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