I never really gave much thought to barrels. They look cool when used in hipster home decor. They are a necessary feature of any rodeo clown. And, of course, they have a practical purpose as a container. But on my first trip to Scotland, during my first visit to a whisky distillery, I learned how important the barrel is in influencing the flavor of the whisky. The previous occupant of the barrel, for example, brandy or sherry, leaves an impression on the oak that is absorbed by the whisky as it ages.
On my next distillery visit, in Baltimore, I was surprised to learn that whisky in the United States is required to age in new barrels. That’s a lot of new barrels. What happens once they’ve been used? They’re off to Scotland. Or to Napa…….
On a trip to Napa, I went to a winery. Of course. On the tour, we were shown the barrel room, where the wines matured. The barrels here came from all over the place, although most seemed to be from France. During a different wine tasting experience, I tried a cabernet that had matured in a whisky barrel. It was like having the best of both worlds.
While I went on these tours with the goal of tasting the product, I found myself fascinated by the role of the barrel. Specifically, I was curious about the movement of the barrel from destination to destination. I had never given much thought to the production and packaging that goes into my enjoyment of a certain treat, like who came up with the candy mold that gives the Reese’s peanut butter cup its satisfying grooves, or how the color of a gin bottle influences my choice of Tanqueray or Bombay. After visiting a local chocolate factory during an open house and seeing the production line in action, as well as a trip to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, I have an appreciation for how much goes into the simple act of my consumption choices.
But the barrel is different. The barrel is a vessel, but unlike a candy wrapper or canning jar, the barrel carries a history with it. From the location of the tree, to the first liquid that enters and seasons it, to the next destination and next spirit or wine it carries, the barrel tells a story that is revealed in each tasting. From the whiff of the aroma to the first sip spreading across the palate, the barrel affects the notes and characteristics we discover. What other container can make this claim?
While my visits to the distilleries showcased the use of modern technology in the production process, it was interesting to note that the role of the barrel goes back thousands of years, when the Romans discovered the Celts using barrels to hold and transport wine and spirits. The construction of the barrel itself is also a craft, with coopers apprenticing for years before becoming master coopers in the art of assembling barrels. And yet, there I stood on my first distillery visit, wondering how much longer it would be before we got to the tasting, failing to appreciate how much skill and history went into the barrel aging process.
What started as an interesting nugget of information on that first tour, something I might remember to impress my friends, developed into a curiosity bordering on fascination as I continued to learn more about barrels on each tour. I have not yet even mentioned my visit to the new Guinness Brewery in Baltimore, which also featured wooden barrels as it told the story of the evolution to steel barrels. In our world were so much is disposable, the barrel retains so much value.