Scotch whisky became blended until relatively recently. Does the current use of re-used American bourbon barrels to mature most Scotch make a difference to this picture? I can't say really (e.g. take a Bowmore malt at 5 years old aged solely in ex-sherry vs. a Bowmore aged 5 years aged in ex-bourbon. Is one faster-matured?).

 

It may be the re-used charred barrel becomes like any re-used barrel, and this is how the Scots distillers look at it I believe.

 

Nicholson wasn't clear whether he meant new charred or re-used charred, that was a level of sophistication probably beyond him, but if Americans reading him tried the one and the other, they would have seen the best results came from using the new charred oak.

 

One again it's theorizing, but so far all the other theories are, too.

 

Net net,  I think we can't ignore these findings of European science in the 1700s. They had applications well beyond liquors, e.g. for municipal water treatment and so would have come to the attention of practical men dealing with practical problems. If Americans quickly cottoned to patent still, why not this other learning...?  

 

It's the same thing with maple charcoal leaching by the way (IMO).

 

 

Gary

Edited by Gillman

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Gillman

On the eve of WW I, opinion in science regarding fusel oils in matured whiskey had changed, see summary at pg. 79: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89088298112;view=1up;seq=85

 

It is stated that fusel oil concentration in the whiskey actually increases over time. I believe this is still the view of science. This would suggest to me that the thin charcoal layer in a barrel operates differently than whiskey percolating through a stack of maple charcoal.  

 

Gary

Edited by Gillman

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mosugoji64

Thank you very much for posting this, Gary. As others have said, the idea that storage of new whiskey in charred oak barrels as a matter purely of accident always seemed unlikely to me. That American whiskey makers would try to emulate brandy aging methods in order to compete for sales makes more sense. The charring could have come about accidentally as some barrels may have been more charred than toasted resulting in a more flavorful whiskey, but your evidence for preservation of all sorts of liquids through the use of charred barrels seems the most likely explanation. 

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jsrudd

Gary, I've been thinking a little more about your theory. One thing that struck me from the article that I referenced about barrels was how problematic American oak was for first fill barrels because American Oak imparted a noxious flavor the first time it was used. Barrel users in Europe could pick and choose the type of oak suitable for the specific purpose, while I would guess that American barrel users were stuck with American oak. 

 

Do you know anything about how barrels were conditioned for use in industry in 19th century America? It seems to me that charring barrels made of American oak would be useful in other industries besides bourbon because it would prevent the barrel from imparting an unpleasant flavor to it's contents. What if charring barrels was first experimented with in the early 19th century (as per your article), but ended up being adopted in America, instead of Europe, because charring solved the problem with using American Oak.  From there, its a simple step to deciding that whiskey aged in first fill barrels tastes better than whiskey aged in used barrels. All of this, of course, is just speculation.  

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b1gcountry

I don't know what species of oak have been brought over from Europe in the past 200 years, but today, there are over 50 species of oak in North America.

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Gillman
On June 30, 2016 at 11:58 PM, jsrudd said:

Gary, I've been thinking a little more about your theory. One thing that struck me from the article that I referenced about barrels was how problematic American oak was for first fill barrels because American Oak imparted a noxious flavor the first time it was used. Barrel users in Europe could pick and choose the type of oak suitable for the specific purpose, while I would guess that American barrel users were stuck with American oak. 

 

Do you know anything about how barrels were conditioned for use in industry in 19th century America? It seems to me that charring barrels made of American oak would be useful in other industries besides bourbon because it would prevent the barrel from imparting an unpleasant flavor to it's contents. What if charring barrels was first experimented with in the early 19th century (as per your article), but ended up being adopted in America, instead of Europe, because charring solved the problem with using American Oak.  From there, its a simple step to deciding that whiskey aged in first fill barrels tastes better than whiskey aged in used barrels. All of this, of course, is just speculation.  

 

Yes thanks for this. It's true that some early sources state the barrel was charred for whiskey to prevent (in effect) the wood taste from getting in. But of course it doesn't do that. Last night I happened to have a glass of California Chardonnay and the first thought I had was, it reminds me (the wood finish) of bourbon... 

 

The reason for the single-use by bourbon distillers IMO is that the red layer is used up after one use. And the red layer gives caramelized sugar tones to the whiskey which are prized in straight whiskey.

 

............

 

It's interesting that the English never liked U.S. oak to barrel their beer (in general, Guinness was an exception and I'm wondering now if a lot of what they bought was ex-whiskey barrels). You will find terms in some of those early brewers' journals such as coconut  or vanillin to describe the taste, and indeed that is exactly what U.S. oak can taste like and many bourbons do, and many beers now do aged in such barrels in the U.S. The English wanted a much more neutral taste - in effect little or no taste from the barrel. The Memel or Baltic wood referred to in the article you linked had that quality, it imparted very little odour. Most strong stout aged in U.S. oak today has no resemblance IMO to strong stout and porter aged in wood in Britain before WW II because Memel wood didn't have that taste. After WW II, it was hard to get Memel because of the Communist takeover and a lot of it had shell fragments or other damage in it from WW II. So Brits stopped using it and by then metal (for beer) had taken over so it didn't matter. Whiskey-makers in Scotland were content to use American wood (2nd or further fills) because a lot of the strong taste had leached out with the first fill.

 

I think if anything it is the reverse in other words: the older the barrel the less the "American" taste comes through.

 

Edited by Gillman

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Gillman
On July 1, 2016 at 7:36 AM, b1gcountry said:

I don't know what species of oak have been brought over from Europe in the past 200 years, but today, there are over 50 species of oak in North America.

Sent from my SPH-L720 using Tapatalk

 

That's true but my understanding is only a couple of varieties are used for whiskey. I've tasted whisky from Canadian oak too and find it very similar to U.S. oak.

 

It's like American hops, there is a "family" taste, IMO...

 

Gary

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flahute
1 hour ago, Gillman said:

 

That's true but my understanding is only a couple of varieties are used for whiskey. I've tasted whisky from Canadian oak too and find it very similar to U.S. oak.

 

It's like American hops, there is a "family" taste, IMO...

 

Gary

At the Heaven Hill Build-A-Barrel event I attended at the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, we were exposed to a different species of oak called chinquapin. (Quick aside, the name of the event is a bit misleading. We weren't actually building a barrel, we were creating our own mashbill, choosing our barrel type, etc.)

 

Part of the exercise was to taste 3 samples side be side with different aging characteristics. All were barrel proof.

The first was 1 year old bourbon aged in a 3yr air-dried toasted chinquapin barrel.

Samples two and three were both 7yr old bourbons, the second aged in a heavy char standard oak barrel and the third aged in #3 char standard oak barrel (the typical HH barrel).

 

Remarkably, the 1 year aged in chinquapin oak was just as dark as the two 7 yr aged. Supposedly this is due to a much tighter grain structure. The flavor was just as remarkable. Though it had some new make flavor present still, it was accompanied by a surprising amount of deep flavor and complexity. It could be amazing in another 2 years (just speculation).

The question of course is, why not use these barrels instead? The answer is, they are very expensive. 

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GaryT
12 minutes ago, flahute said:

Remarkably, the 1 year aged in chinquapin oak was just as dark as the two 7 yr aged. Supposedly this is due to a much tighter grain structure. The flavor was just as remarkable. Though it had some new make flavor present still, it was accompanied by a surprising amount of deep flavor and complexity. It could be amazing in another 2 years (just speculation).

The question of course is, why not use these barrels instead? The answer is, they are very expensive. 

 

Now that would be a really cool one-off bottling - a BIB aged in that.  I wonder what they'd have to charge for such a thing? 

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Gillman
41 minutes ago, darylld911 said:

 

Now that would be a really cool one-off bottling - a BIB aged in that.  I wonder what they'd have to charge for such a thing? 

 

 

Very interesting to be sure, I've heard of chinquapin. At times I know red oak was used in the past,  and hickory too before the law standardized it to oak.

 

French wood has a definite perfumed note.

 

I like American wood but for whiskey, and indirectly Scotch and Irish, but not beer. That coconut taste in oak-stored Imperial stout drives me crazy although a lot of people like it I know. On the beer side, I'm with the Brits, I think the container should not influence the drink or just a little.

 

Gary

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flahute
1 hour ago, darylld911 said:

 

Now that would be a really cool one-off bottling - a BIB aged in that.  I wonder what they'd have to charge for such a thing? 

Gary, the other group that did this exercise on a different day chose the 4yr air-dried chinquapin oak as their barrel so we'll find out how it turns out in 4 years or so. I'm guessing they are going to bottle theirs a lot sooner than we do with our 5yr air-dried #4 char barrels. Some of us talked about trading bottles from our two exercises so hopefully I'll get to find out and post notes about it here.

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Gillman
On July 2, 2016 at 5:38 PM, flahute said:

Gary, the other group that did this exercise on a different day chose the 4yr air-dried chinquapin oak as their barrel so we'll find out how it turns out in 4 years or so. I'm guessing they are going to bottle theirs a lot sooner than we do with our 5yr air-dried #4 char barrels. Some of us talked about trading bottles from our two exercises so hopefully I'll get to find out and post notes about it here.

 

 

Look forward to that if possible.They say wood is 80% of the palate...

 

Gary

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b1gcountry

OK, I know I'm being a little bit of a jerk, but:

Mash bill

Yeast

Distillation

Barreling proof

Age

Rick house

Temperature/weather

Filtration

Bottling

Proof

All combine for less than 20%?.

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Gillman
14 hours ago, b1gcountry said:

 

OK, I know I'm being a little bit of a jerk, but:

 

Mash bill

 

Yeast

 

Distillation

 

Barreling proof

 

Age

 

Rick house

 

Temperature/weather

 

Filtration

 

Bottling

 

Proof

 

All combine for less than 20%?.

 

Sent from my SPH-L720 using Tapatalk

 

Not being a jerk, fair question.

 

What I've read is, barrel is 50%-80% depending on whiskey type. I put it at top end because I am really thinking of bourbon, where of all whiskeys the barrel has maximum influence on taste, due to red layer, especially.

 

Look at it another way: why are bourbons so difficult to tell apart in blind tastings? And they are, very hard, many of us here have tried. It is because the great majority of the flavour is from the barrel, which is uniform in bourbon production.  

 

Gary

 

 

 

 

Edited by Gillman

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tanstaafl2
15 hours ago, b1gcountry said:

OK, I know I'm being a little bit of a jerk, but:

 

Mash bill

Yeast

Distillation

Barreling proof

Age

Rick house

Temperature/weather

Filtration

Bottling

Proof

All combine for less than 20%?.

 

I tend to hear a number closer to 60% bandied about for barrel influence but still, that is a lot! I tend to think of Age, Rick house and Temperature/weather more as sub units or modifiers of barrel influence (and probably Barrel Proof as well).

 

While filtration likely plays a role I am not sure I could tell you in a blind tasting which is which if I were able to get the same distillate from the same barrel and one bottle was chill filtered and the other was not. Maybe some can but I am not sure I could!

 

Bottling plays no role as far as I can tell. Proof is likely important to some degree but that is mostly a factor of being diluted for anything other than a cask strength whiskey.

 

So that leaves Mash Bill, Yeast and Distillation to account for most of the other 20-40%. That seems reasonable

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