Skip to main content

The Art of Selecting the Perfect Bourbon Barrel

Since people first started making bourbon, arguably the easiest part of the whole production process has been selecting the type of barrel used for aging the whiskey. 

As decreed by the United States Congress in 1954, bourbon must be aged in a new, charred American oak container. Most distillers opt for the standard 53-gallon American white oak barrel, add their spirit to it and, after a few years, bottle the whiskey. 

However, as Jefferson's Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller discovered not long after launching the brand with his father in 1997, sticking only to this traditional aging method doesn't allow for much innovation or excitement. His hope was to make whiskey that truly pushed the conventional boundaries of bourbon.

Around the time Zoeller began developing his globetrotting lead innovation bourbon Jefferson's Ocean, he also became increasingly interested in how he could finish his whiskey in other types of barrels. This led him to visit the Independent Stave Company (ISC) in Lebanon, Missouri.

"I saw what they had learned over the last 100 years of being in business and the technologies that they were incorporating," remembers Zoeller. He was particularly interested in the possibility of going beyond the standard options for charring the inside of a bourbon barrel. After the experience, "I thought, 'Why are we so rudimentary in bourbon that we're only using four levels of char?'"

That visit, and the many more to come, set Zoeller on a path to understanding how the type of wood and the different kinds of barrel treatments, from toasting and charring to texturizing, could be used to alter the flavor of bourbon. One of his favorite successes from these experiments was the Jefferson's Reserve Twin Oak, a 10-year-old bourbon finished in barrels he developed alongside ISC coopers.

"These barrels, I extra seasoned outside in the cooperage yard for about 18 months, then we grooved them out so the inside of it looks like a ridged potato chip," says Zoeller. "That gives you twice as much surface area to touch the liquid. We put a flash char on it to kind of open it up. Then we toasted at a certain time and temperature, which brings out mocha flavors."

Following a visit to a winery in Missouri, the whiskey maker decided to push this idea even further. He wondered how the different wood treatments used by wineries would affect the bourbon. So he decided to test this out by finishing four-year-old bourbon in 13 different types of barrels for 32 months. He released the five best of these trials as a collection of mini-bottles called the Wood Experiments. 

"I always say I'd never want to develop a product out of the boardroom," says Zoeller. "I've been lucky enough to collaborate with a lot of people."

When it comes to finishing his whiskies in used barrels, rather than using the relatively common sherry or Port casks, he's found success collaborating with winemakers and distillers who make products he enjoys drinking.

"It's flavors that I want to put together, that I like, that I think would come together—not what's available or what's been done traditionally," says Zoeller. "I'm tasting what's in there beforehand and then going to the wineries or to the distilleries and speaking to them and telling them, 'Hey, I'd love to work together on this with you, would you all like to partner with us?'" 

To that end, Zoeller has partnered with a handful of wineries working with big, bold Cabernets to showcase how their unique flavors can influence bourbon. That includes Napa Valley winery Pritchard Hill, as well as French wineries Château Pichon Baron and Château Suduiraut. 

"Even though it's the same Cabernet grape, the earthiness that comes out of those Bordeaux Cabs versus the Napa Cabs is tremendously different," he says. "We're picking in this case wines that have very distinct flavors that come through in the bourbon."

He's also collaborated with Malcolm Gosling, Jr. of Gosling's Rum to create Jefferson's Reserve Old Rum Cask Finish—but the process of discovering that partnership's potential was a bit more unusual. One evening, while having a glass of rum with Gosling, he had an idea.

"I'm a bourbon guy and after one rum drink it's too much," says Zoeller. "So I poured a glass half full of his Family Reserve Old Rum and half of Jefferson Reserve and together I thought the flavors were out of this world. So, I ended up finishing some bourbon in those old rum casks, and I thought that's absolutely delicious." 

Of course, not all of his barrel experiments turn out so well. Though Zoeller loves spicy foods, an experiment finishing bourbon in a used hot sauce barrel didn't work out. "It would have blown your head off because the seeds were stuck in the staves."

But Zoeller says that's the fun—you never know exactly what combination of factors is going to produce the next exceptional bourbon or how long it will take to get there.

"It's an evolution," says Zoeller. "The exciting part of maturation for me is you don't know exactly what it's going to taste like. Some of the experiments that you don't think are going to be the winners come out as the shining stars."

Please sip responsibly

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

History of Art Timeline

The historical past of art is usually told as a chronology of masterpieces created during each civilization. It can thus be framed as a narrative of high culture, epitomized by the Wonders of the World. On any other hand, vernacular art expressions can even be integrated into art historic narratives, called folk arts or craft. The more intently that an art historian engages with these latter sorts of low culture, the much more likely it is that they will determine their work as analyzing visual culture or cloth culture, or as contributing to fields associated with art historical past, akin to anthropology or archaeology. In the latter cases, art gadgets may be called archeological artifacts. Surviving art from this era comprises small carvings in stone or bone and cave painting. The first traces of human-made gadgets appeared in southern Africa, the Western Mediterranean, Central and Eastern Europe Adriatic Sea, Siberia Baikal Lake, India, and Australia. These first traces are general…

How to Show Art Work when the Gallery Says No Thanks

There are places in the town where you live where you can show your artwork when the big gallery you solicited said, "No, thanks."
Other artists may need to find venues other than galleries to show their artworks as well. Visual artists living in art-rich communities where there is a lot of local competition will need to get creative about display opportunities.

Or on the other hand, in towns without large art venues, it is important for artists to find smaller and less obvious places to show your art.

How to Show Art Work When The Gallery Says No Thanks

1. Show Where You Go

The most successful approach to finding a place in your town to display your artwork is to solicit a place that you go to frequently. Make a list of all the places you go to each day, each week, and each month.

Make a special trip, or the next time you visit note if the establishment currently exhibits any artwork, if it is local, and if it is for sale.

Also note if they have available wall space where a…

Book review (nonfiction): Form or function? In the history of poster art, the two sides are constantly at war

“Who takes the eye takes all,” said Mary Lowndes of the Artists’ Suffrage League in the early 1900s, neatly summarizing the need for striking graphics on the banners that suffragists were making for their marches. Lowndes’ statement could serve as the motto for all those who attempt to persuade by visual means, be they propagandists for political parties or advertisers selling soap. “The Poster,” edited by Gill Saunders and Margaret Timmers of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is a beautiful and entertaining account of the history of the medium, illustrated with examples drawn from the museum’s extensive collection.While handbill-sized fliers affixed to surfaces had long been in existence, it was the development of the large-scale color lithographic technique, with images composed of several pieces that could be pasted together into one picture, that made possible the explosion of graphic media campaigns in the 19th century. The first-rate artists who turned th…