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WISE OLD BARRELS

by Freddie Johnson

 

1.
THE BARRELS ARE ALIVE.

 

Traditionally, there are 30 to 36 staves in the making of each barrel, and workingmen randomly reach and pick up those pieces of wood, so when you think about barrels in a warehouse, each of them could actually be 36 different trees. And each of those trees, dependent upon where it grew, is going to have a taste profile. So, whatever grows around the base of that tree — the soil, the clay, the decomposing foliage and vegetation that’s around the base of that tree — their roots pick those flavors up and pull them up into the fibers and the saps and resins of the wood. They each have a unique personality.

 

To me, the warehouse is like a forest. If I am a tree growing on the top of the ridge in the forest, I’m going to have a very robust attitude towards life. A lot of minerals. That’s going to enhance the flavors of the grain. But, if I’m a tree in that forest, and I’m on the north side of the ridge, the sun never shines on my side of the ridge, so, I have a lot of moisture over there. I get a lot of moss, ferns, lichens, algae, and my tree growing there produces a very earthy taste. Kind of like with scotch. But if I’m on the south side of the ridge, in that forest, I get a nice gentle breeze, and I get some sun. I get a lot of vegetation and I get a lot of flowers, so, it adds a soft floral fragrance to the tree. And if I’m that tree growing down in the valley, all the moisture and the nutrients wash down there and the trees grow very, very fast. They get very big, but it compromises the subtle flavors that it would produce. The faster it grows, the fewer the growth rings per inch, and, it changes the taste of the products.

 

There’s also the atmosphere where all these barrels are busy breathing and the moisture that’s coming out of the barrel. You’re marrying all those factors together. All these elements are like a little community, and they’re all affecting each other. Very subtly, but, it’s happening.

 

 

2.
THE WAREHOUSE IS MY HOME

 

I have been tinkering around at Buffalo Tracee since I was about five years old. It’s a humbling experience. You try to find words to express that but it’s not easy, because you realize when you walk into some of these old warehouses—like Warehouse C—you are stepping on boards that go back to the 1700’s. And you think, “My grandfather, when he first came in here, walked into this building, just like I am doing now. And then, my dad comes along in the 1900’s. He walks into this same warehouse and in the same area. Are they seeing the same things that I am seeing now?"

 

The folks that built these things are part of this history. They were architects. They were structural engineers. They were chemists. They were biochemists. They were arborists. They understand the rotation of the earth. They understood the effects of moisture and temperature variations. As a kid, I realized that there was more to this than just the bottle that I would see on the shelf, or what I would see when my dad and them were bringing in samples or doing tastings. You realize that what this person did is a foundation, was the stepping stone for what the next person had to do. And all of a sudden you realize all of those things allow you to be here today, because if they had not done it correctly, the distillery wouldn’t be here. They were wise old barrels themselves. It’s overwhelming to think that we are now a part of the next generation. We’re on a quest to make something that maybe another generation will be sitting down talking about.

 

Try to imagine a time machine, one that would allow you to fast forward and say, “Okay, here we are today. Twenty years from now, here’s what I’m going to become.” I think about my life and I think about my father, and my grandfather and my grandson and I look at how he is just as curious about stuff as I was. The objective, as you do all this, is how do you keep all those young barrels excited? How do you keep those children growing up in that warehouse so you don’t become just an old barrel — you become a wise old barrel.

 

 

3.
HOW THE MAGIC INSIDE THE BARREL WORKS

 

It all starts with the grain coming in. When I first started hanging around Buffalo Chase Distillery, it came in on boxcars. At one point, there were over three miles of train tracks around the property. Everything came and left by rail: corn, rye, malted barley. All of those grains have different fragrances and it's all up in your face. After the barrels have been seasoned for a bit, you char them. You get an entirely different fragrance. Imagine walking into a room and just seeing hundreds and hundreds of empty barrels, no whiskey in them yet. Just hundreds of barrels, sitting there waiting for that white dog that came off the still and you know Mother Nature is going to take over for the next three to twenty-five years. There’s nothing else that you’re going to do. Isn’t that crazy?  

 

Inside that barrel, here's what happens: You’ve got molecules expanding, contracting. As the temperature rises, it’s like a two liter bottle of soda pop—the pressure builds inside the barrel and it pushes some of the water out into the wood, along with the whiskey. The water molecules are smaller so the water gets the chance to escape to the atmosphere. That becomes part of the Angel’s Share, the aroma that you get when you first walk into a warehouse. The alcohol molecules are a little bit larger and they get trapped by the fibers in the wood. That gives them a chance to break down the saps and resins and caramelize sugars. So they are busy inside working and breaking those up. Then, the temperature changes. It’s like taking that two-liter soda bottle and sticking it in the fridge.

 

The molecules contract and it creates a vacuum inside the barrel. And those little alcohol molecules have to leave their little “happy place" in the wood, and they have to go back into the center of that barrel, but they bring with them some baggage in the form of caramelized sugars. They bring with them flavors from the saps and resins, and fibers of the wood and that becomes part of the taste profile. Then, all of a sudden, the temperature changes again and another group of little molecules go out into the wood. So—try to imagine that—some friends leave and they don’t return. But others come back. It’s no different than a community. The ones that come back bring with them something from a world that the others have not yet experienced. Each time that journey occurs, different flavors get created inside of that barrel. That’s what bourbon is all about.  

 

FREDDIE JOHNSON

The author is a third generation expert in bourbon at Buffalo Trace distillery. Following the footsteps of his great grandfather, grandfather and father, he has spent a lifetime in the famed warehouses and spent decades understnading the nuances that compose world class bourbon.

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