Whisky Advocate

Small barrels vs. large barrels: some perspective

August 24th, 2012

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.

No Responses to “Small barrels vs. large barrels: some perspective”

  1. Vince says:

    John,
    I agree with most of what you said. I will say that I have tasted ALOT of craft distillations from small barrels and I can count on one hand (not even using all my fingers) the ones I thought were quality whiskey’s (regardless if they were called or tasted like tradional bourbon as we no it).
    I also agree that the small distillers have to get something to market quickly, so small barrels make sense initially.
    My biggest problem (and the one that you did not address here) is the cost of the bottles of whiskey that small, craft distllers are charging. I get all of the economics and scale considerations. My point is simply that I believe they are putting out an inferior product (for the most part) yet charging the consumer twice as much as what I could buy a quality bourbon for.
    I do see some surviving but, unlike the craft beer movement, I see many of these small distillers going out of business. People will purchase a “novelty” once but they are going to struggle to get repeat business.

    • John Hansell says:

      Vince, during the first craft brewery boon, a lot of them did go out of business. And for good reason: their beer sucked. This was expecially true for some of the brewpubs.

    • Chris says:

      Vince,
      Craft distillers (for the most part) have to charge that much. You say you understand the economics, but yet you also point out that the big, established distilleries charge much less. Of course they do, but that’s not the point of a craft distillery. The economics will always favor the big boys, who will always be able to sell a given product for less.

      • Tadas A. says:

        Economies of scale also from a consumer perspective: it is no pain to pay couple bucks for a bottle to try out a craft beer, but to splash out $40 for a bottle of whiskey for a try is different.

  2. Most of the “craft” distillers I have talked to while visiting USA acknowledges that small barrels just wont give as good whiskey as traditional barrels sizes. They are doing it to get some turnaround, as well as producing other spirits like gin, vodka or rumskey.

    Personally I think that small barreled whiskey isn’t necesarily bad, it just isn’t as good as whiskey produced from normal casks.

    This is my experience both from american and scottish whisky. Only occasional I find small barreled whisky I think is worthy

    Steffen

  3. Mike Ryan says:

    I also agree with you John, for the most part. I feel that we are seeing the nascence of a new whiskey category here, and although a lot of people spend a lot of time decrying the resulting quick-matured spirits as inferior and juvenile it’s because they are accustomed to fully-aged traditional bourbons and other whiskeys. This is simply a new style that is propagating throughout the craft community. Yes, it’s faster to stick your juice in a small barrel and turn it around in under a year, and as a new distillery you need that faster ROI. The big boys have the advantage of infrastructure and having all that lovely machinery, manpower, land, buildings, etc already built and paid for. They already know what they’re making and how best to do it. A couple hundred years ago however it’s not hard to imagine farmers distilling their excess grain, rolling the spirit it into whatever barrel they have lying around, and aging it the exact amount of time needed to physically move it to market. Today we have the luxury of time, and the spirit itself is the business, not the benefit.

    For the most part I personally prefer traditionally fully-aged bourbons and ryes, sticking for the most part to that 8-12 year, 95-107 proof sweet spot. But I have tasted numerous small-barrel whiskeys that I quite like, and younger drinkers (in my experience as a bartender) seem more open and intrigued by small-barrel, craft distilled whiskeys. Since experience colors everything, if we had been exposed to small-barrel, short-aged whiskeys at a younger age, this discussion would be moot, and simply be relegated to threads on various whiskey fora, as people endlessly debated the merits of bourbon, scotch, Tennessee, or small-barrel whiskey. Since there’s no regulation or differentiation in labeling many folks just lump something like Hudson or FEW or McKenzie in with classics like Old Heaven Hill or Jim Beam or Wild Turkey.

    I’d love to see some sort of labeling regulation put in place, not necessarily forcing an age statement or something that could be used to vilify a small-barrel producer, but just something to let people know that this whiskey was produced in a certain way, and thus may appeal to people who have appreciated things like it in the past. Just saying something is “bourbon” doesn’t tell the whole story. (Maybe extend the definition of “straight” rye and bourbon to include the barrel size, I don’t know.)

    Anyway, thanks for another thoughtful post John, and cheers!

  4. Dave Pickerell says:

    I am personally surprised and disappointed at the Buffalo Trace article on small barrel aging. It is a patently disingenuous or rediculously naive idea to leave whiskey in a 5,10, or 15 gallon barrel for 6 years , compare it to large format barrel aging, and then declare small format barrel aging a total failure. It seems so obviously a strawman proposal aimed at discrediting small barrel maturation, that I even debated whether to respond or not.

    After applying the due diligence of studying hundreds of barrels of varying sizes and formats in a small barrel maturation study at distilleries all across the US from a chemistry and chemical engineering standpoint, and using a filter of years of experience in the industry, I believe that there is CLEARLY a place for small format barrel maturation in the spirits industry. (Unlike the BT study that apparently only looked at 3 barrels and never contemplated removing the spirit at its peak … it is possible to overage a large format barrel aged spirit, too)

    All that being said, there ARE limitations to small barrel maturation that need to be addressed. Clearly, the extraction rate of the wood chemicals into the liquid solution happens at a substantially accelerated rate, based on the surface area to volume ratio of the barrel. This is both a strength and a weakness. Since the depth of character of a barrel aged spirit is mostly a function of the complex series of chemical reactions that happens post-extraction, there is an inherant problem. These reactions are driven principally by time. As such, it is unlikely that the complexity and depth of character normally associated with traditionally barrel aged spirits can be developed inside small format barrels. This is due to the fact that extraction does not stop; and allowing the spirit to sit in the wood until the depth of character develops will also result in extracting far too many wood tannins, resulting in a characteristically one dimensional woody product.

    There is a reasonable solution to this challenge. Principally, the products of these complex reactions are chemicals that produce floral and fruity notes (like esters). If it is accepted that spirits cannot be aged in a small barrel long enough to achieve acceptable levels of these compounds, finding other ways to develop these flavors and smells makes a lot of sense. It seems entirely reasonable to leave the spirit in the wood until the desired levels of the wood extracts are reached (caramel, vanilla, oak, smoke, coconut, etc.), and then remove it from the wood before unacceptably high levels of unwanted elements (like bitter tannins) are extracted. Then, finish the product by other means to achieve a reasonably complex product. There are literally dozens of potential approaches in finishing a small barrel aged spirit. These finishes include re-entering the spirit into a barrel previously used for ageing fortified wine or adding various kinds of toasted wood to the product for short periods of time. There are also novel approaches being studied that may have promise for solving this dilemma in the future (like hyper-oxidation).

    True scientific study should conclude that small barrel maturation is a succes, but that the spirit needs to be removed from the wood far earlier than 6 years Additionally, the application of one or more finishing techniques is likely to produce a spirit with the depth reasonably similar to the complexity normally assoicated with large format barrel matured products.

    I agree, John, that the objective of the craft distillers is not, primarily to replicate the the taste of traditional products, but rather to provide new and tasty alternatives that set them apart from the traditional products. I appreciate your giving BT the benefit of the doubt regarding what they may have been trying to say in their article. However, I do not share your optimism when I read the article. I would personally like to see a clarification or a retraction of the piece as flawed science at best.

    True, there are some disappointing craft products aged in small barrels, but there are also some very fine products doing the same. There are also some disappointing products aged in large format barrels, Even more exciting is the promise of products yet to be released that have sorted out all of these issues appropriately.

    • John Hansell says:

      Dave, I appreciate you explaining the small barrel limitations which jive with my experiences. I look forward to tasting the whiskeys that utilize the “reasonable solutions to the challenge” (as you put it) successfully. Are there any products out there now that you know of that would be examples of this? There are others here too (like Sku) would also like to try them.

      • Dave Pickerell says:

        John,

        If you haven’t already tried Woodinville Whiskey Company bourbon and rye, there is a start. Additionally, in a couple of weeks, Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon with Sherry finish will be out, followed shortly by their Single Malt Whiskey. Later this year, I would expect Dark Horse Distillery bourbon and rye to hit the market with a splash. as well.

        Dave

        • Shouldn’t that be “our,” Dave? Aren’t you the man at Hillrock?

          • David Pickerell says:

            Chuck,

            No secret, I am working with all three distilleries. I am listed as Master Distiller at Hillrock, too.

          • John Hansell says:

            Dave, I think that most people reading this blog don’t know of your association with these distilleries (even if it’s not a secret). Thanks for pointing it out, because I do think it was appropriate to do so.

        • Mark says:

          I think I could take your argument seriously if you were offering examples of quality products that WEREN’T from the three distilleries you work with.

          TL;DR – Buffalo Trace is scientifically wrong and should retract their statements. Why? Because I’m trying to sell this crap.

          Sorry, I know there’s a lot more to it than that. But your whole diatribe comes off sounding like sour grapes from a guy who materially benefits from the success of small barrel whiskey.

          • Dave Pickerell says:

            Mark,

            Sorry to have left off credentials …not intentional. I have a BS in Chemistry from West Point, an MS in chemical engineering from University of Louisville. I have taught undergraduate chemistry at West Point, and Graduate level chemical Engineering at U of Louisville. I also teach distilling at Siebel Institute in Chicago from time to time. I worked as a consultant to the big distillery companies for about 6 years before working as VP, ops and Master Dsitiller at Maker’s Mark for about 14 years. I now own a consulting company that focuses on all aspects of craft distilling. I currently have about 20 craft distilleries in operation, and am working on about 10 more projects on 3 continents. I have served on the Distilled Spirits Council of the US technical committee for about 12 years, sat on the Kentucky Distiller’s association board of directors , chaired it for two years, and chaired the technical committee there for about 13 years. I currently serve as secretary/treasurer for the founding board of directors of the American Distilling Institute, and serve as a senior judge for their annual spirit judging competition. I have also sat as judge on numerous spirit and cocktail Ijudging panels worldwide. That about does it for disclosure…. hope I haven’t left anything out.

            I would have gladly offered examples of other distilleries using the finishing techniques I mentioned, but I am unaware of any (Yet). I was hoing some of them might chime in here. If I wish to offer the best advice possible to my clients, it MUST be unbiased, and founded on REAL science, or I would not be in business. Many of my clients are willing to participate as part of a larger set of studies aimed at improving the overall quality of craft products. The largest of those studies has two parts: The effect of small barrel maturation (using 9 different sizes of barrels, several different char/toast schemes and honeycomb barrels) …many of the barrel manufacturers have even contributed product to assist the study… and there are literally hundreds of barrels in the study from coast to coast. Second is the effect of various finishing types and styles…. including the use of various fortified wine casks, and the use of various types of finishing woods.

          • sam k says:

            Actually, Dave, I think we’d be much more interested in the various distillery projects you’re working on than your CV.

    • Chris says:

      I couldn’t have said it better myself (mostly because I don’t know anywhere near as much). Buffalo Trace and the other big distilleries have a great advantage over small producers because they have time and economy of scale of their side. Just imagine how much it would cost for every big distillery to switch to small barrels. BT and the others have a huge financial incentive to discredit small barrel-aged whiskey, and it’s sad that Chuck is playing along. “Small barrels produce lousy whiskey” is an absurd generalization, and one that he should really have avoided. It’s an assertion that the only factor in the quality of a whiskey is the barrel size, not mashbill, not fermentation/yeast, not distillation, not barrel type/quality, and not aging environment.

    • Vinny Lynch says:

      “True scientific study should conclude that small barrel maturation is a success” True scientific studies define the hypothesis to be tested at the outset and usually consider a number of variables.

  5. I would also be curious to know the provenance of the wood used in the small barrels in the Buffalo Trace experiment. On a small barrel, it would seem to me that air-drying and the toast/char regimen used during coopering would play a critical role. Unless one can confirm that the small barrels are made with comparable oak and coopered in a manner comparable to larger format barrels (or even in a manner that is different, but deliberately different in order to account for the smaller format), I am not sure how worthwhile the experiment is. Without this information, Dave’s strawman point is particularly valid.

  6. sku says:

    I’m not a scientist or an engineer or a distiller, so I certainly can’t evaluate the BT experiment on the level of some of the experts I’ve seen post on it. What I am is a consumer who has yet to taste a great whiskey aged in small barrels. If someone has an example of one, I’d like to know.

  7. Rick Duff says:

    I’ve had whisky from craft distillers aged in full size barrels that were crap.
    Not enough is being looked at the still, yeast, process, and too much blame is put on small barrels.
    A lot of the bad whisky from small barrels is poor white dog going in. Buffalo Trace’s experiment was flawed. I’ve had awesome tasting whisky from small barrels. It’s all about quality ingredients and process.. and ingredients include not just the mash bill, but also the water, yeast, and the barrel. I’ve seen a LOT of poor quality small barrels out there.
    No offense to the craft distillers, but the realization is that they don’t have adequate training and experience. At least most craft breweries got their start in HOME brewing. Can’t do that with distilling and it hurts the end product.

  8. Believe it or not John, but on Wed I had posted on my FB biz page, (Libation Diaries with Carmen) an article about small barrel aging too!
    The article: http://nyti.ms/PN96LI

    Also, in my 2nd post I said, “If you feel so inclined to use the mix of ultrasonic waves and oxidation to remove impurities from young whiskey rapidly, which is a process that mimics the effects of long-term aging….here you go”!

    The web site: http://www.terressentia.com/

  9. Scott MacKenzie says:

    My only real experience tasting whiskies aged in smaller barrels, was getting a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask for Christmas as a gift from my wife and my daughter. That was very good! Better than their 10 year old, and almost as good as the Laphroaig 18 I’m drinking now! That being said, I heard that other Scottish distilleries that experimented with quarter casks, didn’t have the positive results Laphroaig had, and abandoned the experiment like Buffalo Trace did. Smaller barrels as an industry standard to age faster, seems to be a bust, but it does seem to have some merit with certain whiskies. There may be other gems like Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask, yet to be discovered!

    • David D says:

      The difference here, however, is that this whisky was aged 10 years in a Bourbon barrel first, then put into the quarter cask.

      • thebitterfig says:

        I thought the aging for QC (and Ardmore Traditional) was about 5-6 years in standard barrels, followed by 9-12 months in smalls. Still pretty young, all together.

        Of course, the other trick is that peaty Scotch is a radically different kind of whisky. While older, well-aged peated whiskies can still be excellent, Peated Scotch tends to be “ready” very early. The phenols are more potent while still young, so the yeasty/cardboard/glue tendencies of young scotch get pretty well covered. It’s worth noting that Beam Global tried the quarter-cask experiment with a variety of single malts, but the only ones they felt were worthwhile were Laphroaig and Ardmore.

      • Scott MacKenzie says:

        I believe I spoke to that issue, though maybe I wasn’t clear. To quote myself, “Smaller barrels as an industry standard to age faster, seems to be a bust, but it does seem to have some merit with certain whiskies. I was aware that Laphroaig didn’t age their Quarter Cask entirely in small casks, though I’ll admit I didn’t know the exact aging ratio as you seem to! I was trying to point out that while not good as a short cut for aging, in certain cases, like the Laphroaig I talked about (and the Ardmore “thebitterfig” mentioned), there is some obvious benefit from some aging (or finishing as some seem to refer to shorter aging periods). I see small cask use, as something similar to aging/finishing in Sherry casks, Port pipes, etc. Some whiskies will benefit from it, others won’t.

    • John Hansell says:

      As David D notes, I think that most of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky’s time is spent NOT in a quarter cask. If it were aged entirely in a quarter cask, it would taste differently–and worse, I would be willing to bet.

      • Mr Manhattan says:

        Keep in mind: these are still refill boubon casks, i.e. a lot of tannins etc have already been extracted out of the wood. Also these casks are the same length as the original barrel, with the heads recut to accommodate fewer staves.

  10. David D says:

    Personally, I’ve never been able to make really good soup in ten to fifteen minutes. I can boil the vegetables and cook the meat in that time, but the broth doesn’t really taste that great. It tastes like “hot ham water” to quote Arrested Development. When I let it simmer for two days, it always tastes the best. I’ve never made whisky before, but I have to think there’s a connection there.

  11. Par Caldenby says:

    A) You have to have a good quality spirit, otherwise there’s never going to be a good whisky (malt, Bourbon or other). This entails not pushing the raw material, allowing time for fermentation to produce more flavour and to cut the spirit run at the right time – for your set-up. Perhaps not enough people have the intuitive sense to do this right. Sure, many new makes seem fairly bland and rather a few young whiskies taste rather crappy, including some hailed by certain “experts”.

    B) You then must have good quality casks. They have the bad tendency to cost a fair bit of money, money that you may not have, really. But without it, you’re a victim to chance. But when you put good spirit into good quality casks, you will get good whisky – it is just a matter of time. And that time will differ, due to cask size, oak origin, cask provenance and the spirit character. Not everyone gets that.

    C) Then it is just a matter of sitting beside your cask and wait for that balance to occur. Good spirit + good oak will equal balance, at some point. But here’s the last trick – the balance in question may differ from one person to another, because we do have differences of preference. There is not one single truth. case in point from last week is a (in my opinion) very much over oaked Sherry cask matured single malt that I usually like a lot, but not in this case, because it is simply entirely out of balance, with just cask characters plastering the fairly characterful spirit. But I put it as an extra in a tasting – and sure enough, it won the night. Entirely unjustified in my opinion, but others begged to differ and asked to buy the dregs of it off of me (they could).

    Small casks can make good whisky, just as normal sized casks can. Only, it happens faster and is a somewhat different style of product. Dismissing it outright is just ignorance at play, or worse.

  12. Tadas A. says:

    I would like to see small/craft distillers trying to create a better product than existing whiskeys made by large distilleries. Like craft brewers did versus large breweries. Large breweries made and make watered down beer (high gravity brewing). While craft breweries make higher quality, better tasting beer. What I see with craft distilleries is different. Most of them just try to match large distillers’ product quality by taking shortcuts (since they do not have 6 years to wait) and looking for fast ROI :? :/ Roles reversed :D

    • Jeff Harner says:

      Well, what we know as bourbon today is as much a result of political machinations as it is the preference of consumers. The 51% corn imperative? Politics. The need for new American oak barrels? Politics. That’s not to say that those forces didn’t also serendipitously lead to the creation of a great, if not unmatched, tasting whiskey, but it should be noted that those requirements weren’t necessarily determined with the goal of creating the best tasting bourbons. It might take some time and experimentation and some risk-taking on the part of the distiller and the customer (though that doesn’t mean they have to try every ‘craft’ product that comes out and sells for $50+). There were no ‘hop-heads’ before all the West Coast breweries started packing their beers with as much hop flavor as they could; they developed over time, as did their tastes.

      • That stuff about ‘politics’ and the standards of identity appears to be mostly urban legend. I’d love to see some citations for those claims.

        • Jeff Harner says:

          Darnit, that’s work! Alright, I’ll dig through the Congressional record. I remember seeing an actual ‘academic’ history at some point in my lifetime, but for the life of me I can’t recall it now.

          Failing that, don’t they strike you as a bit arbitrary? Why 51%? Why not 60% or 40%? I can’t imagine something being regulated by our political class that didn’t involve some kind of horse trading.

          • 51% seems logical as being equivalent to saying ‘mostly corn,’ and although the 80% rule for corn whiskey may seem more arbitrary, it simply codified common practice. You have to remember the purpose of the regs. They’re so people get what they think they’re getting so, for the most part, the regs simply codified what people were already doing and how practitioners understood the various terms.

          • Mr Manhattan says:

            Also folks should remember: if you are willing to fore go the “benefits” of labeling your product as bourbon or rye as defined by CFR 27 5.22 (and that’s not a small deal as it’s what average consumers are looking for) then are are free to do almost anything WRT mashbill and barrelling and still label the product as “whiskey.” In other words, there’s a ton of innovation yet to be done—beyond choice of cooperage and whether your grain is locally sourced/”organic” or not. People already working in this larger space are the one’s to watch, in my opinion.

  13. Tadas A. says:

    The article seems to match other opinions on the subject:
    * Small barrels impart oak flavor quickly
    * Can quickly over-oak the whiskey
    * Small barrels cannot make MATURE whiskey. Only time can do that.

    Check out Tuthilltown experiment conclusions which are similar but a lot more elaborate and scientific(http://www.tuthilltown.com/wp-content/uploads/Long-Term-Changes-In-Whiskey-Maturation-Presentation1.pdf).

    One very interesting statement from Buffallo Trace Press Release is “each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor”. That’s worth knowing!

  14. I’ve never seen so much arguing among people who essentially agree. Small barrels are a tool. There is a place for that tool and there are many ways to use it. Some work better than others.

    When I starting to write about small barrels and their limitations, it was because more than a few micro-distillers were running around bashing the big distillers and saying that they could make bourbon that was twice as good in half the time. They couldn’t and it wasn’t. That’s a story.

    As for my headline, it you see a headline that reads, “Gunman kills 12 in crowded theater,” do you think that means it happened in every theater in the country? There were some small barrels, a distiller filled them with new make whiskey and aged them. The whiskey was lousy. Ergo, small barrels make lousy whiskey. I was writing a story about one thing that happened in one place, like reporters do. Don’t do what they did, do something else. That’s the story, that’s how I wrote it. You don’t have to read that statement as universal, yet many did. Not my problem.

    I have never been critical of the use of small barrels. Some of my favorite distillers use small barrels. I am critical of some of the claims being made about small barrels. That’s it.

  15. M Lange says:

    I have a hard time believing that using smaller barrels would save money, as you assert John. True, time is money, but barrels are the single largest expense for a whiskey distillery, and because small barrels and traditional barrels take the same amount of labor to produce, they cost a distillery about the same amount. That means that ten 5 gallon barrels will cost nearly ten times as much as one 53 gallon barrel, drastically increasing the cost per unit of spirit.
    As an example, The Barrel Mill, one of the most popular small barrel producers for craft distillers, sells their 5 gallon whiskey barrels for $165: http://www.thebarrelmill.com/index.php/whiskey-barrels/5-gallon-whiskey-barrel.html
    Whereas Independent Stave sells their classic whiskey barrel for about $140: http://www.iscbarrels.com/barrels
    If you had your own cooperage their would likely be materials cost savings in the small barrels, but the equivalent labor cost would make that savings relatively small.

    • John Hansell says:

      I guess it would depend on how much time it would save, and how much the purchasing power of large distillers can save them money on small barrel costs. And how they used those barrels.

  16. thebitterfig says:

    I’m curious about the blending potential of the small-barrel bourbon. Too dark and smoky with little depth of flavor? Blend it. Get the depth of flavor and wood sugars from a traditional barrel or two, dump in one of the smalls, and see how it goes.

    • Kyle Henderson says:

      I am too curious to see if any of these artisan distilleries have product in large format barrels that they are just waiting on. I think blending large and small format barrels would be, if done well, a great way to not only keep the small, craft feeling of your product, but to serious make a product that compares to a large distilleries offering. I know most of the smaller guys don’t want to be like the bigger guys, but it would be a good opportunity for them to make a product that most of “us” associate with “mature” or “good” or whatever you want to call it.

      John, Chuck, Dave,

      Do any of you guys know of a craft distiller doing this? I am sure at least one may be, and if not, maybe some one has small barrels of their own stuff aging and sourced bulk product to supplement?

      • Many of the people participating in this are micro-distillers. They can answer for themselves. One issue to consider is the requirement that Bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, malt whiskey, etc. must be aged in NEW barrels only. Aging in multiple barrels, all new, would be ridiculously expensive. Finishes can be done in refill barrels, but have to be identified as finishes.

      • Gable says:

        Wow, my head is spinning from reading this thread. Talk about a time suck….I mean Ive got real things to do today.

        In response to Kyle Henderson, and thats all. Not going to get sucked in….I swear!

        Yes, Tuthilltown does blend a variety of size barrels together. Each size has an optimum (subjective) matturation time, and when barrels are approved by our team to blend, we vat the different size barrels together to get a rich, mellow, and complex whiskey. We dont claim to produce KY Bourbon, nor do we ever plan to do so. We found something that works, is differentiated enough from its counterparts, and has found its place in the market. Hudson Whiskey IS a small barrel whiskey, and thats the way it will remain.

        Judging from our ever present supply v. demand problems, its clear that in some cases, small barrels DO NOT FAIL.

        Carry on.

        -gable

        ps. Please note Chip’s response above. Small barrel maturation IS NEVER cheaper than large format barrels. Regardless of time saved.

  17. Dick W says:

    As a small distiller we took no offense at the article from Buffalo Trace about their conclusions on using small barrels. It seemed obvious they were trying to get “traditional” tasting whiskey by changing one aspect of their process and completely missed the point concerning the use of small barrels in craft distilling. We believe most small whiskey distillers know going in that they will never be able to compete on price point with large producers and must create a distinctive flavor profile to find a place in the market. For a person that enjoys “traditional” tasting whiskey to denigrate craft distilling because it doesn’t taste “traditional” is absurd. We heard all of this years ago with craft brewing. Everybody has a unique palate. Different people like different things. We hope the dialogue doesn’t become a turf battle and can be interesting, informative and civil. Cheers!

  18. Ryan B says:

    One of the comments mentioned the “other” pieces of the process also need to be looked at. I will agree and get a bit more specific. Large distilleries are using continuous still techniques and don’t make specific cut’s between the heads, hearts and tails. This is a much less expensive process which in turn lowers the price point to consumers. However, this is where craft distillers really have an opportunity to shine. They can create a much better white whiskey from using pot stills or other smaller column equipment, distilling multiple times and making proper cuts. Again, putting in a better quality whiskey into a small barrel will yield much different results than what was done in the experiments. Also, remember that craft distillers make up a very small percentage of the overall whiskey market. Their goal is not to replace an existing product, but rather create new flavors and new whiskey lovers, maybe even from consumers who don’t prefer typical whiskey. We have seen many consumers who won’t touch a traditional bourbon try some small barrel aged product and fall in love. Why isn’t that good for the industry?

  19. Ben McNeil says:

    I think the new Laphroaig Cairdeas was aged for 7 years in quarter casks. At least part of it was fully matured in them, at any rate. I wonder if the casks are new, or already used. That’s the most extensive aging in small barrels that I’ve ever heard of.

    • David D says:

      That’s a great point because the new Cairdeas is delicious, and the QC whisky adds tremendous richness on the finish when married with the other Bourbon cask-aged malt. Like “thebitterfig” said, I think smaller craft distilleries are going to be more successful if they use QC whiskey in conjunction with other Bourbon cask-aged whiskey. Great Lakes Distillery did this with their new Kinnickinnic, although I don’t know if their own stuff was QC-aged. It’s just the idea of using mature straight Bourbon as a way to add depth to younger craft stock.

  20. Richard says:

    Chuck: thank you for pointing out Davids association that he neglected to mention. I will have to go back and reread his post to determine the bias that is obviously there. It would help legitimacize posters statements if they did this on their own.
    I have no association with any company. I like them all.

    • Dave Pickerell says:

      Richard,

      Please see my additional comments above. There was no intent to deceive. I just didn’t want to waste time on my credentials … thought it was a bit more common knowledge that it apparently is… my bad. My bias is scientific accuracy. Clearly, BT’s conclusion was in gross error. Yes, there are some not so good tasting whiskies aged in small barrels …and yes, there are some very tasty whiskies aged in small barrels… but, heck, there is some pretty lackluster stuff coming out of standard format barrels, too. There is way more to making a good, tasty whiskey than just the size of the barrel it was matured in.

      • Richard says:

        Thanks Dave. I think your credibility is higher recommending 3 distilleries knowing you are adviser to 20 then when people think those are the only 3 you are involved with.

  21. I never thought I’d ever see my website on a “What Does John Known” post…but then again, I never thought I’d be making spirits for a living either.

    • Scott,

      Anything is possible my dear. The sky is the limit! My wish for you is to keep on working hard. Everything good will bestow unto you my sweet.

      Slainte,
      Carmen Operetta

  22. Hector says:

    Without getting into the a debate I would like to put forward 2 distilleries that I believe are showing really good whisky can be produced in small barrels, Macmyra from Sweden and Lark from Australia.
    Interestingly neither have a comparitive big brother and as such their whisky is being judged on its own merits. Maybe that should be the point stop comparing apples with oranges and rather decide if you like apples or oranges and why.

  23. (I hope everyone will forgive my poor English). Interesting subject. Good article John thank you for that. In my 23 years as a cellar master at Cognac Ferrand I am once in a while approached by someone wanted to sell a secret receipt to speed up aging. Some claim that a tropical aging (bigger angel share – 5 to 6% or so instead of 3%) equated to “faster aging”. Another short cut would be that using small barrel speeds aging. In the end our findings are stubborn. NOTHING speeds up aging which is mostly the oxidation of the fatty esters through the wood. And for this the only secret ingredient is TIME and that cant go faster. It’s like the secret pill to stop human aging….still working on it… Just to review a few methods:
    - Smaller barrels. Well they mostly add more wood faster which is one of many sides of aging but just one of many. And too much wood …not good. There is nothing good or bad with smaller barrels; It’s just another tool. When used one needs to taste very regularly because the wood adding is very quick if they are new. You just can’t leave it there and wait. Taste every month or loose you barrel.
    - Tropical aging. It’s a faster evaporation which is one of the many sides of aging, just one.
    - In the 19th century a theory was devised in Cognac. It was called “Tranchage” (not egal anymore for Cognac except by the natural climate changes). The exposure of the casks to warm and cold temperatures (a natural process in Europe and Kentucky) that helps the integration of tannins. One side of aging here aging.
    - Many other experiences derived from 19th century work here like micro-oxygenation etc…
    At Ferrand we also have different aging cellars with different hygrometry which has a big influence on the Cognac over time.
    Once again the “Snake Oil” for aging does not exists yet.
    You can check our work, it’s in every bottle of Cognac PIERRE FERRAND
    Cheers,
    Alexandre GABRIEL – COGNAC FERRAND
    Hello to Dave, always nice to hear from you.

    • John Hansell says:

      “Just another tool”–That’s a great way to view it, Alexandre. Thanks for your comment!

    • Tadas A. says:

      Is research on these various methods published somewhere?
      What are other experiences derived from 19th century work (in addition to micro-oxygenation)?

    • Kyle Henderson says:

      Alex,

      I know some of your barrels are smaller and larger than our traditional 53 gallon/200 liter barrels. have you had an experience with smaller barrels working nicely compared to larger barrels? What I am trying to get at here is if there is a “minimum” size for barrels, while still trying to age via the “big boys” way, large format and for a long time.

      Does any one know if say a 33 gallon barrel ages comparability to a 53, but maybe with less time overall?

  24. Chip Tate says:

    Wow. One of the best two-sided conversations I’ve seen about small barrels so far. Too much to respond to here, so I’ll just pick a few points:

    1) Balcones Distillery in Texas (my distillery, yes) also uses small barrels IN CONJUNCTION with larger formats. Dave P is right. It works very well and we’ve won more than dozens of national and international awards with that stuff, so it must not be all that bad. That said, about half of our production is filled straight in to 60 gallon formats for aging, as an FYI.

    2) Dave P is also right that it’s hard to imagine what BT’s motives were if not to slam craft distillers. But perhaps BT was considering to 5, 10, or 15 gallon formats for aging and the “study” was conducted in good faith.

    3) To Chuck, I appreciate you clarifying your position on small barrels. I had, apparently, inaccurately understood the thesis of your pamphlet “Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whisky” as a general statement about small barrels. Looks like we agree after all.

    4) I won’t make Dave P’s point again about how ridiculous BT’s aging times were for the small barrel formats or reiterate that aging only 1 barrel of each format doesn’t quite constitute a sufficiently large “n” for data analysis. But I will reiterate the point about the origin of these small barrels. In my experience, there are not a lot small barrels / cooperages that make whisky I enjoy. As one might imagine, the degree of yard aging and selection of wood for a small barrel is even more important than for a large because of the extraction hazards already pointed out. I was very surprised to see such a sloppy experiment come from one of the country’s finest distilleries. Although it wouldn’t be Bourbon, they might try a similar experiment with second of third fill barrels with much better results (although tasting every few months might be a good idea too). Anyone genuinely wanting to succeed with the small barrel format needs to be more thoughtful and careful to learn the art of it.

    John H’s point sums it up best, I think. Small barrels don’t make big barrel whisky faster. That would be like saying that a rocket-hot grill can make BBQ, only faster. Few people would agree with that statement. Apples and oranges. Many of us craft distillers aren’t trying to do that anyway.

    Again, great to see such a lively discussion.

    Chip Tate
    President and Head Distiller, Balcones Distillery

  25. Jeff says:

    I don’t see how the BT experiment is ‘unfair’ or ‘ridiculous.’ It doesn’t appear to me that they are concluding that small barrels are useless and can never provide any value in the whiskey making process. Their conclusion, stated simply, is that whiskey aged in smaller barrels for 6 years does not taste real good and doesn’t appear to get better – 6 years is too long in a small barrel, and its unlikely a longer period than 6 years will make it any better. That conclusion matches up with their parameters. Its a small scale experiment with a very limited, isolated conclusion.

    Most seem to agree with the conclusion that 6 years is too long. I don’t think its an attack on craft distillers. The ‘lesson learned’ from BT’s experiment should be of value to craft distillers, if they didn’t already know it: don’t age whiskey for a long time in smaller barrels and expect it to taste like ‘extra aged’ bourbon in a larger, traditional barrel. Small experiments like these are often how innovation and progress happens. Its usually impossible to stage a large experiment that controls all factors and reaches a broad conclusion. Instead it goes like this: Point (BT): whiskey aged in small barrels for six years doesn’t taste real good. Counterpoint (craft distillers): sure, but [insert additional factors and parameter that makes a small barrel valuable in the bourbon making process].

  26. Chip Tate says:

    I guess you’d have to be a distiller who uses small barrels to see how inherently ridiculous the experiment is. Their conclusion is true, but that doesn’t mean they’re asking the right question.

  27. Tadas A. says:

    I would like to hear your options form you folks on this board:
    What is the limit on how long you can age whiskey in small barrels?

  28. Chip Tate says:

    Very hard to say without knowing the maker and type, but we would typically never age spirit for more than 18 months in a 1st fill small barrel before moving it. Over two years would extract more wood than I think is good for the whisky, but others may have different goals and tastes.

    In a 2nd or 3rd fill barrel, I’d say 3 years might be a top end. Again, very hard to say because there tends to be more variation in outcome from one small barrel to another than between big barrels, in general.

    More to the point, I typically feel like our spirits have gained what they can from a small format in 9-18 months and benefit more from further aging in a large format than continued aging in a smaller barrel. There are certain aspect of maturation, and not just wood extraction, that can be accelerated for a time in a small barrel. We do this a lot with our malt whiskies in some cases in 2nd and 3rd fill wood. But, for my part, one has to be cautious about staying in small barrels too long in order to get an evenly matured and balanced whisky.

    my 2 cents

    • Jeff Harner says:

      I don’t have any background to answer this, but is there a significant difference in cost to using new small barrels for a short period of time to extract those flavors and tannins, and then transferring that whiskey into larger, second-used barrels for aging, as compared to just using a new large barrel for the same period of time? I guess what I’m trying to say is, is it cheaper to buy new small barrels and used large barrels, or is it cheaper to buy new large barrels, and is that difference a factor at all in your decision?

  29. Chip Tate says:

    It’s definitely cheaper NOT to use small barrels. It’s a cost vs. capital question. It’s cheaper to make whisky in big barrels exclusively over a longer maturation period, but you have to have the capital to fund production for that time period (annual cost of production x years to maturity). Small barrels cost more, but can allow a shorter overall maturation period, if properly used, and require less capital investment in the short term. Big distillers typically have capital to invest or ready access to capital as needed. Smaller distiller, usually, do not.

  30. Mr Claw says:

    Well, all I can say is that it *can* work – even if it doesn’t always.

    A good example is Springbank’s recent Rundletts & Kilderkins bottling – which was superb.

    I spoke with a chap over at Cadenhead’s in London (owned by Springbank) and they said they’re planning a Longrow version.

    I, for one, am looking forward to it…

  31. Gary Gillman says:

    Excellent thread and I thought Dave Pickerel expressed himself very well. His CV is important, too, that degree of education and experience, in a field driven by science, is invaluable. I look forward to the products he mentioned.

    I have only been able to date to taste a few craft spirits, bourbons and others, almost all aged under four years (so from white spirit to 3 years). Probably most were aged in small barrels but perhaps some in regular-size ones.

    Excepting the vodkas distilled to practical neutrality, all tasted immature to me, i.e., with corny, chemical (e.g. rubbery) or slate-like flavours that I think would likely not attract the typical whiskey consumer.

    But of the possibility that a palatable, non-neutral whiskey can exist at 3 years of age or two aged in a small cask, I have no doubt. It’s a question of finding out how to do it and I have an open mind on it.

    Incidentally, I don’t see really why small distillers cannot use regular-size barrels. Four years is generally acknowledged to be the minimum I think for top quality for conventional bourbon – at any rate I’ve never had a 36 month old bourbon I’ve much liked – and how long really is that for a new business? Many craft distillers have been in business now for longer than four years…

    Gary

  32. Jim Roth says:

    I’ve had some of Chip Tate’s wonderful Balcones, and without taking up several paragraphs I’d have to say that drinking is believing. I am also a fan of Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky and they seem to have had a success with aging in smaller barrels. I also enjoy Duncan Taylor products, and know that they have been using smaller casks with apparent good success for some time now (I unfortunately don’t speak from experience) Assuming that taking an excerpt from the Duncan Taylor website is not a problem, they said the following, which will be my concluding thought here:

    “Owning a cask just became easier and more affordable.

    The Octave and Quarter casks are smaller than standard butt and hogshead casks allowing you an exclusive 70 or 150 bottles to share with family, friends or business colleagues.

    Duncan Taylor’s has an extensive range of premium Single Malt and Single Grain Scotch Whiskies from the top distilleries available.

    With a bottling hall, licensed bond and distribution facilities, Duncan Taylor makes creating your very own brand a piece of cake. The choice is yours to either store the cask until a later date or bottle, label and distribute your new brand immediately.

    For more information or stock availability, please phone +44 (0)1466 794055 or download the comprehensive PDF with overview of product range and available whiskies.

    A Note from Euan

    “I’m ecstatic that in my fifteenth year of maturing whiskies in Octave casks that I now have a range that actually is called “The Octave from Duncan Taylor”.

    Many years ago, more years than I care to remember, I made small casks as a Cooper at Glendronach Distillery for private clients of the Distillery. I always noticed that they produced fantastic spirit over a very short period. They were fun to make and to supplement my meager wages! I began to make Octave and Firkinsize casks for friends, family and if truth be told for anyone that would buy them. I remember filling them with whatever malts I could lay my hands on from the local “off licence”. After a few months maturation the resultant spirit was totally unlike what had come out of the bottle! In fact it was hugely better, it was invigorated! Hence our strapline “Octave Invigorated”!

    For those of you who like historics, I actually started producing Octaves in a commercial way around 1994, selling as far afield as Japan where there still may be a few “behind bars” up in Miyagi where most of them were sold to a delightful old gentlemen with a restaurant chain. In 1999, I produced a special Millenium Octave for, yes your right, the Millenium. If anyone has any of those still around I would be delighted to hear from you. “

  33. I would like to share our aging process with the panel:
    We are producing a very good (silver medal winner) whiskey (65% Malt/35% Rye) – using the following method:

    1. We age our whiskey at 100-105 proof in used red wine barrels (usually French or Hungarian Oak) for 6 months – we airate the barrels 8 hours per week using aquarium pumps/air stones

    2. After 6 months we transfer the spirit to small 20 liter American Oak charred barrels for 3 to 6 months – we taste it weekly until we feel it is ready

    3. The whiskey is then transferred back into wine barrels which contain various amounts of 2 year old spirit ( a type of solera aging).
    We also airate these barrels weekly. We then bottle from 4 casks – marrying the best with the best.

    Comments – Qustions – Thanks for your Time

  34. Gary Gillman says:

    That’s a very interesting procedure, Mitch. I’m curious how you decided upon this course.

    The mash bill itself is unusual, but also, why the progression from used wine barrels to new oak charred then back to wine barrels in which 2 year old spirit (whisky, GNS?) is contained? Did you work this out theoretically or empirically? How exactly does the aeration work?

    Does the result equate in your view to something like a much older malt?

    Any plans to try 65% rye and the rest barley malt? That would be a classic 1800′s straight rye recipe, at least if aged in new charred oak, although apparently barrels labelled bourbon and rye were sold then which used re-used barrels…

    Gary

    Gary

    • Mitch Abate says:

      We have developed this method over a period of years. The initial wine barrels are still wet and contain some wine (which) has been oxidized. We believe this adds a unique flavor to the whiskey. We then transfer to the small barrels – which give the whiskey more color and flavor. We decide to transfer the spirit based on the taste to our bottling barrels – these barrels contain our whiskey which has been aged for two years (using the processes we described) – we do not use GNS or found spirits

  35. Gary Gillman says:

    Sorry, I meant some bourbon and rye whisky was apparently sold in the 1800′s which was aged in re-used barrels. That part of what you do evokes that kind of history in my opinion. But I am intrigued by the 65% malt, 35% rye recipe, I have never encountered that before and am interested in the kind of taste it produces.

    Gary

  36. Elwyn Jones says:

    Wow, quite the thread. I would like to add my two cents from a newby to this end of the spirits world. Whisky, like wine, cognac, and other spirits, has many facets. If it were all scientific then the production of spirits could be deduced to a test-tube. Gentlemen and ladies, this is not about one specific flavor, color, scent, etc. but rather about a culture. It is a social culture. We dream of a spirit, we act upon that dream by distilling either by experiment or by purpose, we share with friends, colleagues, or by selling. Everyone’s pallet is a little bit different and therefore we sample and share with others our experience.

    Our pallets will also crave new and different flavors and experiences and so we forge ahead, or not and stick with our favorite. It’s all good because no one production is right or wrong but rather, different. This is what makes the culture.

    I have my favorites but am always game to sample something different or new. I will not judge another persons pallet but will judge whether or not this spirit is for me. My son-in-law enjoys Old Charter while my son enjoys a large variety of scotch and whisky. The spirit brings us together to sample each other’s finds and to “fellowship”.

    I will admit a fair sum can be spent to acquire varied bottlings of our nectar therefore I have solicited the help of my son, social media director for his company, to help me discover venues where we can sample without purchasing an entire bottle. Granted, some establishments charge handsomely for samples but places and events exist where samples can be obtained reasonably.

    In closing, I toast every person who finds what they enjoy, every person who is still seeking, and every person who loves to experiment. You are welcome on my deck, in the leather armchair next to me at the cigar lounge, on the stool next to me, at the event, wherever our paths may cross we are brothers and sisters in “spirit”. Let’s toast the camaraderie of our good fortune to breath another day and sip on a snifter of the portions all angels are envious of. To you distillers, we toast the variety of the nectar of the gods which you produce. If it all were the same then only one of us would be necessary.

  37. Jim Walton says:

    Spied this today. Same basic ethos you have here, but a bit wider perspective. I often wonder why no one ever thinks about what people might be doing on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific.

    http://whiskeyreviewer.com/2012/09/small-barrel-aging-101/

  38. Alan Fears says:

    I echo Elwyn’s comments to a T. As a hobby distiller I have been experimenting with 1, 2, and 5 gallon barrels both charred and toasted for the last few years and the results have been from magnificent to terrible:-). The experience and education by trial and error has and continues to be the joy of the hobby and three cheers to those who comment and share their own experiences via forums such as this.
    Everyone’s taste buds are unique and thank God for it! I’ve got several small batches in my shop bottled and there’s nothing more fun than having friends over enjoying a cigar and tasting the varied batches. Inevitably each person has a different opinion and that makes craft distilling FUN!
    From a practical standpoint I offer huge thanks for all the comments especially to Dave P for the detailed comments. It’s virtually impossible and totally impractical for those of us who distill for hobby to have enough product to take advantage of traditional sized barrels so the small barrel provides a vehicle for us to produce a very unique product…..some turns out good….some great ….and some not. It’s always fun thou….like Bill Nigh the Science Guy for grown ups:-)

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