Roll Out the Barrel

March 30, 2021

I love when a good story can come out of nowhere and make you rethink everything you thought you knew. Or beliefs you have held are challenged but in a good way. Like the belief that bourbon has to come from Kentucky, or older whiskeys are better, or the one that led me to today’s episode, that Scotch has aged in barrels going back centuries.

First off, bourbon can be made anywhere in the US, but to be called bourbon it has to be American-made. Second, older whiskey can be great, but its age really doesn’t matter if it’s not distilled correctly in the first place. And for Scotch being aged in barrels? We’re now learning that it only started about 200 years ago!

To be clear, Scotch has almost always been stored in cheap, used barrels. The problem with these cheap barrels is they had originally held items like fish, hog-knuckles, or just about anything else that people used barrels for. So you could imagine the taste of Scotch after sitting in one of these. That’s why most people preferred their Scotch fresh from the still.

It took a French tragedy to change all of this. A blight in the late 1800s destroyed grape crops and wiped out cognac supplies through Europe. With their drink of choice unavailable, the French switched to sherry, which was made in barrels. Once the sherry was drunk, the barrels stacked up, and the Scottish swooped in to take advantage of these cheap, empty, non-fish-smelling barrels. The distillers learned that the longer their whiskey sat in these barrels, the better the taste, and the higher the demand. Soon after, the Scots begin to age their whiskeys accordingly.

In fact, since American bourbon can only be made once, in a new charred oak barrel, many of those barrels are shipped to Scotland to age your favorite scotch. So raise a dram to the humble barrel, without it whiskey wouldn’t be much more than moonshine.