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170 Year Old Bourbon Discovered on Shipwreck


jvd99

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In 1854 a passenger steamer called the Westmoreland sunk in northern Lake Michigan and 280 barrels of bourbon went down with it. The shipwreck has been located and plans are to salvage the whiskey barrels. The big question is, is there anything left in the barrels and if "yes," what would it taste like? Whoever found the shipwreck is certainly hoping the bourbon is there and drinkable because he'll stand to make a hefty profit from the sunken treasure.

 

I'll go out on a limb and say there's probably just water in those barrels, and even if there were some whiskey left, it's probably a bit overoaked, being 170 years in the barrel.

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradjaphe/2023/02/19/american-whiskey-salvaged-from-170-year-old-shipwreck-could-be-worth-millions/?sh=33bc9d383a14

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Very interesting indeed. One would have to surmise that, if there were any whiskey left in these barrels, the oak would have surely imparted all of the characteristics it had upon the contents well before 170 years. I am neither a chemist nor an distiller, so perhaps I'm way off base here. 

My uneducated guess is that the barrel staves shrunk in the godawful cold of Lake Michigan and the whiskey gradually seeped out and was replaced with the same delicious, questionably-high mercury content water that flows from my tap daily. 

I hope I'm wrong. It would be fun to see an update in a few years. 

 

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I can't imagine how, after 170-years underwater (at what depth, I wonder?) the water pressure around those barrels has left zero chance of any Bourbon remaining inside 'em.   

Now, if those barrels have been in a water-tight sealed room (a cold storage or such) on that ship, MAYBE some Bourbon that might remain, unaffected by actual Lake Michigan water; but, it would still be drastically changed by the ultra-high humidity, and atmospheric pressure... not to mention the seriously advanced barrel-aging that has to have badly degraded any whisky inside of an otherwise intact barrel.

Still, it's an interesting thing to speculate about, and maybe some interesting barrel-aging science will be gleaned from whatever has happened to whatever is inside of the barrels... assuming any of 'em are intact.

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My hypothesis is given that barrel staves are permeable to to outside environment (at least to a small degree) after that many years, inside and outside of barrels reached a sort of equilibrium.  Barrels are full of lake water.  Or structural integrity of barrels compromised.  If it's still all together, would it collapse if removed from where it is.  It's a fun topic, many questions.

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I have to interject a little more science probability here...

It's kind of the same as filling a vessel with anything. the liquid, gas or solid would displace the air; swapping housing. The same can be said here, it would depend on how stagnant the resting place is. If it was quiescent, then heavier liquids would fall to gravity. If neutral, then there would have to be a percentage that was bourbon.  No matter the situation, time is a killer, so it would be tainted, somehow.

 

I'm not a scientist, but I have played one in my mind... 😛

 

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On 2/19/2023 at 10:20 AM, jvd99 said:

In 1854 a passenger steamer called the Westmoreland sunk in northern Lake Michigan and 280 barrels of bourbon went down with it. The shipwreck has been located and plans are to salvage the whiskey barrels. The big question is, is there anything left in the barrels and if "yes," what would it taste like? Whoever found the shipwreck is certainly hoping the bourbon is there and drinkable because he'll stand to make a hefty profit from the sunken treasure.

 

I'll go out on a limb and say there's probably just water in those barrels, and even if there were some whiskey left, it's probably a bit overoaked, being 170 years in the barrel.

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradjaphe/2023/02/19/american-whiskey-salvaged-from-170-year-old-shipwreck-could-be-worth-millions/?sh=33bc9d383a14

 

I agree.  I don't believe barrels are totally air-tight.  Over time most of the whiskey became fish fodder and the empty space in the barrels filled with water. 

 

However, if the bourbon were really untouched in 170 year old barrels, the profile would probably still be a shipwreck.

 

Flip side.  What would bourbon in a 170 year old barrels not ship wrecked be like?  My guess the quality of the whiskey in the barrel would be wrecked. 

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Maybe a chemist among us could address the size of the molecules of water and of alcohol vis a vis the pressures involved and porosity of barrels made from American White Oak staves as well as the reactions of iron rings to that long a submersion duration.    Again, the depth at which the wreck lies may be an important factor to consider, as well.     Anybody?

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2 hours ago, Richnimrod said:

Maybe a chemist among us could address the size of the molecules of water and of alcohol vis a vis the pressures involved and porosity of barrels made from American White Oak staves as well as the reactions of iron rings to that long a submersion duration.    Again, the depth at which the wreck lies may be an important factor to consider, as well.     Anybody?

I am no chemist but it is my understanding that water molecules are smaller than alcohol, that is why bourbon usually gains proof as it ages (more water evaporates). That said, I would think the cold water would shrink the pores of the wood, which would help seal it to a degree, but it could cause it to shrink too much which could cause even more water to seep in. either way, my guess is that over that much time all of the air in the barrel would be replaced by water. The bourbon will be no bueno. 

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The main thing I think about is how long was the whiskey aged in the barrels prior to the ship sinking. We know that there is a certain % of evaporation loss that occurs to barrels when the distillate is first put into them. This void of air in the barrels has almost certainly been replace by lake water being forced into the barrels due to the hydrostatic pressure of being 200ft under the surface. At that depth there is roughly 6 atmospheres worth of pressure being applied to the barrels, and I doubt that over time the wood could have with stood that, and water has most likely seeped into the barrels filling any air space that was in them at the time of sinking. In theory, once the barrel was full of liquid there should have been an equilibrium of pressure reached and additional water intrusion into the barrel may have stopped, but the damage would have already been done. Then you also have to think about any breakdown/degradation that may have occurred to the wood itself over the 170 years it spent under water. My hopes of any "uncompromised" whiskey remaining in any of those barrels is slim to none, and slim is walking out the door.

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What makes them think this is bourbon in particular? There was still plenty of rye being made then and Americans hadn't lost their taste for it yet. Beyond that, barrels aren't air tight and even though the water may have preserved them to some extent, I'd be shocked if the contents were better than lake water finished in whiskey barrels.

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We just need to think outside the box a bit more here. Turn those old barrels into corks and get some 36 month year old aged bourbon. Boom instant LE with history. No worse than that Lincoln nonsense one distillery was spouting a few years back. BT take note.

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I'm not convinced that aging outside of Kentucky and its surrounding states is likely to produce great bourbon, much less underwater, at sea, in space, or whatever gimmick comes next.

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Forbes is basically a click bait site with thousands of 'writers' who get paid per click.  This headline in that context was a winner.  A sealed bottle might survive but a barrel?  Nope.

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1 hour ago, Jazz June said:

I'm not convinced that aging outside of Kentucky and its surrounding states is likely to produce great bourbon, much less underwater, at sea, in space, or whatever gimmick comes next.

We all know the Jeffersons gimmick with “at sea” shtick.

 

They already did space too. Ardbeg launched some scotch into space and soon thereafter they released the Galileo special edition. Whether it had any liquid, or even molecules, of the intergalactic single malt is unknown. It was named whisky of the year back around 2013 or so. 
 

Underwater seems like the next logical step.

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All I know is that the Pierce Administration apparently did a horrible job responding to this ecological disaster…

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At only 48 years old at the time of his inauguration,  he was obviously wet behind the ears and too young to be President.  

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On 2/21/2023 at 7:48 AM, Richnimrod said:

Maybe a chemist among us could address the size of the molecules of water and of alcohol vis a vis the pressures involved and porosity of barrels made from American White Oak staves as well as the reactions of iron rings to that long a submersion duration.    Again, the depth at which the wreck lies may be an important factor to consider, as well.     Anybody?

I am a chemist but this is absolutely foreign to what once was my area of practice, so I'm no help beyond logical thinking.

 

We know that product is lost to the atmosphere.  So when barrels are in water would that stop the lost of product?  What is the coefficient of expansion/contraction of the oak wood? How constant is the temperature at the shipwreck? How much water will the oak absorb?  I can only guess, but I'm thinking that the fishes got to enjoy the bourbon long ago.

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3 hours ago, Special Reserve said:

I am a chemist but this is absolutely foreign to what once was my area of practice, so I'm no help beyond logical thinking.

 

We know that product is lost to the atmosphere.  So when barrels are in water would that stop the lost of product?  What is the coefficient of expansion/contraction of the oak wood? How constant is the temperature at the shipwreck? How much water will the oak absorb?  I can only guess, but I'm thinking that the fishes got to enjoy the bourbon long ago.

I wonder how those fish tasted. 

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18 minutes ago, mal00768 said:

I wonder how those fish tasted. 

I believe some of them may be members here!😁

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4 hours ago, Special Reserve said:

I am a chemist but this is absolutely foreign to what once was my area of practice, so I'm no help beyond logical thinking.

 

We know that product is lost to the atmosphere.  So when barrels are in water would that stop the lost of product?  What is the coefficient of expansion/contraction of the oak wood? How constant is the temperature at the shipwreck? How much water will the oak absorb?  I can only guess, but I'm thinking that the fishes got to enjoy the bourbon long ago.

We could ask ChatGPTB)

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