I love old wives’ tales. Mythology, folklore and stories spun from ancient wisdom make me giddy with the magic of history’s possibilities. I know there are plenty of people out there who are sticklers for truth, and it certainly has its place. Namely in a court of law, on my credit card statement and behind every word my fourteen-year-old son utters. (If anyone even thinks the phrase, Good luck with that, I will personally hunt you down.)
When it comes to whisky and all things spirit-related, I do enjoy the slog through historical documents (yawn), but prefer to be sitting on a bar stool beside a gnarly-knuckled geezer who happens to have first-hand knowledge of what he’s talking about from cutting his teeth on the industry, or because his grandpappy was the guy who made it all legend.
The bee in my bonnet this week was the art of charring.
Who was the clever clod who decided some alcohols might benefit from a rub up against scorched lumber? Yum. And was it the same guy who chose to keep it there or merely luck of the draw?
Responses to these questions are abundant. Many insist their answer is the right one, the only one, and that their answer can beat up your answer. So be it. Choose one you like and stick with it. Choose three and see which one gets you the most applause for being the smartest person in the room. If none resonate, make one up. The world loves storytellers and we pay our storytellers well. We put them on Oprah and let them jump on her couch.
Here’s what I’ve sussed thus far.
1. Elija Craig, Baptist preacher from the Old Dominion and a distiller in what eventually became Kentucky, found that the overly rank taste of whisky stored in old fish barrels might not appeal to everyone. It’s been said he discovered an inexpensive method to remove the ex-inhabitants’ perfume by burning it away.
2. And then there is the story from another camp suggesting it was a giant whoopsie, as several of Reverend Craig’s barrels received an accidental charring in a barn fire. Apparently possessing a penny-pinching personality, the man refused to kick them to the curb. Filling them with spirit, the barrels were then shipped either downriver, or via horse and buggy, on a multi-month trip. The product had altered to a most preferable state, according to the patrons of Craig’s products, smoothing out some of its rougher edges and contributing vanillins and tannic acids. Requests piled up. (Editor’s note: I’m not suggesting the language of wood science was available to the Reverend’s clients, so I’ve inserted it for them.)
3. Maybe it was as simple an explanation as a cooper heating his staves to make them pliable enough to bend to his will. A little toasting might have been an unavoidable result.
4. Some believe Cognac was the pivotal piece in this puzzle. According to a number of records, brandy has been placed in toasted barrels since 1440. New Orleanians liked their brandy, and when bourbon distillers of the 1800’s put their marketing teams together for some brainstorming, it’s possible someone raised a hand to suggest the idea of coloring their new make spirit, allowing it to compete in the marketplace with the deeply-hued local favorite. Since the guys in France found their spirits had colored after aging in toasted wood, why not jump on that bandwagon? Furthermore, since the French took their time and let their product hang around in the containers for several years, why not speed up the process by burning the bejeebies out of the barrel? That’ll teach the French a thing or two about early birds and worms, right?
Or maybe the bourbon men truly were seeking a light toast, but sent a young minion with no experience to hatch a fire in each barrel, and things got out of control. Give a boy permission to light a fire and he’ll do his best to make sure it’s newsworthy. With modern technology, barrel charring is precisely controlled. A burst of natural gas, an impressive, but guarded fireball, and there you have it. Bob’s your uncle, Charlie’s your aunt.
5. There is the possibility that because many of the new American distillers were actually old Scots-Irish distillers, they longed for the flavors of home. Smoke and peat were part of that connection. Is it likely they charred the barrels to imitate that flavor profile? There are more opinions on the matter than I can shake a stick at.
6. A couple of sources threw out a scenario envisioning the quickly buried stock of one’s spirit with the intention of keeping it out of offensive hands—whether enemies of war, gluttonous lairds and landowners, or excisemen. Continuing with that thread, the burning down of one’s buildings was the occasional result of those feudal disagreements. But I have a hard time connecting the consequential charring of a barrel’s outside with the after effect of altering its content’s flavor. Then again, I ain’t no rocket surgeon. Cooperage chemistry is a complex science.
(As an aside, returning—either months or years after the coast was clear in order to reclaim your booty—and finding ambrosia is a viable explanation for how barrel aging might have been a serendipitous discovery. But that is another discussion entirely.)
7. One explanation I have to pin as anachronistic is that charring was performed to purify the barrels from disease. What I could conceive to be true would be the act of fire purification to exorcise any remaining evil spirits in the barrel before refilling it with a welcome one.
There you have it: a nighttime tale to ponder over while sipping your dram. Sweet dreams. Sweet, smoky, peaty, heathery dreams.