Opinion: Is the 'use once' policy for bourbon barrels sustainable?

Opinion: Is the 'use once' policy for bourbon barrels sustainable?

Waste not, want not

Thoughts from... | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 178 | By Maggie Kimberl

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I know I continually harp on this point, but bourbon is just an agricultural process that got refined over time until it became marketable. Farmers on the frontier distilled their excess grain into whiskey, first storing it in earthenware jugs and later transitioning to wooden barrels. The rest, as they say, is history.

From an environmental perspective, though, isn’t a bourbon barrel, which can only be used once, seriously wasteful? Historically, bourbon barrels were only used once because that was the package in which the whiskey was sold to the end user. Grocery stores and taverns would buy whiskey by the barrel and sell it by the drink or by the jug to their customers. Distilleries couldn’t plan to get those barrels back, and they were more economical than individual glass bottles, which were costly to manufacture until mechanical glass moulds became widespread in the mid-19th century.

Once glass bottles were readily available, though, it took safety and quality concerns for them to be adopted as a standard. George Garvin Brown, founder of the Old Forester brand, was the first to adopt sealed packages to ensure quality for consumers for all of his products. Eventually this became law and barrels would stay with the distilleries after they were dumped.

The one-time-use bourbon barrel is probably the most visible sign of waste in the industry, especially in today’s eco-conscious world. The trees that barrels are made from take decades to grow sufficiently large to provide wood worth harvesting for cooperage, and by that time they still only yield one to three barrels by most estimates. Once those barrels have been used for aging bourbon, they are cast aside and new barrels are made for the next batch. Pretty wasteful, right?

Not so fast. Bourbon barrels have long been one of the primary sources for aging Scotch and Canadian whiskies (at least since the 1960s). While bourbon has to be aged in charred, new oak containers, Scotch and Canadian whiskies don’t have that caveat. Often, used wine barrels or whiskey barrels can be utilised in succession to create a certain flavour profile.

But that’s not the only thing that old bourbon barrels can be used for. Tabasco uses bourbon barrels to age its eponymous spicy sauce. Shuckman’s Fish Co. and Smokery uses old Pappy barrels to smoke salmon and cheeses. Drew Estate Cigars uses ex-whiskey barrels to ferment tobacco-leaf ‘wrappers’ for construction of its Pappy Van Winkle Barrel Fermented cigars.

There are also entire businesses dedicated to servicing used barrels and finding them a new home and new life. In Kentucky, a company called Kentucky Bourbon Barrel does just this. It has inspectors who check barrels coming in and coopers who can repair any flaws before the barrels are sold to distilleries that will give them a second life.

In researching a recent story, I learned that a barrel inspector at this facility had seen barrels that date back to Prohibition – back in the days when the standard size was 48 gallons, not 53. The change from 48- to 53-gallon barrels took place during World War Two in an effort to conserve wood for the war effort, the reason being that 53-gallon barrels were the largest that could fit into the existing ricking (barrel storage) systems in many of the distilleries in the United States. It’s amazing to think that something as simple as a barrel made of wooden staves and metal hoops, with no fasteners or glue, could hang in there so long and still be functional, especially when that functionality hinges on the ability to contain liquids as they expand and contract.

But not every barrel makes it that far. In Kentucky, it is common to see barrels that have been sawed in half and planted full of flowers. Sometimes, they can be turned into a water feature. After all, the bourbon boom has given rise to lots of other barrel crafts. In the last 10 years I’ve seen adirondack chairs, serving trays, valets, and bottle-display shelves, all made from bourbon barrels. (DrunkWood is a great place to find many of these crafts.)
So, when it comes down to it, the single-use bourbon barrel is not a one-trick pony after all.
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