Photography by David Kiang
Besides being less prone to breakage, the wooden vessels could be rolled and stacked, and represented quite an improvement over the old way of clay. Heating staves of wood and bending them into shape can create a very tight waterproof seal, a trick likely borrowed from shipbuilders when barrels were first dreamt up. The heating took place over a direct flame, resulting in the barrel’s inner surface becoming toasted or even charred by the fire. For winemakers, this procedure introduced new elements of flavor while improving aging conditions. But in the realm of beer, this wasn’t considered desirable, and the insides of barrels were often coated with a pine resin called pitch, preventing the wood from actually interacting with the beer’s profile.
Distillers found that aging their spirits in the toasted oak would alter the liquor with not just the amber color of the barrel, but also impregnate it with mild hints of vanilla, coconut, and caramel. As the alcohol sat, it pulled these flavor compounds out of the wood as it soaked deeper into the barrel, and the spirit would also mellow over time, becoming less harsh as it developed added complexity. After extended aging, the liquor could be emptied, and the barrel could be reused or repurposed. Often, former bourbon and sherry barrels would make their way to Scotland to serve as a new home for the maturation of Scotch whisky. This happy life cycle would carry on for hundreds of years, but it wouldn’t be until the late 20th century that brewers would experiment with aging their suds in a used spirits barrel.
While some smaller instances may predate it, my research drew me to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout—originally released at their Chicago brewpub in 1992—as the first commercially available beer aged in a spirits barrel. Homebrewers in the area had reportedly invested in a used bourbon barrel and encouraged Goose Island’s then brewmaster Greg Hall to do the same. Around the same time, Hall was asked to participate in a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in South Bend, Indiana and he was fortuitously seated next to Booker Noe, a legendary master distiller at Jim Bean. By the end of the evening, Hall had talked Noe out of six bourbon barrels and set out to make a very special brew to commemorate the brewpub’s 1,000th batch of beer.