Today we will take a brief look at the barrels behind the bourbon. The beautiful color of bourbon and many of the complex flavors arrive through the process of aging in a charred new white oak barrel. When the white dog comes out of the still it has some flavor but no color and only a slight aroma.
In early America, barrels were a vital part of transport and commerce. Barrels or casks as they were referred to were handmade in many sizes. Smaller casks for gunpowder to large casks for tobacco. Nails, horseshoes, pickles, and even salted fish were shipped and stored in barrels. Barrels also had a critical design feature in that they could roll on their side. Rolling allowed one or two men to move them around.
Red oak and other woods were used to make barrels that would hold grain products or other dry goods. Red Oak is not suitable for liquids, but it was ideal for other items because it would allow air to circulate between staves. White Oak is used for barrels to hold liquids including whiskey. White Oak contains tyloses that will not conduct fluid. Tyloses are membraneous growths that inhibit the porosity of white oak and help make it watertight.
Barrels are not easy to build. There is no glue or fasteners used. Metal hoops and liquid pressure hold the barrel together. The wood selected for barrels must be dried or aged, and this process can take up to 3 years to properly season the wood used to create barrel staves. Unseasoned staves can crack or split.
In modern days steam is used to bend the staves that make up a barrel. It is highly likely that in pioneer days steam would not always be available. Coopers would use fire to heat the staves before bending them, and this could very well be the origin of charring the inside of a barrel. (There are multiple theories on the origin of barrel charring many of which can be considered bourbon myths) Only later was the charring of a barrel recognized to impart maximum color and flavor. Charring the inside of barrels is now standard practice.
Once a barrel is filled and stored in a rickhouse the weather then becomes critically important in the aging process. The change of temperatures force the whiskey into the wood and maximizes maturation. Kentucky is an ideal location for barrel aging because of the four season weather changes.
For those of you planning a trip to Kentucky consider booking a tour at the Independent Stave Company’s Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. Tour Kentucky Cooperage
Not only will you see the barrel making process in person, but you will see a cooperage committed to being a partner in the creation of great bourbons!
Today used bourbon barrels are in demand for many uses. Scotch whiskeys are aged in used bourbon barrels. Recently, craft brewers have created excellent varieties of beer that are finished in a used bourbon barrel.
During most bourbon presentations, the barrel and aging process elicits many questions from attendees. The art, science, and history of barrels will be discussed in more detail in future posts. Thanks for reading!