Barside Wisdom: When Booze Met Barrels

Turns out these two have been hanging out together for quite some time now, and they still get along just fine.

Wooden-barrel aging has been part of alcohol’s history for centuries, if not millennia. Way back around 300 B.C., the Greeks and Romans began aging and storing wines in barrels rather than animal skins. This made the wine more pleasing to the palate and easier to transport. Can you imagine what wine aged in animal skin would taste like? 

Eventually Europeans caught on and exchanged their clay pots for wooden barrels. This change allowed them to ship their booze mush easier. While transporting libations in their new barrels had many advantages, new discoveries were also made that forever changed production methods. 

New Discoveries 

The different varieties of wood being used, plus the time it took to get to their destination developed complex and desirable flavors. This was especially true with wine and whiskey. Since barrels altered the alcohols taste profile, experimentation ensued, and continued in the New World.

Evan Williams opened his Kentucky distillery in 1783 and began shipping moonshine in barrels down the Mississippi to New Orleans. As one legend has it, Williams soon found that the wood and time improved the liquor drastically, giving rise to bourbon.

At the time beer that was aged in barrels imparted a very strong, woodsy flavor, something many drinkers did not find agreeable. So brewers began to line barrels with pitch to create a barrier and eliminate the wood taste, a tradition which continues today in some breweries

Modern Barrels

Today most alcohol is shipped in stainless-steel containers or glass bottles. Wooden barrels are not out of the picture but any means. A great variety of distilled and fermented liquids are aged in them as part of an intentional and fascinating step in the production process. Consider the practice of aging alcohol in barrels previously used for a different product – scotch aged in rum or brandy barrels, for example, or wine aged in whiskey barrels, or vice-versa.

Not to be left out of the fun and experimentation, breweries have begun aging beer. One of the most popular barrels are ones that previously aged bourbon. This represents a bit of a boom for distilleries, since the charred-oak barrels used in bourbon-making are single-batch commodities (the barrels cannot be reused if the resulting whiskey is to be considered bourbon). Greg Hall, former brewmaster at Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, is credited with creating the first, game-changing beer aged in bourbon barrels.

So, there you have it – a little about the mutual history and continued close ties between alcohol and wooden barrels. Bet you never thought you’d read so much about it (I definitely didn’t). Cheers!