The proposed changes in regulations include a regulation on barrel size, basically making the 53 gallon barrel a requirement for Bourbon. This was pushed for by the large distilleries and probably the cooperages. Many people say it was a way to force smaller distilleries out of business, and while I have no doubt there are marketing people who would love to see that result, I doubt that is true of the manufacturing side of the business. The big distillers all realize that the worst thing that can happen now is for Bourbon to get a bad reputation because the market flooded with poor tasting Bourbon. They imagine a new drinker purchasing their first bottle from one of these small distilleries and really disliking the taste and being turned off to all Bourbon. In my opinion, this is not a problem since a new drinker of Bourbon is much more likely to purchase a bottle of one of the established brands than pay the higher price that the artisan distillers must charge to make a profit. However, that is the rationale behind the barrel regulation – to ensure quality.
Small barrels can create a good Bourbon but it is much more difficult than most people think it is. I have had some good whiskey from small barrels – Kings County and Delaware Phoenix in New York, Dad’s Hat in Pennsylvania and Yellow Rose in Texas, to name a few. However, I have had many Bourbons from small barrels that were simply over tannic and bitter and hardly drinkable. There are things about small barrels that need to be considered in order to make good Bourbon. The purpose of small barrels is to get an aged product out more quickly because there is a greater exposure of the alcohol to the wood.
First of all don’t treat the barrel the same as you would a 53 gallon barrel. Small barrels have thinner staves and generally don’t get as much toasting of the staves while being created. You need the toasted wood to get vanilla flavors in the whiskey. Ask for a little extra toasting when purchasing a small barrel. The next thing is don’t over char the barrel. You don’t want to burn away the toasted wood with the char. You should not overheat the barrel. Top floors of a warehouse are fine for 53 gallon barrels, but a 10 gallon barrel will be dominated by wood tannins and evaporation at the same level.
Next, realize that the whiskey needs to be different in a small barrel. Small barrels have greater exposure to the wood but it still takes time for chemical reactions to happen. Some of the initial wood compounds need time to break down into pleasant flavors. The barrel entry proof should be lower in small barrels. Sugars dissolve in water better than alcohol so more water dissolves the caramelized sugars in the wood quicker. Finally, monitor the whiskey very closely. Small barrels can change the whiskey in a matter of weeks. Don’t let the whiskey get over-aged and bitter.
Small barrels can make good whiskey but it takes a different process than that used in 53 gallon barrels. In the long run distilleries should be making whiskey in 53 gallon barrels for long term growth, but small barrels can be an option for short term needs.