Can we take a minute to talk about how awesome barrels are? Not only do they give bourbon all of its color and a lot of its flavor (think: vanillas and caramels just for starters), they also cradle the precious liquid inside until it’s fully mature and ready for bottling. Like many aspects of the distilling industry, it’s a technology that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.
Theoretically you could build boxes out of oak, char them on the insides, and then seal the liquid in there to mature. There’s no law against using other types of charred oak containers for maturation of bourbon. They would certainly be easier to store- just stack them up and avoid the expense of building ricks. One problem with that- they would be epically hard to move.
One of the many reasons barrels are the preferred storage container for bourbon is how easy they are for one person to move, especially on a gravity-powered barrel run. A single person can easily get a barrel started rolling, and with a little practice one person can control a barrel’s movement. Older distilleries were built to optimize the use of gravity in moving barrels from the barreling porch to the rick house, and there’s really no need to improve upon that system.
One aspect of barrel rolling that is often overlooked is positioning. If the barrel rolls into the ricks bung-down, there will likely be a major leak. The position of the barrel is premeditated- even before it snuggles up to the other barrels in the rick, the final position has been determined. If you know it takes x revolutions of a standard sized barrel to make it to the next position, you know where you need to position the bung in order for it to end up where it belongs in the end. After all, no one wants to try to wrestle a full barrel into the correct position one it has entered the racks.
Barrel rolling is such an art form there’s a yearly contest held at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival to test the best of the best. The object of the contest is not only speed, though the team with the lowest time wins. It’s also a test to see which team can get the most barrels bung-up, and time is subtracted for each bung-up barrel in its final resting place.
It’s easy to look upon the past as a simpler time when people weren’t as educated as we are today, but considering the fundamental day-to-day operations of a bourbon distillery haven’t changed much in the last hundred or so years, one can easily develop an appreciation for the wisdom of our ancestors.
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One night during Derby week, I was working in the liquor store while Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was doing a tasting. I kept trying to make my way over to talk to him, but we were super busy (did I mention it was Derby week?) and I didn't...