I have mentioned the history of the charred barrel for bourbon in a number of respects, including advice by English scientist William Nicholson in 1806 that new spirits be stored in charred barrels. Nicholson’s theory was that the charring would prevent the wood from imparting undesirable flavours.
Nicholson’s work followed upon that of numerous scientists and investigators in the 1700s who were looking at charcoal and charred barrels to help keep water sweet on board ship and to sanitize water for municipal purposes. The principal names were Lovitz and Berthollet (see my earlier post), but there were others.
In 1815, James Smith (English again, b. 1759, d. 1828) advised in his two-volume Panorama of Science and Art to place new spirits in “charred casks for some weeks” where the liquor was burned. He was referring to parts of the boiling wash (in England) sticking to the pot still due to hot spots on the metal from the fire underneath. This was a constant problem with which American distillers were also concerned. Hot spots would communicate a burnt taste to the spirit, and this was regarded as a fault unless minimal in effect. Indeed at the end of the 19th century, what bourbon historian Gerald Carson termed the “nostalgia” distillers were selling this “haut goût” (my term) as a mark of tradition.
Those interested in brewing history may recall that Detroit brewer Stroh once bruited its “fire-brewed” system – an echo of the same issue. In our vernacular today, it is turning a negative into a positive.
Various mechanisms were employed by brewers and distillers to keep the mash, or unstrained fermented mix of grains (in America) from sticking, generally by agitating it with paddles or chains. This was never a perfect solution. One reason for the later adoption of the steam-heated, multi-chambered still, and finally the columnar still segmented by perforated plates, was to avoid this burned vegetable taste in the matured spirit.
And so, with charcoal and charred casks in Georgians’ minds as something to cleanse and keep stable water and various liquors, it makes sense British science hit on the charred cask to address the burned-spot problem.
To be sure, James Smith wasn’t saying the charred barrel should be used for years, after all in 1815 the long aging of spirits in Britain and America was in its infancy. But the pot still system was still the norm to distill whiskey then. Some distillers reading the Panorama would have tried charred casks to palliate the burned spot problem, and would have noticed beneficial effects particularly when the liquor was kept longer than a month or so.
It is interesting too that a few weeks in charred wood will qualify a spirit distilled under 160 proof, made from a majority corn grist, entered in barrel at not >125 proof, for the name Bourbon under United States law. Think about it…
The charred barrel to store whiskey is first documented in American distilling in 1826, this is 11 years after James Smith wrote and 20 years after William Nicholson wrote. After, not before.
In my opinion, unquestionably James Smith’s book would have circulated in the United States. It was one of those protean 1800s efforts, covering a huge range of mechanical, scientific and technical areas and geared to practical matters, taking in everything from building to brewing to agriculture, engraving, painting and more. The Panorama, published in Liverpool, came out in further editions as well even after Smith’s death.
Henry Crowgey wrote his still-unequalled history of the early years of American whisky-making in 1971. He noted that in the first 20 years of the 1800s, no reference to colour can be found in hundreds of references to whiskey. He looked at sales notices, government specifications for whiskey (it was common then to buy it for medical and military purposes), probate records, and other sources. No one refers to colour or the charred barrel. This doesn’t mean some whiskey wasn’t long-aged – it is known some was – or that the charred barrel hadn’t been in some use. But these practices, one can conclude, were not methodically followed by distillers of American straight whiskey until later.
I infer that William Nicholson’s advice in 1806 to place spirits in a charred cask and James Smith’s advice in 1815 to do so to remove the burned vegetable matter taste contributed or even caused the American practice of using (ultimately new) charred barrels to store what became called Bourbon. The stories of the Spears’s, Shawhans and others taking whiskey on flatboats downriver to New Orleans before 1800 are undoubtedly correct in my view. The whiskey that resulted would have been preferable to new double-distilled corn spirit even if stored in uncharred casks, as much of it had to be.
Whiskey from the large geographic area in north and central-eastern Kentucky originally called “Bourbon” probably acquired cachet early on due to the improvement of the spirit on the long trip down the rivers. But the story of Bourbon is evolutionary. The role of British science and the technical arts between 1806 and 1815 is in my view important in the story of how Bourbon acquired its definitive character, something which took place between 1826 and the onset of the Civil War.
Note re image: the image above was sourced at this auction site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
Addendum added July 20, 2016: Implicit in my account above is a suggested rejection, or at least a more nuanced view, of the traditional explanations for the use of the charred barrel to age Bourbon. Most of these are reviewed at pg. 36 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History of Bourbon (1963), here. The explanations include the attempt to remove offensive smells from a barrel previously used to hold fish, or the accidental burning of the staves by coopers when using heat to make the wood pliable to fashion for staves. Another hoary explanation is that empty barrels in a barn, awaiting filling from a distillation, became burned in a fire on the premises but were used anyway to hold new spirit with consequent benefits noted.
In my view, these are all likely what historians call a “heroic” explanation, one based on myth which satisfies the popular need to understand history. It seems more likely to me that science explains the adoption of the practice by Americans. The usually thorough Carson omitted completely (presumably was not aware of) the developments I have referenced in the 1700s and early 1800s regarding suggested use of a charred barrel to hold various liquors including whisky. Nor have I read any reference to them in any other modern book or other resource on bourbon or whisky. I found them by researching in Google Books some years ago.