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Perspective: The large vs. small barrel debate

Some of you may have seen the news from Buffalo Trace on their experiments with smaller vs. larger barrels. Long story short – they concluded that small barrels were not optimal for aging whiskey “to maturity”. In order to get these findings, Buffalo Trace aged their standard bourbon (Mashbill #1) for 5 years in 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels.

Many, including me, were glad to see the results of this experiment come through. Noted whiskey writers like Chuck Cowdery, and (I believe) Lew Bryson, were able to actually taste the whiskeys from Buffalo Trace late last summer/early Fall. Cowdery wrote a post on his site as well as an article (available on Kindle or Nook) on the topic.

I have stated my feelings about small barrels over the last couple of years. I don’t believe they are a secret to anyone that reads this site regularly. Smaller barrels (of the 5, 10, and 15 gallon variety) have become the barrel size of choice for most of the micro distilleries popping up all over the place. Proponents claim they “age the whiskey quicker” than the standard 53 gallon barrel used by larger distilleries. I’m no chemist. I’m pretty sure I never got better than a “C” average in the subject. I do know this – age is age. You cannot age something faster, especially not whiskey.

My personal experiences with younger whiskeys aged in smaller barrels aren’t scientific in the least, but they ARE based on smell and taste. At the end of the day isn’t that what matters? In nearly all examples of small barrel-aged American Whiskeys that I’ve tried, a somewhat funky, green wood, and resiny bitterness asserts itself on the nose and palate. Fortunately some I’ve tried have had less of this quality, making them quite enjoyable, but elements of these flavors are still present.

Basically I agree with Buffalo Trace’s end conclusion – smaller barrels do not age whiskey more optimally than larger barrels, especially long term. But do larger barrels produce a better young whiskey than small barrels? Example: to my knowledge nobody has tasted a large barrel and a small barrel side by side at say 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. etc and reported the results. Last week I was able to gain a lot more perspective on this debate……..

Thursday afternoon I received a call from Mike Williams, proprietor of Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier & McKeel Tennessee Whiskey. Since April 2011 Mike’s been distilling (not sourcing), bottling, and selling one of the first whiskeys in Tennessee (since Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) to follow the Lincoln County Process (charcoal “mellowing”). Mike didn’t call me to come review his whiskey. Instead he had a different proposition for me – - “Jason I’m moving some barrels to our new distillery location. We happen to have a 53 gallon barrel that has been aging for the same period of time as our 15 gallon barrels.” I was intrigued. He then asked me, “Would you like to come try them both side by side?” It took me about a half second to say “yes”. We made arrangements to meet last Friday afternoon.

For some quick background – Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with barrel sizes since the distillery opened. The whiskey was initially aged in 5 gallon barrels with a goal to move to 15 gallon barrels as soon as possible. That goal was met quickly. Within a few months Collier and McKeel whiskey was being aged in 15s.

By the time last Fall rolled around, the distillery had begun producing consistently enough to warrant a look at 53 gallon barrels. Mike sourced some of the standard 53s, and filled one in October of last year. It was this very barrel that Mike Williams referenced on the phone with me. When I met him that day he also confirmed that both barrels were filled the same day in October and aged the same length of time at just over 6 months.

Mike does know my thoughts on small barrels. In some respects he shares the same viewpoint – we’ve discussed it before. In an effort to make the tasting as unbiased as possible I suggested tasting them blind. I turned my back for 4-5 minutes while he pulled off a good pour from each barrel into a couple of glasses. After giving me the signal, I turned around and moved in quickly so as not to study the color too intently from afar. I cannot tell a lie, my eyes did examine the contents a bit longer than I’d like. The variances were not that dramatic, but enough to clue me in. Color can be a dead giveaway because the larger surface area interaction in the smaller barrels deepens the color in a shorter period of time.

Even before trying Sample B (Large Barrel), a deep whiff of Sample A (Small Barrel) was all it took to determine that it was in fact aged in the smaller barrels. I nodded in the direction of Sample A and then continued with the comparison. Sample A (Small Barrel) demonstrated a far headier sweetness on the nose with much more caramel, vanilla, and wood spice influence. The big backbone of oak and wood resin bitterness helped give it away. Sample B (Large Barrel) in contrast was brighter, crisper, and with that new make whiskey funk (sour grain and cereals) often more prevalent on heavy corn mashbills (Collier and McKeel’s grain recipe is 75% Corn, 15% Rye, and 10% Barley Malt). Tasting each whiskey didn’t do anything to sway my initial thoughts on which was which. It was clear from the start.

Once Mike confirmed my thoughts were correct, he asked for my opinion on which I enjoyed most. Simply put, Sample A (the 15 gallon barrel) was by far the best of the two. It certainly tasted young (it is!) but there was no contest. I even blended a portion of each sample together and gave that a try. The result was the same. The smaller barrel produced the best whiskey at this age. And it was good whiskey. The 53 on the other hand was thin, and still tasted primarily of the new-make.

Mike let me know that Collier and McKeel intends to age more 53 gallon barrels to hold until they are ready. They will continue sampling these larger barrels alongside the 15s to determine at what point the big barrels begin to shine. Until then, they will sell whiskey from 15 gallon barrels. “I would love to go away from 15 gallon barrels”, added Mike. “From a cost standpoint alone, I can get the larger barrels in my hands for 2/3rds of the price of the 15 gallon barrels. Right now the 15′s just make better whiskey at this age range. It’s a balance for us.”

This experiment was a great one for me to see first hand. It also put things into better context for me. Buffalo Trace’s conclusion is still correct. Larger barrels do in fact age whiskey more optimally. They also can age whiskey for a longer period without the adverse affects of too much wood interaction. However, my Friday tasting with Mike was a great example of where the small barrels yielded a better product at 6 months. At what point that changes remains to be seen. I hope to have an opportunity to try the same large barrel in another 6 months to a year and see where things are at that point.

A few weeks ago I posted about the “shades of gray” that exist within the whiskey industry. Add the large vs. small barrel debate to the list. It’s very easy to be on one side or the other of this discussion. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you are a new distillery looking to make the best whiskey you can make, I would still urge you to go with large barrels. However if time is of the essence and you must make the best whiskey you can in the shortest amount of time – small barrels are still your best bet.

Thanks go to Mike Williams at Collier and McKeel for the chance to taste these side by side. It was an education and it was fun.

20 Comments

  1. Rick B. says:

    I can see the bit where young distillerys would look for ways to speed up the “aging” process if they needed the cash flow, simple economics. But, personally, I don’t mind buying from the old line companies, so I’ll take the genuinely made product about every time.

    Also, it’s obvious an outfit like Buffalo Trace would know what they’re talking about vis a vis barrel size.

  2. Most of the guys I know that use small barrels, and whose product I respect, are using a variety of sizes. They might age in small barrels for a while to get the wood extracts they are looking for and then switch that over to a larger barrel to stop that extraction…or to slow it down. They might rest it in stainless steel to get oxidation without extraction. Or they might blend a variety of sizes and ages to get the profile they are looking for. I think it ties into a comment from Chuck Cowdery’s recent blog post about age statements. While we use age statements on some of our whiskies, I think the real judge should be about the final product. It’s either “up to snuff” or it isn’t.
    In my opinion, craft guys are getting better at making really good
    whiskey in small barrels. For example, 6-8 month old product is better today than the same age product 2 years ago. I think people are learning more about their craft and learning how to work with small barrels…what you can and can’t do with whiskey.

  3. Rick, I absolutely agree that Buffalo Trace’s end experiment was correct from the standpoint that they found out over a 5 year period, the larger barrels produced dramatically better whiskey. I don’t even need to taste it to feel like they are correct. I concur with them.

    However, what many are stating is that small barrels don’t work or don’t produce whiskey that tastes better than larger barrels. I had the opportunity to make my own determination on whiskey that was 6 months old. I found the smaller barrel to not only be better, but much better than the larger barrel at 6 months.

    What I’m simply trying to get across in my post is things are not as black and white. There are points at which the smaller barrels produce a better product. Is it better than the longer aged whiskey in larger barrels? Nope, not in my opinion. But it is better than similar aged, young whiskey from larger barrels.

    Again, I believe BT got their experiment right, but I’d like to see their notes at the 6 month, 12 month, 18 month, etc. They probably have that data, and I think if they tasted them consistently they too would have found the smaller barrels better at the younger ages. At what point things begin to shift is what I’d love to know, but not sure we will.

  4. Bourbon Guy says:

    While I also don’t disagree with the outcome of BT’s experiment, I feel like they could have tasted the barrels at a younger age AND changed up the entry proof . If they did that, I think the results would have been different.

  5. John, thanks for the comment. I agree, the craft stuff is getting better – big strides in the last 12 months. Collier and McKeel’s stuff I tasted last Friday was FAR FAR better than the stuff I tried from their first run. It’s not even close.

    Here’s my issue. The craft folks are missing the boat a little putting out 6-12 year old whiskey but charging much higher prices. Hudson was able to do it so I think others feel they should be able to. Hudson was nearby NYC and were able to get it into influential hands in the bar scene of the biggest city in the US. And they are an exception to the rule. Joe Bourbon selling 6-12 month old whiskey for $45 trying to get distribution coverage in Texas or wherever is really just silly. It’s happening. Sure they’ll sell a bottle to someone that doesn’t know any better, but as soon as that first pallet of whiskey is moved, things stall.

    I’m not on the distiller side of the table so I cannot even guess whit it costs your distillery, Smooth Ambler, to produce Yearling. I also know you have limited supply of it. But what is the feedback you receive on it from consumers? I just all of the craft whiskey distillers selling young stuff should take a hard look at the price.

    If it’s priced alongside something aged 11-12 years that you know is good, how does a small micro ever intend to reach a critical mass? That’s the question I have. Without a price point that almost makes craft whiskeys its own category, or continued moves to longer aged products in larger barrels, I’m just not sure where some of the distilleries are going to be in 2, 4, 6 years. I want all of you guys to succeed, believe me. I think it’s great for the industry, but at the end of the day it’s got to be priced in line to have some consistent stickiness in the marketplace.

  6. Justin says:

    Smaller barrels–particularly the 15 gallon “quarter cask” size–is very common in scotch production. Ardmore finishes in quarter casks, and Laphroaig has both a quarter cask finish as well as a triple wood offering where the smaller barrel is the medium stage of aging with the finish in ex sherry casks. In my tasting the increased contact with the barrel imparts increased sweetness up front and a drier, spicier finish–if it’s done well, that is. I feel like the Baby Bourbon is respectable, and, while I thought that Collier and McKeel tasted pretty good, it ultimately showed its youth with not enough complexity accentuating the heavy corn notes–even with the smaller barrels.

    The last half of that was kind of a tangent, but this is just to say that if scotch houses do it and find ways to augment their flavors, and bourbon considers itself just as prominent–and I sure as hell do–then there is no reason why smaller barrels shouldn’t be incorporated into the maturation process for some offerings. In my opinion, some things are simply less interesting in a bourbon context; Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma Cutrer finish killed any hope I had for wine finished bourbon. But as far as size is concerned, if the option is there it seems foolish not to take advantage, at least in later stages of aging.

  7. Bmac says:

    In regards to Justin’s comment; perhaps that is a better way to proceed with quarter sized barrels? Use the standard 53 gallon barrels to age the 2 year minimum requirement for bourbon. Then finish it in a quarter cask. This way it gets the best of both worlds?

  8. Jason, I’m not sure the craft guys have to worry about critical mass just yet. For our merchant bottled products, like Old Scout, it’s obviously important, but most craft guys can’t make enough product to obtain any real critical mass anyway.

    It’s obviously a tricky problem. Small barrels cost 5-6 times as much, on a per gallon basis, as “big” barrels. We really get no economies of scale. I think we have to be successful telling our story and getting people to be emotionally invested in the story, the process, the people, etc before we can ask them to become financially invested…i.e. paying more for our product than they might otherwise be willing to pay for the standard. I also think we have to not only tell that story, but to make a really great product…and a product that’s different from what they might currently be buying. Can you compare 6 month old bourbon in a small barrel to 12 year old bourbon in a big barrel? Probably not, in most every circumstance. But we have to start somewhere. We HAVE to. I think the way to do that is to make products that aren’t exactly like the standard bourbons or whiskies on the market. For instance, we use almost 20% wheat and 20% malt in our Yearling. It’s different. We also make a bourbon that’s 60% corn and 40% of a blend of 3 malts. We make a wheat whiskey. We have to be different or people will constantly do the age statement comparisons.
    With that said, I don’t feel like we are out of line with our pricing. Yearling retails for around $25. Granted, it’s only a 375. But it allows people to try our product without shelling out $44-$50 for a fifth. I’ve heard people complain about the fact that we sell only 375′s, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about the price, even in WV, where the market might be a little tighter than it is in other markets.
    More on track with the big barrel/small barrel comparison:
    Almost all of the barrels we are putting away now are big barrels. I think we’ve reached a point where we can make it the next 2 years on small barrel product and then we will be dipping into 4 year old big barrels…or blends of the varying sizes. As mentioned, it’s much more affordable to age in big barrels. Maybe that helps our pricing down the road as well.

  9. BMc says:

    Yearling sells for about $45 a 375 ml bottle in DC. Maybe it’s just a huge markup by the distributors and retailers, but it’s a fairly consistent price point, at least the few times I’ve seen it.

  10. I’m not sure how to address that other than to say that we have NO intention of selling a 375 ml for that price. I will attempt to address that issue as best I can. Immediately.

  11. MW says:

    I think part of the problem with this whole small barrel discussion is that they use the word “aging” when really, they should be using “finishing” or some other legal term. Whiskey in a cask for 6 months is “finishing” IMO. They are cheapening the meaning of aging by putting this stuff on the market in the same category as whiskey that is more than 4 years old. They are deliberately confusing consumers to sell their product.

    I would like to see legislation addressing this issue. I think it would be in the whiskey industry’s best interest & definitely the consumer’s best interest. I want to see these small companies prosper but not at the expense of consumers. I’ve tried enough of these “finished” (6 mo-24 mo) whiskeys that I’ve learned NOT to buy bottles of it anymore. Most of it is overpriced crap.

  12. BMc says:

    Thanks John – I just assumed it’s out of your hands, since you can’t control the tendencies of the wholesalers and the (oh, so often) unscrupulous retailers. My guess is that they mark up like crazy anything they perceive as limited. And wasn’t your first offering less than 1000 bottles? Anyway, it’s kept me from trying it, but it’s good to know the MSRP is much less.

    BTW, my ginhead friends adore your gin. They picked it up from you personally at some store, while they were stopping for something else, and just loved it.

    Ben

  13. John, let me be clear. I know you guys work to make great products. Old Scout, your sourced Bourbon, is something that I really enjoyed (as you know). I don’t believe that product is out of line in the least. I bring up Yearling because that’s the whiskey you have that I’m aware of that falls in that “young” age category. So I am genuinely interested in the comments you’ve received. I hopt to try it soon and I’ll be able to see for myself, but thought you could shed some light on the topic.

    One thing is for sure. I do appreciare how Smooth Ambler is well out front and center in terms of being transparent and full disclosure. That is a big deal when trying to build your brand and take your business somewhere.

    Also, your comments here are straight up and enlightening – thanks for sharing your perspective.

  14. John Little says:

    Thanks Jason. I love the comments and the back and forth…remember, I’m learning too…we are all. I will tell you that all future batches of Yearling are blends of big and small, or some combination of finishes in big and small barrels. It’s just making better spirit and our goal is to improve every single batch.

    Ben, thanks for the nice comments on the gin. I will tell you that I called my distributor today regarding the Yearling price and he’s looking into it. I don’t want to be on the shelf at that price….and our price to the distributor shows it (even though I won’t share that here). He assures me, and he’s a great guy, that we will address the issue ASAP. I’d love to know where you saw that and you can email me directly if you prefer. I don’t want to sidetrack the subject and I feel like I’ve done that already. And yes, my first run was only 700 bottles.

    Back on track…I really want to try the Collier and McKeel Whiskey. I heard from someone else it was really good.

  15. Charles Gill says:

    Enjoyed this article. I am a HUGE fan of Collier & McKeel’s white whiskey. Their short-aged Tennessee whiskey has taken me a little more effort to find my way into, but I will also state that I find it very enjoyable at barrel proof (having been fortunate to have sampled it that way), and would love to see it offered in bottles at barrel proof. Ultimately, I’m really looking forward to seeing what it does after a few years in the big barrel!

  16. Thanks for the comment Charles!

  17. sam k says:

    Another excellent topic, Jason. Though I haven’t read Chuck’s e-book (I got no reader!), the title seems intentionally incendiary (not necessarily a bad thing). Small barrels can produce acceptable whiskey that can’t necessarily be compared to those aged longer in bigger barrels. Buffalo Trace seems to have used flawed logic in keeping whiskey in those small barrels much longer than they should have, and maybe that was to make a point.

    Historically, 53 gallon barrels are relative newcomers, anyway. Before them, there was a 40-something gallon standard barrel, and I have evidence of Pennsylvania rye being aged in 35 gallon barrels in the 1870s.

    Lousy? No, just different.

  18. Sam, thanks for the comment and perspective. As always – great insight.

  19. Jack Willow says:

    I found this on another site I lurk at, which brings in certain notions like chemistry specifics and what folks outside of the U.S. are doing in the same department. Those add some dimension to this whiskey-making spat, as does your own side-by-side experience. Thanks for sharing that with us!

    http://whiskeyreviewer.com/2012/09/small-barrel-aging-101/

    I think the guy’s point about freedom to experiment is well-taken. You can just tell from the way Chuck Cowdery rants about this that the guy would love to be the one to step in and tell some micro-distillery “NO – you can’t do that!” So would some big distillers out there, I’m sure. Thank god they can’t.

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