The new charred barrel is key to the character of American straight whiskey. The type takes in straight bourbon whiskey, for which a majority of the grist must be corn and the rest may be other grains. Also, the spirit must be distilled under 160 proof, entered in barrel at not >125 proof, and aged at least two years. There is also straight rye, similar except rye forms at least 51% of the mash (the rest is typically corn and barley). There are variations on these types, but all straights must be aged in new charred oak.
The requirement for a new charred container, or “package” in the old terminology, dates from the 1930s. Some argue the decision to require new barrels reflected the politics of lumber-producing districts, but there was more to it than that.
Before Prohibition there was no law I am aware of to prohibit re-using barrels (charred or other) to age bourbon or rye whiskey. However, as this August 17, 1889 article in the Pittsburg Dispatch made clear, the government did make an attempt to ban reuse of barrels for whiskey. The obvious reason would seem, to maintain a quality standard. According to the story though, the reason was to ensure the government could gauge the whiskey accurately, its volume and strength. Use of old barrels meant the bung hole and staves might deform which could affect Internal Revenue’s measurements – and therefore the tax revenues collected.
Still, here is the important point: most distillers used new barrels anyway, as the article makes clear. The only reasonable inference is that they were felt essential to the character of the product. The article dealt with Pennsylvania distilling, but the same would have applied to Kentucky. The article stated only a few small distillers were re-using barrels, and they did so for cost reasons.
(A new charred barrel costs significantly more than an old one, in part because the “red layer” behind the char, which gives straight whiskey its signature taste, is exhausted by the first use. Re-charring does not restore the same effect).
Interestingly, Michter’s distillery in Lancaster County, PA – not the contemporary Michter’s in Louisville, KY – used both new and reused barrels for its Original Sour Mash whiskey, produced into the 1990s. This was probably again for cost reasons, but in any case the product still retained a straight whiskey character. I had the original Michter’s Sour Mash many times, and it was very good.
But surely the great Penn State rye distillers such John Gibson, Large, and Dillinger, used new barrels only, and I have never read a suggestion of the contrary. To my mind then, the 1889 article confirms what had to be a longstanding practice, certainly pre-dating the Civil War, in American whiskey country.
An article in the Omaha Daily Bee on August 16, 1899 but originating in Roanoke, VA – whiskey country – confirms the takeaway of the 1889 article. The Roanoke piece was not specific to any distilling district, but makes clear that American whiskey distillers used new barrels. This is shown by the statement that once emptied of whiskey, the barrel was used for other purposes, to hold foods was one.
The only time according to the Daily Bee that barrels were re-used for (American) whiskey was by dealers occasionally to make a batch of blended whiskey. In its words:
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.
It is possible the intermediaries mixed neutral spirits, aged or new, with matured straight whiskey in some cases. The result, though, by definition wasn’t straight whiskey and use of old barrels made sense in this context. Where all-straight whiskeys were combined, a practice known to have occurred, by definition the whiskeys were finished and ready for consumption, so an active barrel, to put it that way, wasn’t essential to their character.
The Bee article offers interesting detail on the afterlife of American whiskey barrels: if not shipped to Scotland (for its whisky needs), they were used to hold cider or vinegar; after that, pickles or sauerkraut went in. The envoi was steaming black tar, after which the barrels were broken up and sold off.
These stories support, in my view, that bourbon’s essential character was long reliant on the new charred barrel, probably from the Antebellum days when bourbon first became a thing in national life.
Despite this great attention to the barrel package, distillers didn’t particularly care where the whiskey was matured. My recent posts, see for example this one, discussed the sending of filled barrels to Germany or England for aging and return in seven years or more.
Distillers are good marketers. Today, emphasis is placed on how Kentucky warehouses are constructed, their location, how the windows work in the scented Bluegrass climate, etc. In the late 1800s, aging in dank Bremen or Hamburg, and any associated influences of the North Sea coastal micro-climate, didn’t discomfit distillers at all.
I recall discussions years ago on www.straightbourbon.com whether the D.S.P. (Distilled Spirits Producer) number on a bonded whiskey bottle meant it had to be distilled and aged there, or just distilled, meaning it could be tanked to another part of the state for aging. Some rued the latter prospect, as if the distiller wasn’t being straight with us (sorry), and what were we really drinking?
The whiskey business of the 1800s would have dismissed any such concern, as after the Civil War what consumers got may have spent most of its production life in a strange land 5000 miles away. There was terroir in those barrels, but not all of it was old Kentucky or even American.
But some things don’t change. The new charred barrel, likely inaugurated in the early 1800s, is a leitmotif of bourbon whiskey.
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.