Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

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Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Mar 22, 2009 1:40 am

I append at the end of this note what I consider a significant finding, namely that in 1806 in "A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts" (an English science and chemistry journal), the recommendation was made to age spirits in a new charred barrel.

The article, by William Nicholson, reviewed an experiment to char the interior of a barrel (here called a cask in English usage) to store water in ships. Nicholson indicates that the charcoal layer in the barrel protected the water from substances in the wood which would produce "putrefaction". Nicholson then suggests that wine might be stored the same way, to protect it from similar spoilage or (I infer) flavour change. He notes that wine when kept in glass is thus protected, and he was looking for a way to store wine in a barrel that would have the same effect. Finally, he advises that "spirituous liquors" should also be stored in a new charred cask. He is not talking about toasting, the discussion makes it clear he is envisaging a blackening of the barrel interior.

He acknowledges that storage in wood is partly good for spirits, but states that wood also has the capacity to impart negative qualities. He states this is why re-used barrels are preferable to new ones for storage of wine (still a desideratum for most wine-makers - and distillers outside the U.S.).

Wood storage of spirits has the capacity to eliminate fusel oils, but it imparts its own flavour and this may have been seen as a fault or type of spoilage at the time. We are speaking of 1806, an early time in the understanding of spirits maturation.

I wonder if someone put Nicholson's theory into practice in the whiskey-making States in America. American distiller Samuel M'Harry, writing just a few years later, notes that whiskey held in wood will acquire some colour and "maybe some taste". While he liked the result for his own consumption, the tenor of his remarks is not to keep whiskey in wood too long if its use is to mix with beer or as a base for (in effect) various cordial preparations. So, maybe someone in the U.S. followed Nicholson's advice in an attempt to keep whiskey long enough to remove objectionable fusel oils but (at any rate) prevent it from becoming too woody in taste. Perhaps charred barrels that had held water were later used to hold whiskey either to secure benefits similar to what was obtained for water or simply because these barrels were available, but I do not rule out the former possibility. We tend in the Internet age to assume that information was not widespread in a given art in former centuries but this was not always so as e.g., is shown by M'Harry's familiarity with the then emerging method of steam distillation. Also, it may have been that early distillers in America had new barrels available to them more easily than old, I can conceive of a number of reasons why this may have been so.

It is true that M'Harry speaks of disinfecting wooden vessels with a fire made from hay, without any reference to Nicholson's article or any prevailing theory of science. However, M'Harry seems to be talking about mashing and fermentation vessels, not whiskey aging barrels. There is also his reference to keeping whiskey in a barrel that is "branded", but I doubt that meant the firing of a barrel to keep whiskey in. (Although, this is not 100% clear). We have discussed before (on this board) the significance if any of these two references in M'Harry's book to an apparent use of fire to sanitize or prepare wood vessels used to make and store whiskey.

I always felt the idea that bourbon derived as a lucky by-product of using barrels burned in an accident or through a coopering error to be unlikely. I was a party more to the theory that some re-used and even new barrels were charred intentionally to sanitize them (cleanse of off-odors) and the use of such barrels to hold whiskey later became systematic. The latter theory still is plausible, of course. The tannins and flavours imparted by a new oak barrel can be overpowering and strong: I once had beer stored for a short time in a new uncharred oak keg, and it was almost undrinkable. Thus, it is possible that charring a new barrel was regarded as a form of sanitization, independent of anything Nicholson was suggesting. But also, Nicholson may have spurred the practice either directly or indirectly.

I believe it has not been known until now that a scientist as early as 1806 was advising that new charred barrels be used to hold not just wine but spirits, and not to deodorize the barrel as such but to prevent (as it was thought) contact between the spirit and the wood frame of the barrel so as to retain the best characteristics of the spirit. The writer of the early 1800's Kentucky grocer's letter Mike Veach has found advising a distiller to char the inside of the barrels may have been a science buff, or may have been told of the likely benefits of the process by a learned man, or by a seaman, or may have hit on the idea himself, independently: the possibilities are endless but I now believe someone concerned with the storage of whiskey may have applied Nicholson's theory one way or another. In effect, he was inviting people to do so because he states testing was needed to validate his idea...

Europe never came to terms with using new barrels to store wine and spirits despite Nicholson's suggestions, but America did, and for reasons different than Nicholson projected because a new charred barrel does change the flavour of whiskey and the change does derive from the wood but in an unanticipated and, ultimately, gratefully received way. Progress is often the result of a combination of scientific insight and chance factors.

Here is the source, see pp. 225-228: http://books.google.com/books?id=thAAAA ... ES#PPP7,M1

Gary Gillman
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby cowdery » Sun Mar 22, 2009 6:22 pm

The early date and the application specifically to beverage alcohol, including spirits, makes this interesting. However, to me it simply confirms that while the effects of barrel aging -- including in new, charred wood -- were not necessarily known to the general public, nor even to the average whiskey-maker, they were known to educated persons who made it a point to study the subject. You note that charring is cited as desirable in part to prevent the wood from flavoring the barrel's contents, but the Romans coated the insides of their barrels with pitch for that same reason. With wine and beer, water, and many foods, charring was the easiest form of sanitation (irrelevant to spirits). They didn't necessarily know what microorganisms were, but they knew the results. Similarly, the beneficial effects of charcoal on fusel oils were well known, as evidenced by the habit of using well-toasted bread to improve the flavor of wine in the Middle Ages. Certainly the idea of aging whiskey in new, charred oak barrels, and using the barrel for that purpose only once, was an American innovation, but it wasn't so much the result of any single discovery as it was the convergence of a number of events and circumstances. The biggest obstacle to barrel aging is one that still has not been completely overcome, and that is finance. You have to believe that rather than welcoming long barrel aging, producers probably did everything they could to avoid it because of the high cost involved.
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Mar 22, 2009 6:38 pm

Chuck, I agree, I just found it interesting, and potentially significant, that at the dawn of the bourbon age, a scientist was proposing the very thing that made bourbon (ultimately) what it was. He may well have kickstarted it, but the ball was there before...

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby cowdery » Mon Mar 23, 2009 12:10 am

I agree, it's great stuff, and like some of the other things you've found, demonstrates what's so great about some of these efforts by Google to digitize everything that's ever been printed. You are finding things that many past researchers on these subjects simply did not know existed.
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 23, 2009 7:28 am

Even more could be read if it wasn't "limited" or (more usually) "no-view", however even these sources can be accessed by those who can get to libraries or read them through online library privileges where digitized.

I checked earlier posts here and the letter from John Corlis (the Bourbon County grocer who wrote a distiller about the benefits of charring barrels) is from 1826. Mike has said that is the earliest evidence of use of charred barrels to age bourbon. I think we can say 1806 is the earliest date when there is evidence someone suggested it be done from a theoretical standpoint. Dr. Crow is considered, not to have come up with the idea, but to have insisted that all whiskey he produced be aged in this way. He arrived in Kentucky I believe around the time John Corlis wrote that letter. Crow was a Briton, as Nicholson was. Did Crow read Nicholson's paper? I am not sure how old Crow was in 1806, but I would think even if he studied science after that date that article would have come to his attention.

Once again, while the use of charcoal as Chuck said to filter and purify is age-old, and while blackening of barrels was being done to sanitize them probably for a long time (recall the "London" method of sanitizing barrels we discussed some years ago on the board), we have a specific scientific statement in 1806 to use the process for spirits aging, maybe Crow read it, Crow came to America, etc.

However, of course we are in the realm of speculation since even if all that happened, it is likely someone was using the charred barrel before Crow arrived - Mike has said the first evidence of the term bourbon in print is from 1821 - and that usage may or may not have been connected to Nicholson. The trail fades at this point. I must too set against the idea that Nicholson stimulated the American practice the lore (imprecise as it is), that Evan Williams in the late 1700's came upon the idea accidentally after some barrels were burned in a fire. Also, Nicholson was advising to age spirits in a new charred cask to keep their essential character, not impart wood quality (burned or other) to them. Still, this doesn't mean that Nicholson was not the immediate cause of the practice that developed as the bourbon aging process, but there is no evidence for that. The idea might have developed from different sources, and different tributaries as it were might have come together at some point, or there might have been a seminal event (whether accident of some kind, Nicholson's suggestion, grocer's practice, etc.). We just don't know.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 23, 2009 9:28 am

Here is another reference, from 1815, to placing distilled spirits in charred casks. This is from James Smith's Panorama of Science and Art at pg. 579:

http://books.google.com/books?id=aD0AAA ... #PPA579,M1

Here, it is advised to do so to correct burning of the spirit in the (pot, evidently) still. This offers another angle. Perhaps when spirits burned on the still's surfaces due to the mash or wash not being in constant agitation, they were placed in charred barrels to receive a corrective, temporarily. This would have been a parallel idea to throwing powdered charcoal in the spirit or leaching it through a stack of charcoal. The advantage of a charred barrel would have been to prolong contact of the spirit with the carbon. This is another angle, then: perhaps bourbon's systematic maturation derived from short-term experiments to correct the "empyreutic" (burned, off-tasting) taste of spirit which had scorched on the pot still base.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby cowdery » Mon Mar 23, 2009 12:09 pm

The "accidental burning" discovery is attributed to Elijah Craig, not Evan Williams, and is surely fiction.

The ah-hah moment, upon which Nicholson sheds some light, is when someone first charred a brand new barrel specifically for the purpose of aging whiskey in it.
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 23, 2009 12:24 pm

Thanks for that correction I always confuse the two in that and other ways. Who was the Welshman? :)

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 23, 2009 1:10 pm

By the way note that reference to a third, rectification distillation in a water bath in the 1815 discussion. This is mentioned in Byrn's book as well some 40 years later. In my opinion, this is an early version of what today is called extractive distillation, i.e., where a distilled spirit is mixed with water to change the volatility temperature of congeners deemed unfavorable that were not eliminated in the first boils. It makes that temperature higher so that the alcohol can be vaporised and the formerly low-boiling congeners left behind with the water as run-off.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 23, 2009 2:16 pm

Below is a 1793 Scots publication, The Bee, in which it is said "of late" that a new process was devised to make use of the purifying properties of charcoal (themselves known for a long time (states the author)), namely, charring a cask with a thin layer of black charcoal by instructing the cooper to prolong the heating processes used to fashion the casks. This is stated solely in connection with keeping water sweet in such barrels. That is, the British practice that was developing was seemingly restricted to keeping water sweet on ships but The Bee also notes an earlier experiment by Russian scientist (Tobias) Lovitz that cheap Russian corn spirit (vodka) was improved when mixed with powdered charcoal. In the 1806 Nicholson account, Nicholson mentions the recent work of French scientist Berthelet and that it was his suggestion to blacken casks to purify both water and "wine". Nicholson indicates also that Berthelet had been told the charred casks would give wine a "rich" flavour. The fact that Berthelet was told this suggests that practical experience with aging alcohol in charred casks had already occurred. One can infer that this was the case with Cognac, for example, which is known to always have been aged in well-toasted (at least) casks.

Further research I did on Google Books confirms that in the 1780's the said Tobias Lovitz, a chemist from St. Petersburg, Russia, published results of experiments showing that powdered charcoal removed bad flavours from water, spirits and other substances. There followed the practice of mixing powdered charcoal with barrels of water used on ships, and distillers used charcoal powder to clean their spirits, sometimes distilling them with the charcoal. Later, as The Bee shows, the idea came to store water in charred barrels to increase the contact with the spirit and for other reasons, clearly: water was shipped in barrels anyway, and it was thought that water would stay more clear stored in charred barrels than if mixed with powdered charcoal. Possibly a fire concern was at play, too, since stores of powdered charcoal can be dangerous. Therefore, the idea to store water at least in charred barrels seems to have preceded Berthelet since the Bee was writing some 15 years before the work being referred to by Nicholson.

It appears, therefore, that sometime between the 1780's and 1806 someone, perhaps Berthelet was first, came up with the idea to store not just water but also wine in charred barrels. Nicholson and possibly Berthelet seem to have extended the idea to distilled spirits - whiskey for our purposes. It is possible that the practice described "of late" in 1793 to store water and keep it sweet also encompassed beverage alcohol products. Perhaps science caught up with practical experience; or perhaps not since the one thing someone would not want to do with a valuable lot of wine or whiskey was chance it in a charcoal-lined package unless he was pretty sure it would not be spoiled. Still, one can infer that in parts of the wine and brandy-making parts of France, there was an older practice of using charred or well-toasted barrels to store wine and brandy and that this had some influence on scientific thinking in the later 1700's and first decade of the 1800's.

Either way, it seems that the idea methodically to store wine and spirits in charred casks goes back to around 1800 and was the result of adumbrated scientific theory, an extension of the teachings on keeping water potable. So far, I have not found a reference before 1806 to the advisability of storing alcoholic spirits in charred casks. I have since found a number of references in this sense after 1806 and before 1850, so the idea got pretty well-established in America for whiskey after 1806.

All this suggests to me that stories of using barrels burned accidentally in a fire or in coopering, or that were made or fashioned from disused mashing and fermenting vats sterilized by hay smoke, are unlikely. But once again, one cannot rule out that the process was hit on in different ways at different times. It is more likely I think, if tributaries there be to the river of Bourbon which started in America in the early 1800's, that people like John Corlis used charred ex-water barrels to store whiskey and saw the evident advantages, which would be a happenstance added to a prescribed method. But in the end I think the influence of a Dr. Crow was much more important - and he may have had scientific-minded predecessors in Kentucky who had read Nicholson, or even The Bee in 1793.

Corlis wrote after James Crow arrived in America. James Crow was a scientist. James Crow was a distiller. James Crow came to America to make whiskey.

(See page 108 in The Bee below for the 1793 reference).

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http://books.google.com/books?id=7SE2AA ... ES#PPR6,M1
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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 24, 2009 3:51 am

Here are my conclusions which, unless new information appears, I will regard as a wrap-up:

i) while certain purifying properties of charcoal have been known historically, including it seems in relation to alcoholic beverages, scientific thinking started to focus on the issue in the 1780's. Initially, powdered charcoal was seen as the key, both for water and distilled spirits. Tobias Lovitz used powdered charcoal in this period to cleanse the "corn spirit" - cheap vodka - in Russia drunk by "boors" (see discussion by James Anderson in The Bee, 1793, cited above);

ii) by 1793, the idea was in vogue to use charred oak casks to keep water pure on ships: it was a more practical, economical application of the powdered charcoal principle. The concern seems to have been initially with new casks because Anderson in The Bee is that year speaks of directing coopers to char the casks they were making, i.e., evidently new casks were being used to hold water and hence needed charring. Anderson doesn't address whether once charred, the charring lasted as long as the cask was used, but it is the application of the process to new barrels that deserves our attention;

iii) by 1806, we find scientists such as Bethelet, in France, and William Nicholson, in England, calling for storing wines and distilled spirits in new charred barrels. The term "wines" was sometimes used loosely in this era to mean distilled spirits and it is possible that Berthelet himself intended this extended meaning, but Nicholson made it clear. The preoccupation of Nicholson was, as for Anderson in 1793, with new barrels: there must have been a need to use these wet barrels. He was concerned again to avoid the tainting that fresh wood evidently imparted to water and wine (my own experience is it can do so, as stated above in the thread);

iv) Bourbon whiskey emerges, or at least, comes to public notice, in the 1820's - its hallmark is aging in new charred barrels; and

v) from the 1820's the process, at least for a quality product, was rendered invariable by influential distiller James Crow, a scientist who had studied in Brtain before coming to the United States.

Does this mean new charred barrel aging was not, in some places at any rate, discovered accidentally in various ways? No, it seems (we know this from earlier discussions) that the Cognac process has always relied in part on deeply toasted, if not charred, barrels, and the John Corlis letter suggests a possible local discovery of a similar process. But I detect a broad outline where a cascading scientific theory was the sole or predominant influence in creating the bourbon whiskey tradition. And this is so notwithstanding that the main intention was to purify a low-distilled spirit of secondary flavors (fusel oils) and prevent foreign flavors from entering the spirit. That is, the imparting of rich caramelized flavors from the "red layer" behind the char seemed a lucky happenstance. Still, we must note that Berthelet considered not just that charred barrel aging would cleanse a congeneric spirit but that it imparted a "rich" quality to wines: so post-Lovitz, the idea might have been there to improve the taste in this way from the beginning. And it came, partly anyway, from France, to which bourbon history seems to have a way of returning...

N.B. The survival of the so-called Tennessee tradition of leaching new spirit through a stack of maple charcoal in my view is a survival of the pre-charred barrel type of charcoal purification. Indeed it survives to this day in various forms since spirits are often subjected still to various forms of charcoal filtration. I understand too in some bourbon distilleries, they throw a can of charcoal powder into a cistern of new make: this is following a practice methodically suggested by Russian science shortly after America was founded.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 24, 2009 2:00 pm

Interested readers may note that I have edited my wrap-up above (even though the edits are not signalled, because I made them before this "response" went in). I did so to clarify or extend a number of points, including to point out that the preoccupation of the scientists after Lovitz was to ensure that new barrels did not taint water or alcoholic beverages they held. New barrels, not old ones. This is why these materials are of historical significance in my opinion.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby bunghole » Tue Mar 24, 2009 8:54 pm

I've been reading this thread with rapt attention. I do understand that; Gary Gilman (A.K.A. Vatman), Prof. Mike Veach, and much vaunted whiskey writer (and drinker) Chuck Cowdrey have a lot at stake here.

For those that do not understand these circumstances; pinning down the emergence of charred oak barrels in the storage/transportation/maturation of American corn based whiskey = the birth of bourbon!

This is why this thread is so important, and that's why you should be paying some attention to it!

Otherwise, just continue to fluffer your Mentos.

Gents - I'm listening.

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 24, 2009 9:38 pm

Linn, thanks for your thoughts. I just want to get out in the community what I've found, for what it is worth, and discussion by any interested. So far, I have found the materials absorbing myself, hence putting them out in this forum, which has always had an acute interest in whiskey history. I think the information from Nicholson is of great interest, but it doesn't of course answer the "ah-hah" moment Chuck was talking about. It does give some direction I think, and maybe it will be possible for example to draw a more direct line between Nicholson and Crow or even Corlis, or maybe not, I don't know.

I also want to say I have learned a lot from the gents you mentioned who write on or research American whiskey history: I couldn't develop any theories without using chunks of information learned from them, and others in some cases, over the years. Also, I am not a historian of any kind: I am more an enthusiastic amateur.

Jeff: perhaps whiskey barrels to hold water had been charred for a long time. I just don't know. The materials I have been referring to (The Bee 1793, Nicholson 1806) seem to treat the process as new. Also, I think the key about what those men of science were saying was in relation to new barrels. It was new barrels that were causing putrefaction problems and imparting off-flavours in some cases to alcoholic liquids. Old barrels recharred or not would have been much less of a problem. Were new barrels always charred for hundreds of years for carrying water? Maybe, but it would not seem so to me judging by these sources. Certainly though deep toasting (which I am prepared to regard as similar to charring) was done for Cognac in France and it must have encompassed some new casks.

My thinking currently, as I said in my summary, is that I believe the scientific developments to which I have referred were the driving force in bourbon whiskey becoming what it ultimately was. I do not claim though that localized practices of charred barrel aging did not occur. Cognac seems to be a quasi-example, and maybe the Corlis letter, which Mike Veach as I said earlier mentioned some years ago on this board (it is from the Filson Historical archive he said), is an example of similar. But I think, from what I know now, that scientific theory was probably the determining factor in making charred barrel aging invariable for bourbon production.

(Mike: sorry to hear you were under the weather and I hope you are recovered. I've had food poisoning twice in my life. It's no picnic).

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Re: Progress on Origin of Charred Barrel?

Unread postby cowdery » Wed Mar 25, 2009 6:10 pm

Evan Williams haled from Wales.
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