Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

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Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Mar 25, 2009 12:41 pm

In the thread on the origin of using charred barrels, I pointed to scientific recommendations made in Europe between the 1780's and 1806 to use powdered charcoal to cleanse new spirit and, somewhat later in this period, to char barrels intended to hold wines and distilled spirits.

But what, more precisely,were the problems facing distillers or those stocking wines and spirits? Based on my readings, some of which appear below, they were of two kinds. First, spirit that was distilled at a low proof needed to be rid of its "essential oils", i.e., fusel oils which in excess made the drinks unpalatable. This is the familiar issue of rectification. Second, new barrels and also old ones which were re-coopered or "shaved" in one reference could lend a bad taste to liquids held in such barrels. In some cases, wine (this would not apply to spirits) was re-fermenting by virtue of contact with substances in the wood. Here is a source from 1850, Tizard's book on brewing (a well-known period text), which addresses in some detail the problem of cask taint. Note that Tizard at one point refers to the problem as common to brewers and distillers (see pp. 493-498):

http://books.google.com/books?id=Ui4tAA ... #PPA494,M1

As can be seen, the contact of water with the cask, e.g., when it was washed, could cause formation of fungal agents. Albumen in the wood was identified as one of the causes. This could give the beer a bad taste. Thus, charring, mentioned as one solution by Tizard, was a way to destroy the albumen and render the cask "inert" in this sense. However, as Tizard mentions, numerous other solutions presented themselves: steam-cleaning, the application of dry heat, and use of water in the brewery that had a chemical composition that would retard the spoilage mentioned. Later, lime and sulphur were used to sweeten the casks. Of course, with distilled spirits, the congener problem, i.e., for whiskey and other traditional spirits, remained. The charred barrel was also an answer to this due to the effect of carbon on the resting spirit.

Obviously, both old and new casks were charred for these purposes. To this day in Scotland, I believe most casks used to age whisky are used casks that are broken down and rebuilt. The staves get a charring/re-charring to help keep the wood sweet and delay its degradation. In Canada, ex-bourbon barrels often are re-charred to similar intent. While the charring may impart some taste from a residual red layer, I believe generally this is not the case. The red layer is exhausted, or mostly, in the first application of the barrel, to make bourbon.

In the United States, bourbon barrels by law may only be used once. I think it is fair to infer that once bourbon was kept sweet and free from decay for a long enough time by the charring layer, it was perceived that its taste improved and this result could only be achieved if the barrels were used once. This aspect of bourbon's evolution is (clearly) purely domestic. This is what I called the "lucky happenstance" in the other thread mentioned. But even then, it took people willing to make the investment in new barrels to ensure a quality product. At the time, America had a lot of oak available. Period English accounts attest to the large amounts coming into Britain for coopering purposes - there was lots to go around. Thus, what perhaps was a motivation to use new wood over used barrels - high demand for whiskey and closeness to supply of new wood sources - later became a requirement to maintain the best bourbon that could be made. One can conceive that new barrel bourbon could have been blended with used barrel "bourbon"; this did not occur for the product we know today, and that is legally regulated, as Bourbon. (It did occur in a certain sense, for American blended whiskey).

Was the new charred barrel used initially because of the fine flavor it imparted? I don't think so. I think its use started because there weren't enough well-seasoned old barrels to go around and, distillers having to use new barrels, they decided to have them charred as the best way to avoid tainting the whiskey with fungal flavours and possibly also to avoid the resinous, tannic, taste that fresh oak can have. (As to where they might have got the idea, see again the other thread mentioned). Even old barrels would have been an issue in this sense once cleaned thoroughly for re-use - because it exposed fresh old wood and its organic agents - but the large availability of fresh wood to make barrels in America impelled distillers' to use new barrels because they could sell all the whiskey they could make. I was struck, in reading congressional testimony of distillers in hearings related to whiskey excise and bonding, how hard it was to procure genuine, unadulterated Bourbon and rye whiskey in America in the mid-1800's. It clearly was a prized product almost from its inception.

Hence the issues associated with new barrels that needed to be addressed with confidence, and they were. But what is more, and as noted above, those risks presented opportunity - to perceive that a unique, high quality product could be made if the charred barrels were used only once. The stories about bourbon being an accident and resulting from use of barrels burned in a fire or through a coopering error are, I believe, a way to explain Bourbon's history that is appealing; they might be viewed as a kind of narrative device. The origin of the charred barrel is I think much more pragmatic and once again scientifically driven. On the other hand, bourbon's creation did rely on a perception someone made that this new charred barrel whiskey wasn't just very good and maybe justifying a Grade A or blending it with the Grade B stuff, but was deserving of being a product unto itself. That was a connoisseur's call, a made-in-America judgment. Inevitably, business factors played a part but that does not change this essential perspective. In that sense, bourbon was a home-grown product of the people, not an industrially-driven product as Canadian whisky has been since its beginnings, or Scotch blended whisky is. The scale of bourbon production for a long time (small or on the small side) is in synch with this way of looking at it.

Tonight I will post more references, all from about 1810-1880, showing in further detail how problems caused by new barrels and new mashing and fermenting vats were studied and overcome: this period is after, that is, the theoretical solution in relation to charred vessels had been devised.

Gary Gillman
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Re: Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby cowdery » Wed Mar 25, 2009 6:07 pm

Very interesting. None of these things is every fully resolved. The cooperages and their customers are still tweaking the process with regard to everything from stave drying to wood selection.

One thing I can add is that U.S. producers have tried to persuade the TTB that a barrel which has been shaved and re-charred is effectively a new barrel, but the TTB wouldn't buy it. I can't say how widespread the practice is, in Scotland or Canada, but I do know that you can only do it once, like turning the rotors on your brakes. After that, there just isn't enough material left.
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Re: Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Mar 25, 2009 6:20 pm

That's interesting, Chuck. See below further references, one of which treats well-cleaned old barrels as new from the viewpoint we are discussing.

1) http://books.google.com/books?id=6_oGAA ... rent+woods (1813 cooper’s manual, indicates at p. 236 vats and backs used in brewing and distilling are sometimes charred. Samuel M'Harry did similar in the same period, using burned hay)
2) http://books.google.com/books?id=RVMDAA ... +woods&lr= (1878 cooper’s and wine-grower’s manual, re French study on different woods and when and how to treat them to prevent off-odours and causing wines to re-ferment. Brandy also referred to. See pp. 163 et seq.)).
3) http://books.google.com/books?id=x5UEAA ... S#PPA52,M1 (1830, explaining why new casks or old ones that are well-cleaned must be charred to hold water in a pure state. See pg. 52. Putrefaction issues, again, from substances in the fresh wood. The 1878 book above discusses this in more scientific detail. The 1830 book proposes that iron tanks are even a better way to keep water pure because sometimes the water is "ignorant" of the barrel char, i.e., it doesn't always work).
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Re: Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Mar 25, 2009 7:06 pm

Gary,
Very Good posts! I have been reading your threads and have enjoyed them very much. I have seen many of the things you have found before but you have found a few that I have not seen before. You have never said what your degree is in before the law degree. but I suspect if not history, then some other field with refined research skills.

One thing to remember about bourbon is that the new barrel requiredment is only about 70 years old. In the 19th century and even up to prohibition, the barrel was the main package for sales of bourbon. That would lead the distiller to using mostly new barrels because the barrel of finished product would be shipped off to all parts of the nation. However, when purchasing barrels, a cooperage would often fill an order with barrels purchased from local saloons or drugstores and cleaned up. In the 1870's, E H Taylor, Jr. ran into trouble because a barrel of bourbon sold to Augustus Labrot in Cincinnati was bad. When the barrel was returned and dumped, Taylor found that the barrel had been repaired with some leather and iron tacks to prevent a leak. It was a refurbished used barrel.
Mike Veach
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Re: Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Mar 25, 2009 7:28 pm

Mike, thanks, the fact of barrels not being returned as you say to distillers may have prompted the realization that new barrel aging made the best whiskey. I wonder too if at the time, reused barrels were more costly in some cases than new ones. M'Harry speaks of locating near a good source of wood to make his own wooden vessels... In any case, the realization was made, which is part of the story of bourbon. But it started with the charred barrel as such, and I feel now that this was no accident of some kind, but something quite conscious and applying European learning - that drove the thing (I feel) even though some people may have hit on it here and there as e.g., for Cognac apparently. This is based on what I know now, but always ready to receive new evidence!

I don't have any training in history, but my legal background has of course taught some research skills. Also, I find there are a number of tricks to using Google Books which are different than the older forms of research. How you use the key words and combine them, and searching by word or phrase in the texts found (an amazing extra resource) can reveal a lot of stuff. Much of the newer (20th century) stuff is limited view (not so bad) or snippet which gives very little (but sometimes a clue). The older works from the 1800's are often full-view, though, which assists in a case like this. In selecting words, one has to use a certain approach. Most of what I found came from searching phrases that included "cask" whereas had I looked for "barrel" it would not have pulled out things like Nicholson's study in 1806 and The Bee in 1793.

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Re: Problems and Solutions in the 1800's viz. New Oak Barrels

Unread postby cowdery » Thu Mar 26, 2009 12:16 am

The difference, in some cases, wasn't so much buying used barrels versus buying new as it was buying used barrels versus hiring a cooper and cutting down some trees, especially when cash money was hard to come by and labor (and trees) were cheap.
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