From our Distiller...The Rise of Barrel-aged Spirits
Whiskey has been around since the early 15th century – but not in the form we are used to today. The brown colored, barrel-aged whiskeys we all know and love have in fact only been around since the mid 1800’s. Yes, whiskey has been transported in barrels for a very long time, but that was simply the only feasible way to ship any kind of liquid. Water, pickles, molasses, anything that was liquid was transported in barrels.
In the post-revolutionary war era most distilleries were fairly small. In Centre County alone, there were over a dozen distilleries by 1820. These small distilleries were not set up to age whiskey, no one did that. The whiskey simply came off the still and went into a barrel and was shipped off to market. People drank what we today would call white whiskeys. If you wanted some whiskey, you went to your local tavern with a container of your own and the barkeep would fill it from the barrel. Any aging that did occur was purely a coincidence of how low it took to be shipped to the buyer, and then how long it took to empty the barrel. When folks started to settle in larger numbers west of the Appalachian Mountains, shipping became an issue. A single donkey could haul 4 bushels of corn, or the equivalent of 24 bushels of corn in liquid form (i.e. whiskey). This was not an efficient way to ship many barrels of whiskey to markets on the east coast. The solution was to ship the whiskey by barge. This had its own drawback as many of the rivers only had enough water for barge traffic in the spring when the rivers ran high. Farmers would harvest the grains in the fall and convert it to whiskey. This would then sit in barrels until spring when it could be shipped. When these barrels finally did get to market, folks liked these “aged” whiskeys better than the white whiskeys they were accustomed to.
Another happy coincidence was the use of some charred barrels. Distillers would use whatever barrels they could acquire, most often these were used ones. If the barrel previously had pickles in it, the distiller did not want his whiskey tasting like pickles. The solution was to burn the inside of the barrel to remove any flavor remnants of what was in there before. Now when some of these whiskeys having sat for several months in the charred barrels before shipping finally made it to markets on the east coast, people like these whiskeys even better. Around 1850 railroads were starting to connect the areas west of the Appalachians with the markets on the east coast, so distillers could once again ship freshly distilled spirits to the east. Now however, the genie was out of the bottle and people preferred the new brown colored, aged whiskeys. This lead distilleries to start intentionally aging their whiskey in house, and to use charred barrels, even if the barrel was brand new. This gave rise to the aged whiskeys we enjoy today.
P.S. This is true for scotch too – drunk unaged for much of its history.