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.
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.