The Barrel Makes the Whiskey: A Little Wood, a Little Flame and a Lot of Resting

– By Michelle Ess –


My fondest memory of visiting my first whisky distillery in Scotland is the lingering rich, smoky smell of charred wood. Besides realizing I can fit into one myself, I learned the barrels emitting this delicious smell played an extremely important step in the maturation process of spirits. Whether whiskey, bourbon or tequila, the type and quality of the barrel is essential for contributing to the color and overall flavor of the product. More and more spirit lovers are placing value on exploring the distillation process and what gives their brand of choice the perfect taste.

“The increased demand for brown spirits drives an increased interest in the significance of the whiskey barrel and its role as an ingredient in the process,” says Michael Nelson, Plant Director of Brown-Forman Cooperage.

As America’s oldest spirits company, Brown-Forman has been using new, charred oak barrels to craft its whiskeys for 145 years. They recently celebrated their 70th anniversary of producing and distributing barrels worldwide, providing the key ingredients for brands such as Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Jack Daniels. On top of being new and charred, their barrels must be made of American White Oak (native to Kentucky and Tennessee) – just as their ancestors used when they first created bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

“American White Oak is used for our barrels because of not only the structural integrity of this species and its ability to hold liquid, but also for the natural sugars and flavors the wood imparts on the whiskeys,” explains Nelson. “By carefully toasting and then charring the inside of the barrel, the American White Oak is able to contribute vanilla and oak flavors to the product.”

barrelworkerEastern United States houses the Appalachian and Ozark regions of the country, which is where the company sources its wood. To build the barrels, American White Oak is prepared by quarter-sawing the log at the stave, where it is afterwards sent to mills. The raw wood is left in the open air to season, and once ready it is then dried. Here is when it is time for the barrel-making magic to begin. The staves are bound my metal hoops and are ready to enter the beverage maturation process. As the spirit begins to age in the barrel, oxygen moves through the wood when water or alcohol evaporates. At this time, the spirit begins to absorb the flavors and properties of the barrel. This process has seen much success for Brown-Forman, but although they use new, charred barrels for their products, it is not the case for every spirit.

“Other whiskies call for the use of used barrels,’ explains Nelson. “Many used barrels end up being repurposed for the production of Scotch and Irish whiskies among many other uses. Therefore, they could be used up to three or four more times over a span of 30 to 40 years.”

Brown-Forman celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the Louisville Cooperage Wednesday morning, February 10th, 2016. Charlie Hardin, who has been with the company for 47 years, had the honor of rolling the celebratory barrel off the assembly line.

Charlie Hardin, who has been with the company for 47 years, had the honor of rolling the celebratory barrel off the assembly line.

Used barrels are sent all over the world to create many brown spirits for brands we have come to love. Coopers at Brown-Forman are proud to be part of this rich history and tradition, even commemorating their success with a ceremonial barrel roll at the celebration of their 70th year. This is important for recognizing the significance of the barrel in the whiskey making process. I, on the other hand, am off to celebrate with my own traditional rocks glass.