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.

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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 their wines in barrels rather than animal skins. This made the wine more pleasing to the palate – just imagine the distinctive taste of wine aged in animal skin – and easier to transport.

Eventually the Europeans caught on and embraced the benefits of wooden barrels over the clay pots they had been using. They began shipping all kinds of alcohol thus casked, mostly wine, beer and whiskey. And while transporting libations in barrels had many advantages, some new challenges emerged, along with findings that forever changed production methods.

It was discovered that, with wine and whiskey in particular, the wood selection and aging period helped develop complex, desirable flavors. Since barrels altered the taste profile of whatever alcohol was placed in them, much experimentation ensued, and continued in the New World.

Evan Williams, after opening his Kentucky distillery in 1783, began shipping moonshine in barrels down the Mississippi to New Orleans. As one legend has it, Williams soon found that the aged-in-wood scenario improved the liquor drastically, giving rise to bourbon. (There’s much more to the story of bourbon’s origins, but we’ll have to share it in another installment of Barside Wisdom.)

With beer, however, barrel aging imparted a very strong, woodsy flavor, something many drinkers did not find agreeable. So brewers began to line their barrels with pitch to create a barrier and eliminate the wood taste, a tradition which continues today in some breweries

Today most alcohol is shipped in stainless-steel containers or glass bottles, although wooden barrels are not completely out of the picture. And of course, a great variety of distilled and fermented liquids are aged in barrels, 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 in bourbon barrels. 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!