WHY IS WHISKEY STORED IN WOODEN BARRELS?
Fresh whiskey right off of the still doesn’t look, smell, or taste much like whiskey at all. It’s crystal clear, and often smells and tastes like a vaguely unappealing combination of grain, generic fruity aroma, and cardboard. All of its color, and most of its flavor, comes from the barrel itself through a years-long barrel aging process under the watchful eye of a master distiller.
Barrels are so essential to crafting the spirit we love that they inspired Barrell Craft Spirits’ name. But barrels weren’t always part of the world of whiskey. Here’s the backstory behind why whiskey is stored in wooden barrels.
FROM CONVENIENCE TO CRITICAL INGREDIENT
In the very early days of distilling in Scotland and Ireland, whisky was usually drunk soon after distillation, perhaps flavored with herbs and spices to round out its rough, unaged edges. It wasn’t until whiskey became an object of trade that the importance of barrel aging became clear.
Originally, whiskey and other spirits were shipped in wooden barrels simply because that’s what people used as containers for everything. Think of them as the modular shipping container of the pre-industrial era. Not only were barrels sturdy and leakproof, but their round shape made it easy for a single person to move very heavy loads by rolling rather than lifting.
Oak was the preferred material for coopers (the name for the skilled workers who specialize in making barrels) because it’s not prone to cracking or leaking. But it turned out that barrels weren’t just inert containers.
After long voyages, drinkers found that spirits that had been in barrels for weeks or months began to take on the color and flavor of the barrel itself. American oak barrels imparted deliciously sweet aromas of caramel, vanilla, and brown sugar, while European oak offered toasty nuts and warm spices.
In addition to the oak itself, the whiskey also began to taste like any previous contents of the barrel. If the previous contents had been smoked fish, for instance, that may not have been a good thing. But if the previous contents had been, say, Oloroso sherry, or madeira, or rum, that extra layer of flavor could be wonderfully delicious.
Whiskey that had spent some time in barrels soon became so sought-after that drinkers in New Orleans started asking specifically for whiskey from Kentucky. They knew if it had been shipped all the way from Kentucky to Louisiana on the Mississippi River, it would have had plenty of time to soak up all that barrel-y goodness on the trip.
BARRELS: IT’S THE LAW
What began as a quirk of shipping infrastructure eventually morphed into a critical step in the whiskey-making process, becoming so essential that it became the law for making whiskey in the United States, the U.K., and beyond.
The very first country to require that whiskey be aged in oak barrels was Canada, which passed a law requiring a one-year aging period for all whiskies in 1887 (later extended to two years). The United Kingdom created its own laws in 1915, when it mandated that a spirit must be aged for three years in an oak container to earn the name of “whisky”--and many single malts are aged much longer than that.
In the United States, whiskey must be aged in an oak container, but there’s no stipulation as to how long - even a few moments can satisfy the requirement. (Remember all those unappealing unaged whiskeys released in the early days of craft spirits?) But many of the highest quality American whiskey styles, like straight bourbon, require at least two years of maturation, and the best examples of American whiskey are often aged far longer than that.
At Barrell Craft Spirits, we look at barrels as a critical ingredient in the process of making whiskey, just as important as grain, yeast, or water. With some styles, we’re traditionalists. All of our bourbons, for instance, are matured exclusively in new, charred oak casks.
But we also love maturing or finishing whiskeys in unusual casks, like the pear brandy barrels and Sicilian amaro barrels used for our Armida release. Our private release series is another place to find quirky, unusual cask finishes, including apple brandy, Sauternes, and Pedro Ximenez sherry. Even after hundreds of years of storing whiskey in barrels, we think there’s still a whole world of new flavors to discover.