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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Barrel Fever

Some Bourbon myths debunked

That'll get the fish smell out...

We were sitting in a basement bar under Louisville’s famed Whiskey Row sipping from a $230 bottle of 23-year-old bourbon. It was a dark, wood paneled place under the Evan Williams building and it would have been a thing of beauty but for having the feel of a movie set. Still the whiskey was something to sing about and, of course, we were singing the usual absurdities about caramel notes, heat, hints of vanilla and pouty insolence. My grandfather drank Evan Williams and I had the vague notion, even as a kid, that it wasn’t particularly fine. What we were drinking was definitely not the brown water I snuck out of my parent’s liquor cabinet.

This is what a guy’s road trip looks like on the far side of forty: A little calmer, the bars a bit cleaner and the drinks a lot better. All of which made me feel very sophisticated until I looked at my watch and noted that almost exactly twenty-four hours earlier, after a well lubricated lunch in Nashville, there had been car-to-car mooning. As it turns out, being a fourteen-year-old boy is a little like herpes – it’s controllable but there is no known cure.

A boy can walk out the door and go “play” for twelve hours without needing to explain himself. After a certain age, however, it is considered bad form not to have a plan. One of group told his wife “We’re all just students of the craft.” Which is why he’s in sales and I sit around writing waggish wisecracks. His wife is some manner of financial mastermind who was kind enough not to laugh out loud at us.

That "Student of the craft" bit isn’t pure cow flop – just about 75% pure. Which isn’t bad considering that on any given day the industry itself believes 90% of its own flop. At the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, they’ll tell you that one Elijah Craig, preacher and distiller (because, evidently ye olde Protestant God used to be pretty mellow on the booze question) suffered a fire in his warehouse which – the constraints of the physical universe be damned – charred only the inside of the barrels. Being too cheap to replace the barrels, Rev. Craig accidentally invented bourbon.

Meanwhile, down in the basement of the Evans Williams building (also owned by Heaven Hill) a fella in a prohibition era straw boater told how the same tightwad Rev. Craig bought some second-hand barrels that had been used to transport salted fish, so he charred the insides to remove the fishy taste. I don’t know much, but I know enough to fact check a man wearing a boater in this day and age.

So I called Chris Morris, the master distiller responsible for Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. One summer when Tom was 16, his father (who worked for Brown-Forman) told him one summer that the master distiller needed some help around the distillery. Tom worked there through college and has literally been there ever since. He’s also a member of Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and a serious amateur historian. A guy that stable is only about 1.5-2% flop, which is all you can ask of a functioning adult these days.

“First of all,” he said as we drove around Louisville, “you can’t make a barrel without heating the staves. That’s the only way to get them to bend.” There is archeological evidence that the ancient Phoenicians charred their barrels from time to time. Then there is also the implausible theory that Rev. Craig was trying to get the fish smell out of the barrels. “Yes, people reused barrels,” Morris said, “but they reused them for the same purpose. They wouldn’t have stored whiskey in a barrel made for fish any more than we’d use an iPhone as a microwave.”

Call the innovation serendipity or just blind luck, but as the product that sat in the odd charred barrels, it began to change and mellow as the temperature fluctuations drew the liquor in and out of the wood. “Red Whiskey,” with its deeper, smoother flavor proved popular because, unlike white lightening, it wasn’t God-awful. With a little reverse engineering, distillers figured out the trick.

It’s what separates whisky (or whiskey) from other grain spirits like gin and vodka – and exercises in masochism like moonshine. From a pure physics point of view, it has less to do with age than it does exposure to that charred wood, called the surface to volume ratio. Meaning the smaller the cask, the faster it matures. Experts (as opposed to students of the craft) estimate that some 60% of the aroma and taste comes from the wood, rather than the mash bill.

America, though, is a melting pot, and the first big market for that "Red Whiskey" wasn’t Kentucky, but New Orleans. As the Mississippi River opened up to American traders, Louisiana still wanted to be French. The whiskey that was shipped down to New Orleans – marked “Bourbon County” - sat in barrels longer, sloshing around on that massive current and started to mimic the colors, flavors and feel of the cognac that was beloved by the creoles, but at a fraction of the price.

And so it was that the bourbon we know today became the all-American Spirit, more or less, by trying to impress the French.


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