Wednesday, January 07, 2009

How much bourbon would a bourbon maker make?

One Saturday in October 2008, I followed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to two distilleries: Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve.

Informative and entertaining tours, wonderful facilities, and delicious liquids.

But after returning, I realized that there were two questions I hadn't asked. (Or if someone had, the sweet mash may have dulled the memory.)

  • What is the size of a bourbon barrel?
  • Is there a legal volume requirement for the volume?
Whiskey in the dark

I asked Lew Bryson, editor for Malt Advocate Magazine, for help. He, in turn, asked Larry Kass of Heaven Hill Distillery, who asked Mike Veach, the 'answer guy' at the Filson Historical Society, a center for the study of the history and culture of the Ohio Valley.

Mike's full response is published at Lew's blog Seen Through a Glass. The short answer? Here's a visual clue:

Fill date--November 21, 2001

Fifty-three gallons, give or take, seems to be the current industry standard. There is no federal legal standard.

In an email to me, Mike added:
The main thing determining the size of the barrel is the size of the warehouse ricks. If the barrels get too big or too small for the ricks then the whole system falls apart and the distilleries would have to replace their warehouses.

The ricks are the wooden supports upon which the full barrels rest as they age. The rickhouse is the warehouse in which the barrels age.

Buffalo Trace Rickhouse

Lew added an an update. In 1968, the U.S. Treasury Department rejected a request to set an official whiskey barrel volume. Imagine that. The government turned down the opportunity to regulate.

Photos from the tour.

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