The Original Bourbon Barrel

It Didn’t Look Like You Think

Wood contributes a high percentage of flavour to any kind of whisky except white whisky of course. It is surprising that the history of coopering and the wood industry aren’t given more attention in this regard. Grain types receive much greater attention, as do mashing, fermentation, and distillation, by comparison.

A review of “wood package” trade literature before WW I shows the immense importance at the time of the logging, saw-milling, coopering, hoop-making, and allied industries and trades. Barrels were used for many kinds of commodities. The type to hold liquids held whiskey, wine, cider, beer, ale, crude petroleum, vinegar, brines, tar, oils and much else.

It may seem odd that the pages of quotidian journals are a repository of bourbon lore, yet not infrequently information of this kind appears. Years before journalists or academics thought to record the history of bourbon, information was printed in a variety of sources, some ostensibly unlikely.

There were a couple of reasons why a journal devoted to the box and barrel trades could talk about whiskey facts and history on the eve of WW I. First, such journals would not be the first place a prying temperance advocate would go looking for undue public interest in beverage alcohol. Second, the distillers were the barrel brokers’ and lumber mills’ customers, so they of course would not be averse to reading some lore of their own business.

The historical commentary might pertain for example to the reason for charring a barrel, the way distilling equipment changed over time, the history of a distilling family, or the evolving methods of mashing grain (small tubs, sour and sweet mashing, yeasting-back, etc.).

This article in the journal The Barrel and Box, “Bourbon or Corn Whiskey and the Barrel”, Vol. 11 (1906-1907), was unusually lengthy and contained a good summary of bourbon’s history. Perhaps with the knowledge of the unceasing march of prohibition across the country, the writer was taking stock in a way. Or perhaps the editor just thought it was time to consider: where did bourbon came from, anyway – with an eye of course to its “package”.

This kind of historical review was uncommon for the time. The odd newspaper article might query where bourbon originated, and distilling texts and journals might offer lapidary comments, but a feature on the “history of bourbon” was unusual for the day, particularly with national prohibition looming.

The article contains a number of nuggets I’ve never seen elsewhere. One is that the original bourbon barrel was unlike the modern one.

The whiskey-barrel of ca. 1900 was generally the same as today except smaller, 48 U.S. gallons vs. 53, but according to this publication, the original Kentucky barrel only had one head, narrowing almost to a point at the other end which was closed with a plug.

The article states that such a barrel was exhibited some years earlier at an exhibition in Bourbon County, KY to illustrate whiskey-making 100 years earlier. To have been a fly on the wall…

Barrels of this type may have been used in Europe for sherry and other wines, although I could not locate an image or narrative suggesting this. A one-head barrel would resemble somewhat the earthenware amphorae, which had a tapered end and a larger opening, and perhaps barrels were developed later with a similar shape.

It is tempting to think a Spanish trader left an empty barrel of port wine in a Kentucky town in the late 1700s and it was re-purposed to hold an incipient version of America’s national spirit. Who knows.

A type of narrow barrel known in the 19th century was called the blood cask, and one reference states it was ideal for carriage by horse. As packhorses were the means of transport over land in pioneer days before the Conestoga wagon (which needs a certain amount of space and type of terrain to navigate anyway), the first bourbon barrels would have been carried by horse or mule to market.

The narrow whiskey barrel of Kentucky pioneers may have developed with this in mind. The barrels would in any case have been smaller than 48 gallons, and perhaps the relatively small size accelerated maturation.

The use by modern craft distillers of small barrels turns out to have an historical antecedent, which may come as a surprise to those who argue that “real” bourbon can’t be made in a small barrel.

Certainly, the modern rack warehouse would not have been suitable for such an artisan production. Indeed that warehouse is a later-19th century phenomenon, interesting in its own right.

The Barrel and Box article explains that the narrow Kentucky barrel itself followed the stoneware jug, which was used for whiskey earlier in Pennsylvania and then Kentucky. This makes sense since the jug was meant initially as a pure conveyance, and not also to age the product.

(The narrow barrel too was probably meant initially simply to convey but experience would have showed it improved the palate especially when charred).

Another nugget in the article: whiskey in earliest days was piped in open wood troughs from the still-house to the shed where empty barrels were filled.

Some thought that the length of the lashed conduits, and exposure of the whiskey to air, lent a unique quality to the bourbon. This kind of lore attended the thousands of small country stills that existed in those days.

Who is to say those open pipes didn’t work some kind of magic? Whiskey has its unknowns, imponderables, despite all the knowledge of modern science. The mysterious corners can lead to ineffable experiences; it’s one factor that explains the evergreen appeal of whisky, wine, and craft beer.

You can’t reduce what goes into the bottle to a set of quantifiable data and therefore to a fixed taste.

Caution: the article referenced has some unpleasant racist references. This was a fact of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and not just in the U.S. It isn’t invariable, but historical literature can be replete. The records can still hold importance for other reasons, as discussed here. One must hold one’s nose.

Note re image: image above was sourced, via the digital library HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.