Many craft distillers have been simultaneously aging liquor in barrels both small and large, and as time passes and stock from standard-size barrels makes it to market, smaller barrels may naturally fade away. Yet some of the better craft distillers are likely to stick with small barrels—they’ve become a tool that allows the distillers to fine-tune distinctive taste profiles.
“What I see happening is people saying, ‘Well, let’s not give up on small barrels,’ ” says Clay Risen, who writes about spirits for The New York Times and is the author of the forthcoming guide American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye. “If you think of a clear, unaged distillate as a rough product, a first draft, barrels can be a sort of editing process—they can take the edge off, remove certain flavors, impart certain flavors over a relatively short period of time.”
The federal regulations that define bourbon don’t leave much room for monkeying with the construction of barrels themselves. But they do leave some latitude for experimentation. Black Swan, a four-year-old artisanal cooperage in Minnesota, is best known for its Honey Comb Barrels, which are, as the name suggests, honeycombed with shallow perforations on the inside. As with smaller barrels, the idea is to increase the surface area in contact with the whiskey, to speed up the aging process.
Vibrations, movement, and pressure can also accelerate the interaction between liquor and wood. Cleveland Whiskey, a new brand, has a proprietary system involving “stainless-steel, pressure-capable tanks” that its inventors claim can reduce the aging process from years to as little as six months. (The verdict’s still out.) Meanwhile, Tuthilltown Spirits, in the Hudson Valley, takes a more minimalist approach, regularly playing loud music in its warehouses in an effort to shake its whiskey up.
And then there’s Jefferson’s Ocean. A few years ago Trey Zoeller, the founder and master blender of Jefferson’s Bourbon, took five barrels of whiskey and lashed them above deck on a Russian trawler that had been converted into a shark-research vessel. They were subjected to salt air, heat, sun, and constant rocking for three and a half years. Such an approach may actually have had historic precedent: 19th-century rum from Medford, Massachusetts, was famed for its quality, with one writer explaining, “It never left the bonded warehouse on Riverside Avenue until it had passed a severe test and was shipped across the Atlantic and back again, in wood, to age it.”
Zoeller’s bourbon roamed widely, from the Panama Canal (six transits) through the Pacific and up to Puget Sound. The steel hoops on two barrels corroded and the staves fell apart. (“At least that’s what I was told,” Zoeller says, noting that the crew also subscribed to a vague concept it called “Juan’s share.”) When the barrels were finally retrieved, what came out was nearly black from constant sloshing in charred wood. But once the char was filtered out, a remarkably smooth and supple bourbon emerged, with a slight briny tang reminiscent of scotch.