The Filson Historical Society has the Taylor-Hay Family Papers. This collection includes the papers of Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. that includes the letter books from the O.F.C. Distillery. These books are the 19th century equivalent of photocopies of his correspondence with customers and other business correspondence from the distillery. These copies were made by dampening the original letter that he wrote and pressing it between the onion skin pages of the book to cause a copy to bleed onto the page. One of the letters in one of these volumes includes a letter to a customer who purchased a barrel of whiskey from the distillery for personal use. In those days, it was common for people to purchase a barrel for their home.
In the 1870s, when this letter was written, distilleries sold their whiskey by the barrel. Most commonly, these barrels were sold to distributors of whiskey such as whiskey merchants or saloons. Customers would bring their own bottle or jug to these merchants or saloons and purchase their whiskey from these barrels. The whiskey was entered into the barrel at 103 proof as that was considered a drinkable proof. Bottles were expensive, costing a lot more than the whiskey itself and some customers would purchase a whole barrel of whiskey to save the expense of the middleman.
One such customer asked Taylor how he should store the whiskey for best results as it aged. Taylor’s reply was very interesting and I thought I would share it.
To start with, Taylor suggested that the barrel should be stored in the attic of his house. The additional heat in the summer would be good for the whiskey. Once in the attic, Taylor suggested that once a week, the customer should go to the attic and maintain the barrel by checking for leaks. The first week he should roll the barrel several times to make sure the staves remained damp and not dry out. The dry wood could cause leaks. Then he should pop the bung and leave it out for a week and then the next week, replace the bung and roll the barrel. The bung should be left in the barrel until the next week, when the customer would once again remove the bung for a week. This process would be repeated for the life of the barrel. Taylor believed that this would cause the whiskey to get better as it aged.
Taylor does not say why the bung should be removed in this manner, but it would increase the air in the barrel, and the resulting effect would speed the oxidation process of the whiskey. Oxidation is an important part of the maturation process. As the whiskey oxidizes, compounds in the whiskey break down, creating new flavors. The rolling of the barrel would also increase the contact with the wood in a manner similar to rotating the barrel in the warehouse. I am not sure how much change would take place and I always wanted to experiment with some barrels to see what actually does happen to whiskey treated in this manner.
My experiment would be to take two barrels of two year old whiskey with a similar taste profile to start with and place them in an attic area of a building. With one barrel, I would do nothing other than to let it sit and pull a quart of whiskey from it each week, replacing the bung after thieving the whiskey from the barrel. The second barrel would be treated as Taylor describes and also pull a quart of whiskey from the barrel each week. I would then compare the taste of each quart to see if there was noticeable difference.
This would be a fun experiment and it would give evidence as to what Taylor was trying to do with the whiskey. This would be a chance to re-discover old wisdom.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller
March 8, 2021 at 9:52 am
Hmm, so you’re thinking of consuming two quarts of barrel-proof whiskey a week, as part of this experiment, in addition to whatever other bourbon you’re drinking, for however many months/years it takes to reach a reasonable conclusion (or kill you; remember this is two-year-old whiskey after all). I hope Rosemary’s gonna be driving. I also think good ol’ Colonel Eddie had a great idea for promoting product use. Even in those days of barely-imaginable spirit consumption it seems unlikely anyone would have enough tolerance to be looking for anything further to drink. Whew! 🥴
March 8, 2021 at 5:11 pm
John, You are obviously being sarcastic. However for those who take your words seriously, out of the quarts pulled each month, about a half of a pint would be used for chemical analysis. Depending upon how many tasters were on the panel – I would choose 4, another half pint would be tasted. The remainder would be archived for future comparisons.
March 8, 2021 at 5:30 pm
Upon further thought, a quart may not be enough. The amount pulled will have to represent the amount of whiskey the owner of the Taylor barrel would have been using so the fill level of the barrel would be comparable. If you purchased a barrel of whiskey in 1870, just how much whiskey would you pull from it each month? That is the question and I think it might be closer to a gallon a month. If your need is so great that you need to purchase a 48 gallon barrel for personal use, then I suspect you are supplying whiskey for farm workers or some other larger group of people.
March 8, 2021 at 1:10 pm
You state “oxidation is an important part of the maturation process” but how is this done in modern distilleries? I have not heard of them removing the bungs for any period of time to allow air to enter the cask on a regular basis.
March 8, 2021 at 2:04 pm
I would think that there is oxygen entering a barrel the entire time it is in the rickhouse. Over many years.
March 8, 2021 at 5:07 pm
You are correct in that there is oxygen entering the barrel over the years. Removing the bung every other week would just increase the amount of oxygen.
March 8, 2021 at 5:08 pm
Modern distilleries do not do this. That is why I would like to see an experiment to see exactly what the results would be from Taylor’s method.
October 11, 2022 at 1:19 pm
I’ve actually been pondering the question of the composition of the gasses/vapors in the ullage space of a barrel for a while now and how this affects aging as well as proof. I’m thinking at any given time it’s a blend of water and ethanol vapors (from the whiskey), along with nitrogen and oxygen (atmospheric gases). The proportions of these probably change over time, i.e. through the seasons as the temps in the warehouse rise and fall. I assume at least one of the big distilleries has measured all of this…or if not, perhaps they should?