Whiskey is stored in barrels. The old Federal regulations say very little about what type of barrel could be used. In fact, before 1938 there were no regulations on barrels. Distillers made Bourbon and other whiskey using the barrels they had on hand or requested to be used by their customer. In the 19th century the barrel was the primary package for sales from the distillery. A customer – whiskey merchant or saloon, would purchase the whiskey from the distillery and the consumer would purchase the whiskey straight from the barrel in the store or saloon. Different customers had different needs and many purchased “half barrels” – barrels of about 24 gallon capacity. The standard full sized barrel until World War II was 48 gallons. Distilleries also utilized previous used cooperage to age their Bourbon and Rye whiskeys. This was not common since the barrel was the primary package for sales, when the distiller shipped the whiskey to the customer they were not likely to get the barrel back when empty, so they ordered more barrels from the cooperage. Cooperages would get empty barrels that were available locally and refurbish them to sell to the distilleries, but that would be a small percentage of the total number of barrels the distillery would need.
The Taft Decision of 1909 discusses the fact that whiskey is aged in wood but makes no mention of whether it is new or used. The first regulation on the barrel takes effect on March 1st, 1938 when the government required straight whiskey to be made in brand new charred barrels. This was a jobs bill written by Wilbur Mills of Arkansas because of the number of cooperages and oak forests in Arkansas but it only made official what the distillers new already and that is that the best Bourbon and Rye whiskeys are made in new charred oak barrels. There was no requirement for size and the standard size of a barrel was increased during the World War II to save wood for the war effort. There was no requirement to keep the 53 gallon size after the war ended but the distilleries saw no need to go back to the 48 gallon size. Half barrels had pretty much disappeared after Prohibition since whiskey was bottled at the distilleries so there was no customer demand for half barrels.
The 1964 Act making Bourbon a product of the United States made no mention of barrel size and neither did the 1984 deregulation of the industry under President Reagan. The industry decline shrunk the number of distilleries and the survivors were all pretty large producers. They had no wish to deal with barrel size. It was not until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that small, artisan distillers started to use small barrels again.
The new regulations proposed in Washington D.C. include a requirement for barrels to be “50+ gallons in size”. This is something new and it will hurt the small artisan distillers who lack the room for a large warehouse to store full sized barrels. Frankly, I don’t think small barrels make good whiskey. I have tasted several decent brands aged in 30 gallon barrels and I do thin Delaware Pheonix Bourbon made in 10 gallon barrels was pretty good, but most of the other small barrel products were nothing but bitter tannins in my opinion.
For small distillers, there are reasons to use small barrels. They take less space to store while aging. They are easier to handle when moving. Many people believe that they age the whiskey faster, but this is not true. It does give you more contact with the wood and the whiskey does pick up color and wood tannins. My favorite quote from Lincoln Henderson is that “You get a lot of flavors in the whiskey in the first few months in the barrel and then you spend the next four years trying to get rid of those flavors.” In other words the initial flavors need to age, oxidize and change from bitter and harsh flavors to pleasant and mellow flavors. Small barrels do not speed up this process.
I do believe that there should not be any regulation on barrel size. In the long run the marketplace will determine the size used by the distiller. As they grow, most distillers move toward full sized 53 gallon barrels. That is good. However I do think the artisan distillers should have the right to use the small barrels to make their whiskies.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller