Small barrels vs. large barrels: some perspective
Well, I was going to write about all the new whiskeys I’ve been tasting while I was on vacation, but I’ve been inspired to write about barrel size today instead. I’ll offer my thoughts, and then I would like to hear what you think.
On Wednesday, Buffalo Trace put out a press release announcing that the small barrel experiments they conducted were failures. From their press release:
Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years.
The results were less than stellar. Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.
Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time. Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned.
The same day, Whisky Advocate contributor Chuck Cowdery also wrote a post which he titled “Small barrels still produce lousy whisky,” where he discusses the BT experiment and even got to taste some of them while at the distillery about a year ago.
Coincidentally, also on Wednesday, New York Times published a story entitled “Rolling out smaller barrels sooner.” Have a look. (I was quoted in it.) Still, on the very same day, In With Bacchus posted about the Buffalo Trace experiment, (and Chuck’s reference to it), criticizing it.
Wow, Wednesday was quite the day for barrel size discussion, wasn’t it?
Take a few moments. Follow my links. Read everyone’s viewpoint on this. And while you’re at it, read my initial, unscientific thoughts about this topic in my post way back in June, 2011, entitled “Do smaller whiskey barrels mature whisky faster?”
Now I’ll offer my current thoughts on all of this, and then you can tell me what you think.
My feeling is that craft distillers and the larger, established bourbon distillers (like Buffalo Trace) are approaching barrel size and aging from two different perspectives. Some people are viewing the BT press release as a dig against small craft distillers, many who use small barrels in their maturation process on a regular basis. Others, in support of craft distilling, think that the experiment was ridiculous from the get go, only monitoring the whiskeys on an annual basis (stretching out to six years) when most craft distillers monitor their small barrel maturation much more frequently and often bottle their whisky within a year or two, long before the whiskey gets woody due to the large surface area to volume ratio.
What I think Buffalo Trace was attempting to say in their press release was this: aging their whiskey in smaller barrels will not produce “traditional-tasting” bourbon more quickly. That was also the gist of my comment in my original blog post back in Jume 2011, and also my quote in the New York Times piece. In this regard, you can’t cheat time. If you could, then every damn distiller throughout the world would be using smaller barrels, because the could save billions of dollars. Time is money, after all. I don’t think that BT was taking a jab at craft distillers.
Now to the craft distiller perspective. What I think craft distillers are doing is very cool and everyone here at Whisky Advocate completely embraces them. It’s nothing short of changing the way the world (not just the U.S.) will view whiskey from here on. I draw an analogy to craft brewing. American brewers took traditional brewing techniques that originated in other countries and put their own signature on it. They experimented, pushed boundaries, produced (and still are producing) some amazing beers. And they often don’t taste anything like the original beer style they used as a springboard.
That’s what I feel is happening in craft distilling right now. We are seeing craft distillers learn from traditional distilling methods and then add their own signature to it. That includes using smaller barrels, unusual grains, and improvised distilling techniques, different types of barrels, etc. You name it, I am sure someone will be trying it.
With experimentation comes success as well as failure. Smart craft distillers who have their shit together know how to age whiskey in a small barrel for a short time period and have it taste good. Sometimes really good! Does it taste like traditional bourbon? No, but American whiskey doesn’t have to taste like straight bourbon or straight rye to be good. (We will save the debate of whether they are as good as older, more traditional bourbons, for another time.)
On the flip side, I have also tasted craft distilled whiskey aged in small barrels that were failures. They were whiskeys that looked mature in color, and inherited the dry woody (tannin) notes from the barrel, but not much more. No balance, no depth of flavor.
So, reiterating my main point here. It’s all about perspective. Success (and failure) means different things to different people–and to different different distillers.