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.