Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

There's a lot of history and 'lore' behind bourbon so discuss both here.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 26, 2009 9:07 am

Reading Michael Jackson's The World Guide To Whisky (1987), he refers to an American distilling text published in 1818 which refers to barrels being charred to disinfect them. I recall that a work was published in that year, not by Krafft or M'Harry (American distillers who wrote somewhat earlier), but cannot track down that book even on snippet view on Google Books. Was it published by someone surnamed Harrison, this just from memory..?

If anyone, perhaps Mike, has it ready to hand and could quote that passage, it would be of some interest.

I have known of this passage since I bought the Jackson book in 1988, and of course (much) later I found similar statements in another primary source, Samuel M'Harry's book, Practical Distiller (1809). M'Harry applied the concept by burning the inside of his mashing and fermenting vessels, not barrels (apparently) as such. M'Harry's concern was to keep his ferments sweet especially during summer. The earliest (1800's) source I quoted in my "1800's" thread last night states that such charring was necessary both to prevent decay of the wood (probably the fungal problem referred to by Tizard later in the century) and ensure that the productions would not run into acidity (become sour) when cooling down.

These references, read with all the others I have mentioned, show that new casks and new brewing and distilling equipment made from wood - as well as well-cleaned old ones - had to be seasoned, a term often used in the period. Raw oak was suspect since it could start to decay through fungal action and could by its own nature, depending too where the wood came from, impart off tastes to the materials it was processing. The term disinfecting used by Michael Jackson can be read in different senses, which is why it would be useful to read the text he refers to. It might be read, and I had read it for many years, as the need to clean a musty, used cask. Indeed charring - the old "London cooper's" method of disinfecting we discussed some years ago - can perform that function and surely was used for that purpose although as Mike has noted in relation to pickled fish, there would have been limits to its efficacy. I too share doubts that burning out musty smells in old casks that had carried everything from A to Z could be at the origin of a complex, distinctive product like Bourbon.

And so Jackson gave me the impression for many years that musty old barrels were needed to hold whiskey; they were disinfected with fire creating a heavy char layer; in time people saw the whiskey tasted better than if stored in non-charred wood; later the process was extended to new charred barrels because the results were even better, and presto, Bourbon whiskey.

That is what I used to think, until last week. I hadn't considered, and had not read in books on whiskey history, that fresh oak itself could be regarded as detrimental to the aging of spirits and that there was a history before 1800 of studying the problem. As for wines, I knew of course it is common to use toasted casks. But toasting (except for deep toasting perhaps - the Cognac case) and charring are two different things.

Now I know, due to the Nicholson (1806) and The Bee (1793) sources mentioned above, that fresh oak was problematic to store water, wine and (most of concern to us here) distilled spirits. Science started to focus its eyes on solutions. The problem American whiskey makers had who wanted to store whiskey for a time was to ensure that off-flavours did not enter and change the spirit. These flavours could come from the fresh wood itself, and they could come from changes in the wood before filling especially fungal degradation. And so early bourbon makers, some perhaps working by local custom and tradition but others like Crow men of science, were in the majority I believe putting into practice what science was telling them would work. The problem wasn't one, in the main as I infer, cleansing old stinky barrels: it was cleaning "clean" ones. This is a new perspective I believe on the issue.

Gary

P.S. Why didn't whisky become "bourbonized" in Scotland and Ireland due to a similar process? Because once whisky started being aged methodically there, the distillers or brokers employed used, not new, casks to age the spirit, or at least mostly they did so. There might be many reasons why they elected this, of which economy was probably the main one, but we needn't inquire in that for the present purposes. Old casks can be and were, and still are, charred too. Even if a used cask hadn't been charred before, and even if an old cask once charred acquires a usable red layer, the fact of mingling whisky for sale from a stock of casks that largely had been reused many times obviates any need to consider a parallel with the palate of bourbon.
Last edited by gillmang on Thu Mar 26, 2009 7:26 pm, edited 10 times in total.
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 26, 2009 10:37 am

Jeff, I find Tizard very helpful on this aspect. He states, as I read him, that even after the casks are made from well-dried staves, the problem is that once they are exposed to humidity, including by washing, funguses develop on the wood. He states that a cask that is kept dry all the time or wet all the time is not a problem: it is when they are alternately subject to wet and dry conditions. In a brewery, this is a problem since casks (in the old days) came back from the publicans, were cleaned, dried, refilled, sent out, returned, - all numerous times. So the albumen in particular (as Tizard saw it - its role seems more questioned in the 1878 source I cited, the cooper's and wine guide book), had to be neutralized, and one way to do that was by charring the interior. I believe that charring performed a similar function in Kentucky. Of course, once filled, the barrel is always wet. But when seasoned outdoors as would have been common then, the wood must have come in to the cooper's in a variable state. Also, barrels had to be stored for a time before being filled, in varying conditions, in different climates during the year, etc. I believe charring was a way to burn off any incipient decay in the wood and help keep it sweet for longer and not taint the whiskey. In a sense, this was prolonging the drying function, and possibly today with kiln-dried wood used to make barrels, kept in controlled conditions until manufacture, the problem is less than it was in the 1700's and 1800's (and before of course). But still even with clean dry wood, you get the strong flavors of tannin and resin. This was the second problem noted by or implicit in the sources I mentioned going back to the late 1700's. We have all encountered the odd musty bottle of whiskey and as Chuck has pointed out, distilling today is still working on the problems of ensuring casks are "neutral" in the sense we are discussing now. Probably an issue that will never go away completely. (Also, barrels held a very long time may go bad anyway: many of us have tasted circa-20 year old whiskey that seemed affected by the barrel in this sense. And, a barrel deprived too soon of its protective tannin by excessive cycling may start to degrade and affect the whiskey - Charles Thomason made this claim in an article written in the 1960's).

However, these problems were sufficiently controlled in America by the new barrel charring process and it helped, inadvertently in part, to create a classic type of distilled spirit.

Gary
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 30, 2009 1:38 pm

I found the full name of the 1818 distillery text I mentioned, it is The Distiller by Harrison Hall who was from Philadelphia, a learned man from a prominent family. His brother was a well-known judge, for example. I still cannot locate the full-text but Waymack and Harris in their book on bourbon give a good summary of his statements on charring barrels. They state he was concerned to smooth the surface and remove pockets of sap which could "putrefy" the whiskey: this is very similar in purpose and even terminology to the works I cite above by Nicholson (1806) and in The Bee (1793). Michael Jackson in his 1987 World Guide To Whiskey was not aware evidently of the earlier writers because he refers uncertainly to only a disinfecting intent. Well, it was that of course, but my point has been that this practice was for the most part - and certainly with someone as sophisticated as Harrison Hall - a deliberate application of recent scientific theory. And once the book was written and issued, it becomes influential in turn, and so forth. While any palate improvement would have been regarded, initially, as secondary, I note that French scientist Berthelet, whose findings are reviewed by Nicholson, favored charred barrel aging for the "richness" imparted; so that part of the process seems a recommendation of science, too. Withal, the developing practice of charring new barrels was soon seen to be creative of a new and valued style of whiskey, which took the name bourbon. Hall according to reports I've read felt that corn-based whiskey should become America's spirit. He plumped for this in his book, referring e.g., to geneva gin and Irish whiskey and stating that America needed its own national beverage. I believe he perceived the great flavor improvement new charred barrels give a corn-based whiskey and advocated the practice not just to ensure an uncontaminated spirit but one with, to use a fine term from a 1990's distilling text, "bravado" and character. In my view he stands with James Crow as one of the key movers and shakers in the process of bourbon creation - but these figures were in turn preceded by men who worked out the theories needed.

Although I have said this before, I wish to add, so as not to be misunderstood, that experience probably showed the value of charred barrel aging before, here and there; something like that happened in Cognac, France. Something like that may have happened in Georgetown, KY or somewhere else. But the fact that science was actively promoting the idea was indispensable to bourbon's creation. I don't believe an intermittent, scattered folk practice - empiricism in a word - could have done it.

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