Monday, April 30, 2012

Rant: Can You "Buy Time" With Small Barrels?

There is a surge in micro-distilleries, small, artisan producers of a variety of spirits, from vodka to rum, whiskey to gin. For example, in Massachusetts, you can find micro-distilleries such as Privateer Rum, Turkey Shore Distilleries, Ryan & Wood Distilleries, and Bully Boy Distillers. You can find micro-distilleries though all across the country, and many more are likely to pop up over the next few years. That is certainly a very positive movement.

One controversial practice of some of these micro-distilleries is the use of small oak barrels for maturation. As with wine, barrel aging can be very important for certain spirits, especially whiskey and rums, though the size of the barrels can vary widely. Small barrels are generally considered to range from 5-15 gallons. The intent behind the use of these smaller barrels is to mature the spirit quicker, in a number of months rather than years. The idea is that smaller barrels allow more wood to be in contact with the spirit, which is supposed to result in increased extraction. But is it truly effective?

Buffalo Trace Distillery, a well respected bourbon distillery in Kentucky (which I shall be visiting later this week), conducted a five year long experiment, trying to ascertain the efficacy of small barrels in aging whiskey. Upon completion, they brought in Charles K. Cowdery, the editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, to view and taste the results of their experiments. Cowdery then published an article on the experiments in the December 2011 issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, and the article, with supplemental material is now available as an ebook, Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey. That title is fairly self-explanatory, as well as quite provocative, and indicative of Cowdery's view on the experiment results.

Subtitled "Buffalo Trace Distillery Tested The Effectiveness Of 5, 10, and 15 Gallon Barrels for Aging Bourbon Whiskey," the article provided some details on the experiment, and Cowdery's thoughts on the taste of the whiskey that was aged for five years in each of the three small barrel sizes.In short, Cowdery felt that the whiskey aged in the 5 and 10 gallon barrels was undrinkable and that the 15 gallon barrel was only barely palatable. All of the whiskeys evidenced the unpleasant taste of raw wood. This would seem to indicate that small barrels are ineffectual for the usual periods of barrel maturation.

The standard size of a whiskey barrel is 53 gallons, and American whiskey commonly ages for 4-8 years, if not longer. Interestingly, most micro-distilleries age their spirits for less than two years, and usually a matter of months, in these small barrels. Though they might get good extraction in the short term, if these distillers continued to age their spirits for a longer period in these small barrels, that could end up ruining their products. There is little other research of extended maturation in small barrels so the Buffalo Trace experiment is important, though there also does not appear to be any significant group contesting those results either.

It is also crucial to understand that extraction is only one element of barrel maturation. You must also consider the effects of evaporation, oxidation and chemical changes. All play a significant role yet seem to be largely ignored when discussing small barrels, where extraction takes on a dominant role in any conversations. Such matters should be examined more to determine what impact they play on the production of small barrel spirits.

We then enter a more controversial area, some of Cowdery's more personal comments on small barrel whiskey. He acknowledges that some whiskeys matured for a short period in small barrels may taste good, but he feels they do not taste like properly aged bourbon or whiskey. To him, they become a different type of entity, and he feels they probably should form their own category.

These comments garnered plenty of disagreement from others in the industry as well as bourbon consumers, and numerous people responded to Cowdery on whiskey forums. To these people, small batch bourbon is still bourbon, even if it has a different taste profile. They feel that as long as it conforms to the legal definition of bourbon, then it should be considered bourbon. They do not feel there is any singular bourbon flavor profile so Cowdery's comments are way off base. There is no disagreeing that some small batch bourbons sell very well and have a significant following. So who is correct?

Though the Buffalo Trace experiment deal only with whiskey, the ideas translate easily to small barrel maturation of other spirits too. Andrew Cabot of Privateer Rum, which uses large barrels for maturing their rum, stated to me, "You can't buy time." He does not believe small barrels produce the type of rum he prefers, and he stated that his thoughts were mirrored by some experts in the rum industry. Yet other micro-distilleries, such as Turkey Shore Distilleries, produce rum from small barrels and it is well received by consumers. I enjoyed the Turkey Shore Tavern Style Rum, aged in 15 gallon barrels for about six months.

In the end, it probably is a matter of preference more than anything else. It is unlikely that the laws will change any time soon to differentiate small barrel matured spirits, and it doesn't seem likely that the industry will adopt any terminology to differentiate their products. Consumers will make their own choices as to which spirits they wish to drink. But it would be interesting to see more studies done on the effects of small barrel maturation, and more than just on extraction.

What are your thoughts on small barrel maturation for spirits?


Jason Phelps said...


I'd be curious as to what you would attribute the small barrel approach to. I think the information provided is a solid opener, but without considering why a distillery might make this choice (and others like it) it is too easy for readers and consumers to agree that choice of style is all that is in play here.


Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jason:
It appears largely a matter of saving time, of saving years of aging time so they can get their products into the market quicker. A new micro-distillery often can't wait ten years to age and release their product.

Turkey Shore Distilleries said...

Hey Richard,
Great piece here and I think you have identified the core argument when it comes to small barrels. Our use of 15 gallon barrels is largely limited to the desire for extraction (only one component of the aging process). It does have time to oxidize but I agree that you can't speed up the aging process in its entirety. Too many micro distillers have made false claims that small barrels do just that.I find that misleading and counter productive (at least from my experience). However, I think you got it right when you described Chuck Cowdery's stance that there is a defined taste for bourbon or other spirits that sets the standard. That standard should be set by each individual's taste. Critics are more than welcome to compare them but should not make the mistake of believing there is a a one size fits all standard. From our perspective, aging in small barrels works for what we do and want. It may not work for the next person who is looking to create something different. Having said that,I don't expect that we will stay with 15 gallons barrels forever. In truth, they are quite expensive and inefficient for an established distillery to use. Such is life! Thanks for elevating the discussion.