Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

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Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Apr 27, 2009 7:28 pm

I was in the United Distillers Archive the other day and researched a little on their Barrel Proof products. Now all bourbon sold byb the distiller 150 years ago was single barrel and barrel proof product, so this is not a new idea. The U.D. Archive has an empty bottle of Belmont bourbon that was made in 1901 and bottled in 1918 at 116 proof. This was probably a barrel proof product bottled before prohibition. However, prohibition did away with the sale of barrels of whiskey to the consumer, forcing it all to be bottled before the consumer could purchased it. Julian Van Winkle must have had customers who were nostalgic for this type of product because Stitzel-Weller released a brand called "Original Stock" from the W.L. Weller and Sons distillery in 1941. There is a bottle of this product in the archive and the back label states that this 104 proof product was distilled in spring 1936 and bottled at 4 1/2 years old. This is the earliest I have found for a Stitzel-Weller barrel proof product. There were label books from the 1940s and early 1950s that had additional labels for Original Stock barrel proof product, usually at 105 or 106 proof, from 1943 and 1945. This product must have been sucessful because in the early 1950s, Stitzel-Weller decided to use the Weller name on a barrel proof product. That product eventually became Weller Antique. I must assume that the term barrel proof lost meaning with consumers as the pre-prohibition drinkers died and the younger generation did not understand why barrel proof was better whiskey.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Apr 27, 2009 7:38 pm

Mike, I can't recall where now but I saw a discussion somewhere or a reference to a barrel proof Old Overholt issued also about 1940.

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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Apr 28, 2009 3:23 pm

Final barrel proof then, like now would be determined by location in the warehouse. If it was stored high in the warehouse the proof increases and if stored low then it would decrease, at least in a unheated warehouse. If the warehouse has steam heat then the proof does usually increase across the board since the heat is usually applied on the lowest level and allowed to rise, thus for all practical purposes, flipping the warehouse heat wise. A bourbon with an entery proof of 100 could be expected to get as high as 130 proof if stored on the top level of a warehouse for 8 years. That would be an extreme, but I would estimate that the 120 proof range was probably quite common after many years on the upper floors.

I also recall the discussion of Old Overholt barrel proof product in the 1940s. I don't remember the exact year, but it could have been about the same time as Stitzel-Weller was doing it in the early 1940s, and probably for the same reasons. There were people who remembered drinking bourbon from the barrel before prohibition and these same people wanted a similar product. Also remember that this was all before chill filtering so these products were probably very close to out of the barrel bourbons. We get some of the same style with products such as Bookers and Stagg but I would like it better if they also went into the barrel at 100 proof with lower distillation proof. I am not impressed by Stagg's high barrel proof but I am impressed by the barrel proof Four Roses bottled for Jim's 40th anniversary. In my opinion, that is a superior product to any version of Stagg.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby bourbonv » Sun May 31, 2009 6:59 pm

Barrel rotating is a bit of a myth. Yes they rotated barrels, but mostly because the Government Agent would spot check barrels at random for loss. The warehouse workers would pull the barrels in front of the required barrel and put them somewhere else, but that did not mean every barrel got rotated on a schedule. It does not mean that it changed height in the warehouse either. In any case, since the bonding period was only 8 years, there was not a huge increase or decrease in proof like you see in Stagg (Increase) or Four Roses (Decrease).
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby cowdery » Thu Jun 04, 2009 8:49 pm

Whatever may have been done for government purposes, barrels were also moved to deliberately adjust their aging characteristics and when labor was cheap it wasn't such a big deal to move barrels around. If you were a small producer and were selling whiskey in barrels, it made sense to take steps to make your product as consistent as possible.

Did anyone ever routinely cycle every single barrel through some pre-determined course of rotation? Did they, for example, start all barrels high in the warehouse and then gradually move them down, like some gigantic Pachinko machine? Mike says no, but then why did they call it 'rotation,' which suggests that is exactly what they did?

One reason barrels are checked periodically is so something can be done if they are aging too fast or too slowly. What can be done is to move them from a hotter area to a cooler area or vice versa. That's barrel rotation. Maker's, for example, still does it occasionally. They have to because they only make one product and bottle in such small batches, so they need every barrel to be as much alike as possible. When you are dumping several hundred barrels for a bottling batch of Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's, that's not so important.

Does that mean Maker's moves a lot of barrels? Not necessarily. They move as many as they need to move, no more, no less. Other distilleries move barrels too, though usually it's for some other reason, such as when a warehouse is being harvested and consolidated. Barrels get removed that don't get dumped. When they are put away again, their future is taken into consideration in the selection of their new location. For all I know, that may be all Maker's is doing, but they've decided to talk about it in the context of rotation.

But, yes, it costs money every time a barrel is moved, so if you can put a barrel away once and not move it again until you dump it, that is the goal.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Jun 08, 2009 3:47 pm

I am doing some work in the archive at Stitzel-Weller this week and I was looking at Geo. T. Stagg Distillery warehouse receipts. It is interesting that in the 1930s and 1940's the entry proof was 102. In the 1950s and 1960s it went up to 105. This was not only in Frankfort, but in other distilleries with the Stagg name. In the 1950s and 1960s Schenley would change the name of a distillery to the Geo. T. Stagg distillery and start shipping the whiskey from that distillery to Frankfort as a prelude to closing the distillery. There are receipts from Limestone Spring Distillery (Chapeze), Stamping Grounds, Maysville (Pogue), and Lebanon, Ky. to name a few, and they are also 105 in that period, with one of them still doing an entry proof at 102.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby DeanSheen » Mon Jun 08, 2009 6:30 pm

Is there a chance that the future may hold regular barrel proof offerings?

I would love to see Handy be a regular production item and seems an excellent candidate since it is only a 6 year old with fairly high yield barrels.

4 Roses would be another good choice.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby cowdery » Tue Jun 09, 2009 2:26 pm

The interesting part is that they were putting whiskey down at 102 proof intending to sell it at 100 proof, so they were counting on the proof rising or staying the same during aging. I know that in recent years Wild Turkey raised its barrel proof because they were getting too many barrels that didn't hit 101. We know that as a general rule the proof increases in the hottest parts of the warehouse and decreases in the coolest parts. What does the fact that distillers 100 years ago didn't have this problem mean? One possibility is that they did, in fact, rotate barrels routinely.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Jun 09, 2009 4:05 pm

The bulk of their sales was also 4 or 5 year old product. They also had 90 proof and 86 proof products as well. Besides, the products are married together before bottling and for every low proof barrel, there is going to be one or more that either increased proof or remained about the same. The loss of proof in aging would be a minor problem. A bigger problem was leaking barrels, which would occasionally also call for moving barrels if the leak was bad enough.

I never said they did not rotate barrels, but I did say they did so only when they had to pull for the government gauger so they did not have a "regular schedule" for moving barrels and many barrels were not rotated at all in their 4 years in the warehouse.
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Re: Origin of the Modern Barrel Proof

Unread postby cowdery » Wed Jun 10, 2009 1:51 pm

Regardless, I still find it interesting that they were putting away at that low a proof in that era. That would seem to be the big quality change in the modern era, the higher barreling proof. To some extent Turkey's explanation about why it increased barreling proof (too many barrels below 101 proof) may be disingenuous, since it's clearly just a financial decision, probably having to do with the cost of barrels as much as anything.
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