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.