Let's Get Crafty, Wining & Dining

Gifts Of The Charred Oak Barrel

By Timothy Long

Gifts Of The Charred Oak Barrel

In the world of alcohol, the charred oak barrel is one of mankind’s greatest inventions. It gives us many gifts. The first, and most important, gift of the charred oak barrel, bourbon. You must have new charred oak barrels to produce bourbon. This part of the production process is part of our heritage. Those barrels give bourbon its distinctive flavor. Bourbon is American, as much as Mom (or at least mine), baseball, and apple pie! But I’ll get back to that. Let’s get to the bottom of the charred oak barrel first.

No one knows who charred the first barrel. Legends and rumors abound as to its origins. It makes for fun conversation. The Elijah Craig website claims that their founder, Reverend Elijah Craig, became the first distiller to age his whiskey in newly charred oak barrels in 1789. According to the Angels Envy website, cognac distillers in France would store their spirits is charred oak barrels as far back as the 15th century. They also cite that charring barrels may be a by-product of barrel making, or coopering:

“The barrel-maker would toast the interior of a stave in order to make it more pliable and able to be bent inward. Over time, distillers might have noticed that a heavier level of char imparted better flavors in their spirit, and the process could have been a gradual evolution that spread slowly over time. It’s reasonable to assume that this practice could easily have made its way to Kentucky amongst the waves of Scotch and Irish immigrants. It’s even possible that Kentucky distillers began to char their barrels like the Cognac producers in France to appeal to the French settlers in New Orleans, where the whiskey was often shipped.”

Another reason stated for charring the insides of barrels is that distillers were not as discerning in their tastes in the old days They would reuse barrels without regard as to what had already been stored inside. Fish, pickles, or hog parts, it did not matter. They would deeply char the barrel interiors to get rid of offensive smells that may transfer to whatever spirit they were storing.

The stories go on and on. So be skeptical when someone claims to definitively know the truth. But there is one point that is always agreed upon, the invention of charring was a wonderful thing. It imparts enticing flavors into and smooths the taste of whiskey. Wherever it started, it was a gift to all of us.

So back to bourbon. Bourbon is the only spirit made in the United States whose production is regulated by the government. As stated on bourbonbuzz.com:

On 4 May 1964, the United States Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States.” The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5) state that bourbon must meet these requirements:

  • Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  • Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).”

The rules also state that “only whiskey produced within the United States may be called “bourbon”.  Not just in Kentucky, which is a common misapprehension. Although bourbon is as American as, well, Mom, apple pie, and baseball, it’s rarely mentioned in conjunction with those three. And it should be. But that doesn’t really matter. We know how special it is. It is the first gift of the charred oak barrel.

And the second gift of the charred oak barrel? Bourbon Barrel Aged Beer! Beer that has been aged for a period in a discarded bourbon barrel. What a wonderful invention this is! This process of barrel aging beer has been used in Belgium for decades, mainly for Lambic beers. But the process became popular here rather recently, in the mid mid-1990s. According to beervanablog.com:

The story began, unexpectedly, at a beer, bourbon and cigar dinner at LaSalle Grill in South Bend, Indiana. The still-small Goose Island brewpub, one of the co-hosts, came with growlers of beer (the brewers weren’t bottling yet). “And then representing bourbon,” Goose Island’s Greg Hall recalls, “was Booker Noe himself, the master distiller from Jim Beam.” Noe was Jim Beam’s grandson and a legend in the business. According to accounts from both Hall and Seth Gross, another Goose Island brewer who was in attendance, Noe was incredibly engaging and charming. Gross (now with Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham, North Carolina) remembers one story in particular, when, after emptying a barrel, “they would fill it with a couple gallons of spring water and roll it around in the yard, drain that, and put it in a tall iced-tea glass with a bunch of ice. They drank it like iced tea at the end of the day.” By the end of evening, the first seed of the idea of aging a beer in one of Noe’s barrels had been planted.

And so, the idea began, and grew rapidly. Greg Hall went on to create Bourbon County Brand Stout. Most beers aged in bourbon barrels are stouts. The process takes away the roughness that stout can have and makes the beer smooth. The bourbon and oak flavors also blend very well with stout. Bourbon barrel aged ales have become popular recently as well and are quite delicious.

My first recommendation is the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. An Irish Red Ale, bourbon barrel aged for six weeks and with hints of vanilla and oak. You also need to try that Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. A rich Imperial Stout with flavors of chocolate, oak, vanilla, whiskey, caramel, and almond. Both will cut through the winter cold in a heartbeat. Be mindful of the ABV of each one of these. The Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is 8.2% ABV, and the Bourbon County Stout is 15.6%. It can pack a wallop!

So, what whiskey should you be drinking during this cold month of January? Woodford Reserve. This wonderful and affordable bourbon is my go-to. It is comprised of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malt, and it matures for six years. The nose is creamy with notes of honey and spice. Woodford is thick and full on the palate with notes of espresso beans, winter spices, and vanilla. The finish brings cereal to mind.

The cigar to pair your Woodford Reserve with is the Romeo y Julieta 1875. This cigar is a great everyday cigar, a real “walking the dog” smoke. It maintains a consistent 92 rating. The review from Cigars International describes it perfectly as having “strong, toasty flavors (that) smack of wood and leather. There’s a sweetness to the long finish.” This cigar is another go-to of mine.

I find January to be a bleak month. It’s often dull and dreary. But nothing cuts through the dreariness like a good beer, bourbon, or cigar. They’ll all put a smile on your face. Enjoy.

Publishers Note: To take in the whisky experience and the aging process in used bourbon barrels visit our long time advertiser Copper Fox Distilleries. They have two locations – one in Williamsburg and the other in Sperryville, Virginia. Most all of their whisky’s are aged in used bourbon barrels and they make their own Dawson Reserve Bourbon Whisky which is available only at the distilleries. Check them out for a truly unique experience or ask for their products at your favorite ABC or liquor store.

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