When you look at Sanborn Insurance Maps from the pre-Prohibition era, you often see a distillery warehouses labeled as “Patent Warehouse”. These are warehouses with barrel racks. In 1879, Frederick Stitzel patented the system of barrel racks we see in warehouses today. Before this improvement, distillery warehouses were places where barrels were rolled into lines on the floor, a pair of wooden rails were placed on top of the line of barrels and more barrels were rolled on top of the line of barrels. This was repeated until the line of barrels was three or four barrels high. This system was not efficient and Stitzel wanted to improve it at the Glencoe Distillery.
There were multiple problems with the old system. First, there was a problem with accessing the barrels. When you wanted a barrel on the bottom, you would have to deconstruct the whole line to get to barrels in the middle of the stack. Next, the pressure of the weight of barrels increased the chances of barrels on the lower levels leaking. Finally, there was not very good air circulation and in Kentucky’s hot and humid summers, this often led to musty whiskey in the barrels.
Stitzel’s barrel storage patent application states that improvement of air circulation around the barrels is a major improvement in his system. Access to barrels is another major improvement. Now, the warehouseman need only move the barrels in a single rack to get to a barrel in the middle of the rack. Since the racks were designed so that no barrels were stacked on top of the barrels, leaking barrels were less of a problem. The racks also allowed the warehouseman to move between the racks and find leaking barrels.
The system is quite simple in that there are three racks per floor of the warehouse. However, the racks are independent of the warehouse structure and could extend up as many floors as the warehouse was built. Because they are independent of the structure, it was important to make sure they did not shift with the weight of the barrels and each warehouse has a couple of plumb bobs to make sure the racks were filled in a way were they would not shift. A shifting rack could collapse and bring down the warehouse.
Since the racks were independent of the structure, if a storm damaged the warehouse walls, the racks were not affected. There is a photograph at the Filson Historical Society from a tornado that went through downtown Louisville in the 1890s. In the photograph, there is a whiskey warehouse with the brick wall collapsed in the street yet, the barrels racks were still standing and filled with barrels.
In the 21st century, many distilleries are still building patent warehouses. There has been some technological improvements made. Modern electronic sensors can better control the balance of the racks when loading them with barrels. Iron rails can be purchased instead of the traditional wooden rails. However, the basic structure has not changed. The racks still provide good air circulation and ease of access, which are still important. They are expensive to build, but many distilleries would not use anything else.
There are distilleries who are building warehouses designed to use forklifts and barrels on pallets instead of barrel racks. These warehouses are cheaper to build, but the whiskey stored in those warehouses suffer with the drawbacks of the pre-patent warehouses. There is poor air circulation between the barrels and the weight of the palletized barrels can cause more leakage on the bottom of the stack. Patent warehouses are still a good idea and they will not disappearanytime soon.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and The Filson Historical Society