Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Small Barrel Failures

Barrels Aging in the Buffalo Trace Warehouse
Courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery
A little interesting news coming out of Frankfurt, Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Distillery has been experimenting with making "small barrel" bourbon, and they've now declared those experiments to be, well, a failure.

An ordinary bourbon barrel (in which, by law, corn whiskey must age at least two years before being able to be called straight bourbon whiskey) is 53 gallons in capacity. Starting in 2006, Buffalo Trace took smaller barrels of 5, 10, and 15 gallons and filled them with the same mash bill and aged them side-by-side to see what would happen.

What happens, it appears, is something akin to cooking a burger on too hot of a grill or a pork roast in too hot an oven. In whiskey aging, its the barrel itself providing the "heat", the charred wood filtering out the congeners from the distillate and imparting a dark color and smoky, mellow flavor to the whiskey. "As expected," Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley noted in the press release announcing the results, "the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged faster than the 15 gallon version." But faster isn't necessarily better. "It's as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained the depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons."

The distillers sampled the progress of the experiment each year, and finally this year threw in the towel, deciding the small barrel versions just weren't going to get any better.

It must be to their chagrin, for if distillers were able to use smaller barrels to speed the aging process but still keep the quality then they would be in a better position to react to changes in the market--like the recent resurgence in rye popularity that has left distillers and wholesalers with a shortage of stock.  When your product has to sit in a warehouse for four or more years before being ready to sell, there's not much you can do to ramp production quickly to meet the rising demand.

For now, it seems the 53-gallon barrel--and lots of time--remain the formula for success.

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