Last November, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau, better known as the TTB, released Notice No. 176, a 132-page set of proposed regulations. Like many government documents, it’s as good a sleep aid as a handful of Ambien. One small section, however, buried deep within the proposal, has woken up the bourbon community, particularly small distilleries that stand to be affected by it.
There’s already a set of rules in place about what type of whiskey can be labeled as bourbon. It has to be distilled from a mashbill of at least 51% corn, it must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, it has to be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV, and it has to be produced in the United States, to name a few. (Read up on the complete set of requirements for bourbon and other American whiskeys with our Instant Expert primer).
Chief among the requirements for bourbon (as well as rye, malt, and wheat whiskey) is that it be aged in new charred oak containers—in other words, barrels. This is where the TTB comes in. Notice No. 176 reads, “TTB and its predecessor agencies have traditionally considered a ‘new oak container,’ as used in the current regulations, to refer to a standard whiskey barrel of approximately 50 gallons capacity. Accordingly, TTB proposes to define an oak barrel as a ‘cylindrical oak drum of approximately 50 gallons capacity used to age bulk spirits.’” However, the agency hedges its bets a bit, adding that it “seeks comment on whether smaller barrels or non-cylindrical shaped barrels should be acceptable for storing distilled spirits where the standard of identity requires storage in oak barrels.”
Two Sides to the Argument
Since World War II—when standard barrel size was upped from 48 gallons to save wood, which was scarce at the time—53 gallons has been the barrel size that big distillers have used to age bourbon. The American craft distilling boom of recent years, however, has brought about changes in almost every aspect of whiskey making, including barrel size. Often the motivation to use to smaller barrels (many as small as 5 gallons) was practical. “It took us three years before we had the production scale to fill a 53-gallon barrel,” says Colin Spoelman, head distiller at New York’s Kings County Distillery. He adds that using small barrels “gives a fuller, richer flavor to a whiskey in the 1-3 year mark, which is [usually] what first comes to market.”
Yet there’s a persuasive argument to be made for the proposed regulations. Regardless of whether 53-gallon barrels are the Platonic ideal for aging bourbon, the stuff that’s aged in standard-sized barrels has become, well, standard. Bourbon as it’s produced in Kentucky by major distillers like Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace is what most bourbon fans think of when they hear the word. A longtime Knob Creek drinker who tries a craft bourbon aged in smaller barrels may find that the whiskey bears little resemblance to what she expected to taste. “Allowing craft distilleries to produce a product called bourbon that really doesn’t taste anything like what we know as bourbon over the past decades upon decades—it really gives the craft distillers a disadvantage,” says Joshua Hatton, regional sales executive for ImpEx Beverages and co-founder of independent bottler Single Cask Nation. “Off the bat, they’re compared to the big boys when they really shouldn’t be.”
The big brands use 53-gallon barrels almost exclusively, so one might think they’d be cheering on the proposed regulations—but they’ve been conspicuously silent on the issue. Whisky Advocate reached out to Beam Suntory, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Diageo, Four Roses, Michter’s, and Brown-Forman, and all declined to comment for this article. One of the few pertinent opinions on this topic comes from Buffalo Trace and was made back in 2012; the distillery had been experimenting with aging whiskeys for six years in 5-, 10-, and 15-gallon barrels. A press release at the time called the results “less than stellar… resulting in no depth of flavor.” The whiskeys were never released to the public.
How Proposal No. 176 Would Affect Distillers
Based on the comments recorded at the TTB site, the sentiment toward the proposal is mostly negative. And it’s no surprise that a lot of that sentiment comes from the craft distilling community, which would be directly—and often adversely—affected. For example, Manifest Distilling in Jacksonville, Florida uses both 30- and 53-gallon barrels to age its whiskey (most of which is rye); it’s experimenting to see what flavors the different sizes yield. “There was no historical data on aging whiskey in Florida prior to five years ago,” explains head distiller David Cohen. “Florida is hot and humid, which isn’t unique over other climates, but the duration that we experience that kind of weather is. So we wanted the ability to age in both size casks while we determine what the best combination of barrel size and age is.”
Not every craft distiller using alternative barrel sizes is going small, either; some distilleries scale up. Republic Restoratives in Washington D.C. is aging its bourbon in 132-gallon puncheons. Meanwhile, Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas uses 59-gallon barrels almost exclusively owing to the extreme heat of its location. Master distiller Jared Himstedt says, “We have chosen larger formats as a way to slow down the wood extraction to help have a more balanced maturation for esterification, oxidation, etc.”
Holes in the Proposed Rule
The TTB proposal as it’s worded also raises a lot of unanswered questions. Who will decide what the threshold of “about 50 gallons” is, and how? If the goal is to make bourbon that tastes like bourbon, why are variations like those that use barrel finishing (Angel’s Envy, for example, finishes its bourbon in port pipes) not addressed?
To spend too much energy and time on something like barrel size seems a waste of time, or at least misplaced priorities. – Jared Himstedt, Balcones Distilling
The questions may be moot if distillers find creative ways to work around the rules, a scenario envisioned by Justin Lavenue, who owns the Roosevelt Room cocktail bar in Austin, Texas. “What if you just place the smaller barrel that contains the aging whiskey inside of a larger barrel? This is definitely one of the weirder scenarios that popped into my head when reading up on the subject,” he speculates. “Couldn’t a distillery just put their new make in a barrel of the required size for five minutes, then transfer it to smaller or larger barrels right afterward? There are holes [in this proposal]—lots of holes.”
Something else to consider is whether the drinkers who buy bourbon from craft distilleries expect or even want it to taste like mainstream brands. Small distillers say no—but the proposed regulations would prevent them from being able to carve out their own flavor niche.
A possible compromise would be to require full disclosure on the label concerning the barrel size, perhaps even creating a new category of “small-barrel bourbon” in the process. “More transparency is a good thing, so long as it’s done in such a way that it’s simplified to the consumer, easy to read,” says Hatton. However, he sees such a compromise coming back to haunt distilleries who use different sized barrels by “giving larger producers ammunition for a marketing campaign to promote their bourbon as a superior product.” You don’t need to look into a crystal ball to see major brands advertising “bigger barrels for bigger flavor.”
Given the near-unanimity of negative sentiment from smaller, independent distillers and the muted response from the bigger brands, the best outcome at this point may be for the TTB to go back to the drawing board, figure out what it really wants to accomplish, and, if it’s deemed worthwhile, put forward a more fleshed-out proposal. As Himstedt puts it, “There are so many gaping holes that need to be filled with the proposed regulation…that to spend too much energy and time on something like barrel size seems a waste of time, or at least misplaced priorities.”