In American straight whiskey, the use of a new, charred oak barrel is key to the product’s character. There is straight bourbon whiskey – a majority of the grist corn, the rest other grains, distilled under 160 proof, entered in barrel at not > 125 proof (also aged at least two years). There is straight rye which is the same except rye forms at least 51% of the mash. There are variations on these main types, but all straights must be aged in new charred oak.
The requirement of a new charred container or “package” in the old terminology dates from the 1930s when the legal standards for whiskey were recast after Prohibition. Some have argued the decision reflected the politics of lumber-producing districts, but I think there was more to it than that, which the account below supports.
It seems the case that before Prohibition there was no law to prohibit using re-used barrels (charred or other) to age straight whiskey. However, as this August 17, 1889 article in the Pittsburg Dispatch makes clear, the government did make an attempt to prevent the filling of reused barrels. The obvious reason would seem, to maintain a quality standard. Wrong. It was to make sure the government could gauge the whiskey correctly, i.e., measure the volume and strength. Use of old barrels meant the bung hole and staves could alter shape and this could affect the accuracy of Internal Revenue’s measurements.
I didn’t check whether the plan was successful – if it was, this would have been a precedent for the new charred barrel rule of the 1930s. But before 1889, evidently there was no ban on using re-used wood for bourbon or rye.
The important point is, as the article states, most producers were using new wood anyway. The only reasonable inference is, it was felt essential to the character of the product. The article was discussing Pennsylvania distilling, but the same would have applied in Kentucky. The article noted that only a few small Pennsylvania distillers were using re-used barrels in production, and they did so for cost reasons.
Interestingly, Michter’s distillery in Lancaster County (outside Philadelphia) – not the contemporary Michter’s in Louisville, KY – used both new and reused barrels for Michter’s Original Sour Mash whiskey, produced into the 1990s. This was probably a holdover of an old Pennsylvania practice, but one evidently limited to a few small producers. The larger Penn State distillers such John Gibson, Large, Dillinger, would have used new barrels only.
An article in the Omaha Daily Bee of August 16, 1899, originally published in Roanoke, VA (whiskey country), confirms the essential point from the 1889 article. The Roanoke piece was not specific to any distilling district, but indicates again that barrels were used new by American whiskey distillers. This is clear from its statement that once emptied of whiskey, the barrel was used for other purposes, to hold foods, for example.
The only time (per the Bee) the barrel was re-used for whiskey (in America) was occasionally by dealers making a batch of blended whiskey. Here, the dealers were simply combining whiskeys that had matured or were ready for consumption – an “active” barrel wasn’t needed, so why buy the more expensive new barrels?:
Whisky barrels of the best grade used to cost from $4 to $5. Machinery has been brought more and more into use in making them, with the result that they are now cheaper than ever before. Those barrels are likely to be filled with whisky and stored for three years or more before they are shipped. When a barrel has found its way to this market and into the hands of the final distributor, and has been emptied, it is brought to a dealer in reused barrels. There are coopers and dealers in new and second hand barrels who buy all the barrels that offer, and send out and gather up barrels, which they buy and sell in great numbers. Bought in this manner, the whisky barrel is inspected and put in order, if it requires any repair, and sold, it may be, to a wholesale dealer in liquors, to be used for blended liquors; but it is much more likely not again to be used as a liquor package, but to be sold for a vinegar or a cider barrel.
The article has interesting detail on the afterlife of an American whiskey barrel: if not shipped to Scotland for its whisky business, it was used to hold cider or vinegar, after that pickles or sauerkraut, and its last fate was to hold steaming black tar. After that, it was broken up and discarded.
All this is to say, while some straight bourbon and rye employed re-used cooperage before American distilling’s revival in 1933, the typical pattern was not to do so. We can assume therefore that ever since bourbon and rye became a thing in the 1800s before the Civil War, its essential character was similar to today: brown- or red-coloured, caramelized wood sugars, notes of coconut-vanillin (think Chardonnay), char.
Despite this great attention given by American distillers to aging their product, they didn’t particularly care where it was matured. Think of my recent posts discussing the practice of sending filled barrels to Germany or England to age and come back in seven years or more.
Distillers are good marketers and today much emphasis is placed on the warehouses, how they are constructed, where located, how the windows work to move the scented Kentucky air through, and so on.
Aging in a dank part of Bremen or Hamburg, picking up influences of salt and fish from the North Sea, doesn’t seem to fit the picture, does it. Well it did in the heyday of American straight whiskey.
I recall pointillist (not pointless) discussions years ago on www.straightbourbon.com whether the D.S.P. (Distilled Spirits Producer) number on a bottle of bonded whiskey meant the whiskey had to be distilled and aged there, or just distilled and could be tanked to another part of the state for aging. Some rung their hands at the latter prospect, was the distiller really being straight with us? What are we really drinking?
The whiskey business of the 1800s would have laughed, as after the Civil War, what you got may have spent most of its production life in a strange land 5000 miles away. There was lots of terroir in those barrels, but a part of it wasn’t from old Kentucky or even American.
How relative things are. What seems to us an anchor of a traditional business, aging in the sylvan glades of Kentucky or Tennessee, was viewed quite differently over 100 years ago.
But some things don’t change. The use of the new charred barrel, probably inaugurated in the early 1800s or even before, is a leitmotif.
Note re images: the first image is from McGinnis Wood Products, a barrel producer, sourced here, the second from this tourist site on Hamburg, here. All images and trademarks belong to their respective owners or duly authorized licensees. Images are believed available for educational or historical use. All feedback welcomed.