Who First Charred Oak Barrels for Bourbon or Whiskey?

Who First Charred Oak Barrels for Bourbon or Whiskey?

There are a thousand articles on what a charred barrel does for whiskey, or bourbon, or even tequila. They talk about the lignans, hemicellulose, tannins, and lactones. There is a lot of science there.

But have you ever wondered why barrels were charred in the first place? Like, what dude back in history thought that was the key to success? It seems strange when you think about it.

First off, it is important to note that American Bourbon is the relative newcomer to the charred barrel game. It's only around 150 years old while barrels have been charred for hundreds of more years.

But, we bourbon lovers are a unique and passionate bunch with a character that runs as deep as America. We savor, sip, and taste bourbon like a wine sommelier. We note the flavor profiles and truly enjoy not just the booze of it, but the experience.

But most of us have no idea of why bourbon is bourbon. I'm not talking about the legal regulations of aging and mash bill and proof. I'm talking about the char.

Char is what makes bourbon special. A new American White Oak barrel is lit on fire and extinguished, and the blackened "alligator skin" remains, ready to be filled with the clear liquid called "white dog" that over at least two years imparts all of that character and flavors we love.

But what is the history of charred barrels? What old bastard in history decided "Hey! I just laboriously hand-made this awesome waterproof wooden container. Now let me burn it and see what happens."

This is where lore comes in. What is known is that Sherry, not whiskey, was the first spirit to do this, all the way back to the 1500s. Unfortunately, nobody really knows why they originally decided to char the barrels, but there are some pretty interesting theories.

One of the theories is that the old booze bastards new that charcoal had a filtering effect as well as a preservation (antimicrobial) effect. The way this theory goes, the flavor it imparted was a happy accident.

Another theory, more disgusting, was that barrels used for fish storage were charred to eliminate the flavor of the fish before they were repurposed for the fortified wine. Okay, who is ready for some Kentucky's finest aged in anchovy leftovers. (As an aside, Alaska Distillery is making smoked salmon vodka and it makes me want to vomit in my mouth.)

A more pragmatic theory states that the barrel makers realized that heated wood bent easier, so it was lit on fire as part of a manufacturing innovation. Alright, this one is kind of boring, which probably makes it true. I do woodworking on the side and can totally believe this. I also epically hate the finishing process and can picture myself saying, "Scraping the burn off seems like a hassle. Let's try it as-is and see if we need to scrape it after"

So pick your favorite theory and defend it to the death. Tell it's story over every sip with friends. Wear them out with the argument. That is your right as a bourbon drinker.

But, let's get back to bourbon... What is better known, however, is that the French settlers of New Orleans were (excessive) sherry drinkers, and that any import to the new world was relatively expensive. Moonshine makers, hoping to tap into this market with a lower priced domestic product, realized that they had a better chance if they used those same charred barrels to age their spirits. Since French Oak was too expensive to get to the back woods, American oak was substituted, and and industry and American icon was born.

So, for your next sip of Bourbon, appreciate the legacy of the char. It is the alpha and omega of great bourbon.


Did you know that you can charred barrel age a single glass of bourbon and add years to it in 15 minutes? Or, that you can add a toasted barrel finish to any glass of bourbon using the power of barrel char? This is why Bourbon Baggers was invented. Get them here and unleash the legacy of char in every glass, and turn your weeknight bourbon into a weekend bourbon without spending a fortune.

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