Dear Small Barrels, I Am Sorry I Made Fun of You


July 9, 2020

When I first learned of the small barrels around 2008, I did what I normally do and judged the process by the whiskey. 

Well, the whiskey stunk. It largely tasted like a mossed-over wooden fence post rotting from the inside. And if you’re about to ask me if I’ve ever licked a fence post, yes, yes, I have. There’s no need to go into how the Harper boys made me do it when hauling hay.

Anyway, most people shared my assessment. Chuck Cowdery went as far as writing an eBook, “Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whisky.”

That book always cracked me up, because Chuck used a period in the title. That was a subtle, “go shove your argument. I just used a period. End of story.” 

Meanwhile, Buffalo Trace studied small barrels, using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels. According to their 2012 press release, the results were less than stellar.  Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

“As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons.  Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley. “These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve.  The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn’t what we would deem as meeting our quality standards.  But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels.  It’s one experiment we are not likely to repeat.”

291 Colorado whiskey uses small barrels. (they sponsor The podcast)

For a good two year period, all of us were jumping on the bandwagon, screaming from the rooftops that small barrels just don’t get the job done. Meanwhile, people kept filling up the smaller barrels and more whiskey started hitting the shelves. And slowly good whiskey started surfacing from smaller barrels. King’s County and Balcones are good examples of some solid whiskey from smaller barrels. 

Then, like a thief in the night, we seemingly moved on to complaining about other things, such as flavored whiskey and a lack of state of distillation… Until those sneaky TTB agents placed some language in the proposed regs to eliminate smaller barrels. That didn’t pass.

Anyway, I was reminded of this smaller barrel debate when Knob Creek released their Quarter Oak offering, a lovely 100-proof bourbon that is aged four years in 13-gallon barrels and married with regular Knob Creek. They did this with Laphroaig, too.

As I tasted and rather enjoyed the Quarter Oak Knob Creek, I kept thinking about all the smaller barrel products in the market today and how so many of them I’ve like when I tasted blind. 

And it presented the fact that, what?, smaller barrels were being used at Jim Beam, a top tier bourbon distillery that churns out some great bourbon. Does that mean it’s okay to like smaller barrels?

Well, to each is own, but I do think we now see smaller barrels deserve a seat at the table and should not be immediately dismissed. Maybe some distillate works in smaller barrels better than others. Perhaps, as Knob Creek did, smaller barrels make better blending agents than straight bourbon. 

Who knows?

But I was wrong about smaller barrels. They belong.

Knob Creek ended the argument for me. And Journeyman, who has a whiskey in contention for my whiskey of the year, put a damn nail in the coffin.

Journeyman, which uses small barrels, has a wheat whiskey in contention for my whiskey of the year.