Small Barrels, Small Minds?

There is yet another controversy in the world of whiskey.  It seems that artisan whiskey producers are putting some of their white dog in small barrels and aging it for a shorter period, claiming that the smaller barrels age the whiskey quicker and they can get the flavors imparted into the whiskey in under half the time than using a standard 53 gallon barrel like the big boy whiskey makers.  The problem comes from these new makers claiming that the small barrels “age whiskey quicker.”  First of all that claim is patently ridiculous as you age whiskey however long you age it, you can’t hasten age.  But the claims abound that the smaller barrels expedite aging and the whiskey is ready for sale in a shorting aging period.

It makes sense in some ways.  The smaller the barrel the more surface area that is touching the whiskey on a per gallon basis.  The more contact the whiskey has with the edges of the barrel, the more barrel flavors that are imparted, potentially speeding up the aging process.  Where the controversy comes in is the claims that some small distillers are making that the less aged whiskey is just as good, or potentially even better than the standard whiskey that is aged in full sized barrels.  The big boy’s argument goes something like this;

1) You can’t age whiskey faster, however you may be able to impart woody barrel flavors faster if you age in smaller barrels;

2) Small barrels impart woody flavors and little else. The whiskey is not left in the barrel long enough to gain the benefits of evaporation, cycling into and out of the wood, and the caramel and vanilla flavors that can come from the barrel char over a number of years;

3) Small barrels may actually ruin the flavor if not aged properly, because all the whiskey will pick up is woody tannens and lead to an unbalanced and astringent flavored whiskey;

4) Small barrels suck and are for losers!

Of course the artisan distillers are saying that the big producers are just bellowing about it because they are vested in large barrels and don’t have the attention span for small barrel aging.  They cannot market and make money on a small barrel product like the artisan distillers can, so instead they are attacking the credibility of the small barrel whiskey.

Here is my take on this “controversy.”  Let the market take care of it.  If the small barrel whiskey is truly worse than the large barrel stuff, the big barrel distillers have nothing to worry about.  But I let my taste buds be my guide.  If it is good I know it.  A good example of this is about a year ago Jim and I were each sent some whiskey by New Holland Artisnal Spirits.  One was Zeppelin Bend, and the other was their Brewers Whiskey.  The Brewers whiskey was aged for 6 months in five gallon Barrels, and the Zepplin Bend was aged longer, and might have been aged in slightly larger barrels, but I can’t remember.  I do know that it too was aged in a small barrel.  Both were good, but the Brewer’s whiskey was fantastic!  The Zepplin Bend was good, but nothing I would run out and buy, because there are cheaper and better whiskeys.

The big boys say they are worried that small artisnal barrels of whiskey that are bad will bring down the entire industry.  They are sensitive because they just went through a pretty big upheaval where product wasn’t moving.  This might be a concern, but not because bad whiskey will turn people off to the product, but because there is more choice than ever, and some will choose the other whiskeys.  The market will adjust, and all will be just fine.  This is a big sand box and there is plenty of room for everyone to play. I’m just happy that choices are increasing.

Have you had any small barrel whiskey?  What were your thoughts?  Let us know in the comments.


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34 Comments on “Small Barrels, Small Minds?”

  1. August 17, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    I think the best we can hope for here is that we get something different and also good, sort of like Brettanomyces has been for American Wild Ales. They’re not the same as Belgian sours, but they are also delicious and easier (and usually cheaper) to get, so there’s room for both. Hard to see this trick really achieving the SAME taste as aging, though, if it works at all.

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 11:36 am #

      I think only time adds to depth of flavor. But there are some interesting choices now that haven’t been around before. I’m all for experimentation, but it is like anything if you pay attention to it you can make some great stuff, but if you don’t, crap will ensue.

  2. August 17, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    I say add staves of oak to the mix to speed things along.

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 11:36 am #

      Works for Maker’s 46.

      • John J
        August 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

        Not sure where I stand on the 46 yet?

        • Don
          August 17, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

          I think it is a good serviceable product. I like the heat forward mixed with the flavor that the french Oak staves produce. Not a go to, but not a dog either.

    • August 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

      The heck with staves Jim, just throw in some some of those mesquite b-b-q briquets and a little liquid smoke–you won’t even need a barrel!

      Truthfully, it sounds as though people who know better, i.e., the actual distillers. may be being overpowered by the corporate CFO’s. My take is if they want to market this stuff with a different name and at a lower price, more power to them, but don’t foist it off as the same product as the single-barrel whisky they produced the old way. New product–new name–different consumer expectations!

      • Don
        August 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

        Actually what I think people are finding out with all these different spirit applications is that the definition of “Whiskey” is tremendously broad. Bourbon has been the traditional “whiskey” in this country for so long, I think that is the mindset that people have as to what is actually whiskey. Truth is you can make whiskey out of almost any grain and almost any mashbill and aging. Bourbon has rules, but Whiskey is wide open and the consumer might not ever know what they are getting from some of these artisan distillers.

  3. johnking82
    August 17, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Don, you hit the nail on the head…let the market do the talking and it will. Think of it almost from a big beer area…are people more apt to likely to buy a RIS which was aged in a barrel for a month…or a week. Chances are a month will win out unless there is a big price difference. I think a price difference is the only thing that could worry the big boys of bourbon. If someone can age it in a 5 or 15 gallon barrel, it tastes just as good, and is $10-15 bucks cheaper…the market might show some different trends.

    I actually just had this same conversation with my neighbor (a Beam descendant) who is starting a nano-distillery called Limestone Branch here in Lebanon, KY. He is doing both big barrels and smaller barrels. As a homebrewer, I told him I love the idea of a small barrel because then I could use it for brewing. Like any brewing or distilling, this is just experimenting, what every company does. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 11:53 am #

      Hey John, I think the small barrel thing will catch on, but it will always be a small sector of the overall market. Right now the distillers that age in small barrels are quite a bit more expensive. The 350 that Jim and I had from New Holland ran about $29. That is over $60 for a full sized bottle, and that is pretty high end stuff. So it better be good at those prices.

  4. August 17, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Love the small barrels as a homebrewer. It’s a lot easier to fill a 6-8 gallon barrel and get all those tasty flavors.

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 11:55 am #

      The re-use market for the small barrels definitely includes small scale and home brewers. Is a matter of fact many of the breweries that also distill use the used barrels for beer. Then they cut them in half and use them to grow hops! Its like the circle of life for a barrel.

  5. John J
    August 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    You can’t replace time. To say you age quicker is really asinine. Plus you payed $29 and the Hudsons are around $40 and $50 for 350ml. They can kiss my ass. If I spend big money on a whiskey I have either sampled it or it’s a proven product and they never sample the small bottles around here. So I am wary of small bottle’s and small barrels and quick aging. Now the beer Idea sounds like a good idea but for the rest they can send me a sample and if they prove themselves I may then relent on this opinion. Of course these smaller bottles would be easier to sneak in the house…

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      There is that, you can sneak them in without wearing a parka! I hear you on the price. Jim had the Hudsons and thought it was kind of Meh. That is a lot of $$ to fork over for mediocre whiskey. It’s like craft beer for the rich. You spend a lot and maybe it will be good.

  6. August 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    You know a thought just occurred to me. I have one of those little brandy barrels that St. Bernards’ reputedly wore around their necks (it was given to us after we rescued the first of our Saints). If I char the inside and then pour in a fifth of Olde Frothingslosh, it should be ‘barrel-aged’ in about 2 hours. H’mmmm, wonder what I could charge for it? (Hey, Big Whiskey are you reading this? I thought of it first!)

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

      I’m thinking that little replica might not be water tight. I’d hate for you to waste a fifth!

  7. Dennis Downing
    August 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Just for clarity, Zeppelin Bend is aged a minimum of 3 years in traditional 53 gallon casks.

    “Aging” whiskey in charred American Oak casks involves many processes, they are all scientifically quantified. The primary process is extraction, extraction of flavor and aroma components from the wood. The rate of this extraction is largely dictated by the surface area to volume ratio of the whiskey in the barrel. Proof in the barrel can also effect this extraction process. Another process is oxygen catalyzed reactions of ethanol with components both from the wood and the distillate. This process can take some time since oxygen needs to enter the cask as distillate evaporates from the cask (angels share). Small casks also have accelerated evaporation due to increased surface area to volume ratio.

    Small cask whiskey is not a “trick”. Smaller casks accelerate the extraction process, and the evaporation process by increasing the surface area to volume ratio. It’s quite likely this acceleration of extraction and evaporation produces different ratios of flavor and aroma components, for better or worse, that’s for each person to decide.

    • Don
      August 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

      Good points Dennis. I think what people need to realize is it isn’t about method, but about the product. If the product is good, there will be a market for it, and the whiskey will be successful. If not, you may fool a consumer once, but you won’t fool them twice. I really don’t understand why this is even a controversy. If you make good whiskey, then its good, regardless if it was aged in a 53 gallon barrel or one that fits on the kitchen counter. Good is good, and I think all this debate is just vapid. Make good whiskey. I don’t care how you make it as long as you make it good. BTW, could you send me another bottle of that Brewer’s Whiskey, Pleeeeessseeee! That stuff is amazing! 😉

  8. August 17, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    The theory of surface volume and extraction makes sense and is all well and good, but I’m here to tell you that for good or bad, age and aging do make a large, qualitative difference! Much of the enjoyment of a good product is in the anticipation, and the longer the wait the greater the anticipation. Please don’t make the production of quality whiskey another sound byte.

  9. Rick
    August 17, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    I tried a Hudson Baby Bourbon a few weeks ago, I was on the road for a few days and didn’t want to haul any extra whiskey thru airport security. It was very good, but I really didn’t think it was at all worth approximately $80 per 1/5. Would much prefer a Four Roses Single Barrel or similar.
    (I am enjoying a bit of Lagavulin cask strength as I write this. Ban me if you will, but sometimes I prefer a little peat over a lot of pepper)

    • August 17, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

      Cask strength Lagavulin??? Where did you get this?

      • Rick
        August 18, 2011 at 10:37 am #

        I bought it at a store in Carmel, IN. Binny’s stores around Chicago carry it as well. 56.5% ABV

        • August 18, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

          Nice! Thanks for the info.

  10. BeerBanker
    August 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Damn good question G-Lo…What kind of royal family connections did it take, Rick ???

  11. Trevor B
    August 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I would like to point out that scotch is aged significantly longer than bourbon, (due to climate and previously used barrels) but scotch manufacturers aren’t making these claims about bourbon. I think small barrel is just another way to age a spirit, I agree you will get less of the aging and more of a wood infusion, but why is that a bad thing, I see it as just different.

    • Don
      August 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      Agreed Trevor, but not about the Scotch thing, as that is wrong. But I don’t see it as a bad thing either, just different. I think many of the bourbon manufacturers are concerned because if the whiskey is bad (i.e. flavored) that it will somehow reflect poorly on the entire spirit, and not just the bad one that someone tried (perhaps for the first time and formed a wrong impression). I think this is what they are worried about, but I agree it is a little silly for them to be so concerned and that perhaps they could use it as an opportunity to innovate and make some new whiskeys themselves.

      As for aging of scotches, many of them are aged for a long time, but so are many bourbons. But I’ve had scotch that is agaed less than 5 years and I’ve had bourbons that were aged over 20 years. On balance you may be correct, but that is a pretty blanket statement to throw out there. Plus when you get to be my age, you become WAY more age SENSITIVE! 😉

  12. John Szitle
    March 3, 2012 at 12:06 am #

    I’m late, but, heres the lowdown.

    As Trevor said, its an infusion. There is a lot of organoleptic acids that are being hydrolysed and changed during the aging process. Fast aging doesnt allow all of these processes to take place. What hasn’t been mentioned is quality entering the cask. Commercial distilleries set their baselines high and pass on their profits as a hangover to the consumer, literally. Big name distilleries put out a “hot” product that needs a long time on oak to smooth. I’d like to see you try JD white against any micro white, I think I know which one would taste better. I don’t want to say that as a blanket statement, some spirits are clean, but, most arent. What micros lack in time they make up for in precise distilling methods. I think a lot of the micros today suck because their owner suck and don’t know wtf they’re doing. I can’t say it any nicer way. Quality whiskey doesn’t necessitate long aging, rough whiskey does.

  13. Joe Goedhart
    March 6, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I believe the moonshiners of old used to put a keg under grandmas rocking chair, or tie it on a rope, and throw it in a flowing creek. The sailors always had the best rum because of the rocking of the ship.I’m talking centuries.. Need I say any more….?

  14. August 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Hello all,

    I thought I would step in here as I am the CEO of the Thousand Oaks Barrel Co. We sell 1 liter to 15 gallon barrels all over the world and work with both major distilleries and most micro-distilleries using accelerated aging (small) barrels for commercial use as well as with packaged products i.e. 2 liter barrel with 2 bottles of white dog. Yes… those our my barrels.

    After reading the posts I will chime in with some information. First, if anyone is interested in getting the facts on accelerated aging barrels you can turn to a book put out by the Independant Stave Co. The book is the definitive resource on barrel aging and clearly describes in scientific terms exactly what is happening between the oak, the spirit and time.

    It is true that time (many years) gives a level of complexity to spirits that cannot be achieved in weeks. It is also true that an average pallet, would have a hard time identifing these complexities.

    It is also true that “many” of the micro-distilleries that have won top awards in the past 2 years have aged their spirits in 5, 10 and 15 gallon barrels for in most cases less than 2 years.

    To say that aging in small barrels does not work, simply is an untrue statement. In addition, the consumers purchasing small (1-5 liter) barrels and aging spirits at home love the final product and connect with the brand whos spirit they are aging.

    Quite simply put, small barrels create a great spirit and a happy loyal consumer.

  15. Joe
    September 8, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    Laphroaig quarter cask. – End of argument.

    • Leroy Jenkems
      August 1, 2013 at 12:55 am #

      Laph QC is a fully matured single malt merely finished in a small cask.

  16. Jerry Walters
    September 14, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    I tripped over this article the other day – it had a wider point of view compared to some of the other things I’ve seen, bringing in chemistry and what’s going on outside of the U.S. (like Joe’s Laphroaig quarter cask).

    I hate to put it this way, but when I read what Chuck Cowdery writes about this, the point about freedom to experiment is well taken. You can see some of the big distilleries and self-righteous pundits like Cowdery wishing they did, in fact, have the power to put a stop to all this small cask stuff.


  1. That’s the Spirit: Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro Tequila | Tasty Terminus - September 28, 2011

    […] works isn’t as clear as the spirit (although, to be fair, exactly how aging imparts flavor isn’t particularly well understood […]

  2. More Wood for Thought… | Beer & Whiskey Bros. - September 27, 2012

    […] Well, this issue of small barrels just won’t go away, and I think it will be with us to stay.  I certainly hope the debate around it dies down, however, but the gist of the argument is this, Small barrels can age whiskey quicker than large because the smaller the whiskey volume to wood ratio is, the more whiskey is affected by the wood, thus it can age quicker.  Seems pretty simple, but some of the purists are saying that there is no replacement for time in wood.  There is some merit there as well as I discussed about a year ago here. […]

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