Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Scotch Guys Think Bourbon Guys Are Screwing with 'Their' Barrels


Dumping a bourbon barrel. But is it really empty?
The headline seems innocuous enough: "Why more bourbon distillers are rinsing their used barrels." In her article in Whisky Magazine, Susannah Skiver Barton explains how, since bourbon must be aged in new barrels, producers of other kinds of barrel-aged products, such as scotch whisky, reuse them.

But then the trouble starts. "In the last decade," writes Barton, "the American whiskey industry has begun adopting a dumping technique that changes the way the barrel behaves when it goes on to its next life. After emptying barrels of mature whiskey, distillers are filling a few gallons of water into the wood, 'rinsing' it of any excess spirit (sometimes using pressure or jets), and using that liquid in the proofing process. It’s a cost saving for them – they get more alcohol per barrel – but potentially disastrous for Scotch, because water-rinsed barrels mature single malt very differently from their standard counterparts."

Several scotch-makers then go on to bemoan the misbehavior of those tricksey Americans.

Do scotch-makers have a legitimate gripe, or are they being disingenuous?

First, this term 'rinsing.' Bourbon producers have always rinsed barrels. When the newly dumped barrel has stopped draining, a worker with a hose squirts some water into it, rolls it over again, and dumps the water out. This is mostly to rinse out loose sediment, but it gets some whiskey too.

That's not what the article is about. They are using 'rinsing' as a euphemism to describe something else entirely, and it is nothing new. Jack Daniel's started to do it 16 years ago. Here is how I described the process in The Bourbon Country Reader in 2007, after I watched them do it.

"When whiskey barrels are dumped, they never give up 100 percent of their contents. A small amount of whiskey stays behind, trapped in the wood.

"At a new facility near a cluster of warehouses, several miles from the tourist sites, Jack Daniel’s is doing something no other distillery has tried to recapture some of that lost product.

"After dumping, each empty barrel is sent to this building (a big, feature-less, steel-clad industrial structure) where it is loaded with about 20 gallons of water, a level which, with the barrel standing on end, doesn’t quite reach the now-open bunghole.

"After they receive their water, these barrels are placed on pallets, nine at a time, and stacked up about ten high in the warehouse portion of the building, where they sit for three to four weeks.

"The water is then dumped out and used to dilute barrel proof whiskey down to its bottling proof.

"There was a previous system, in which the barrels were merely rinsed. This new system produces five times as much additional product, as measured by its alcohol content."

Jim Beam started to do something similar in 2011. They passed it on to Maker's Mark in 2013. Their process uses heat and agitation, similar to a practice beloved by youngsters throughout whiskey country known as 'sweating' a barrel. Kids would ‘liberate’ a freshly-dumped barrel from one of the local distilleries, put a few gallons of water in it, plug up the bung hole, and roll the barrel around in the hot sun until they got bored. The resulting liquid usually contained enough alcohol to deliver a light buzz.

Unless one can press a herd of thirsty teenagers into service, the process requires a dedicated facility. It's not cheap. That's why the practice isn't universal. If a scotch-maker is buying used bourbon barrels without determining how they were processed, whose fault is that?


ImNotDrunk said...

Lol, "sweating". I knew some guys who grew up near the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor. They were doing the same, hot water and roll it until they got tired. Do it on Friday and you've got a weekend buzz!

Harold Bussell said...

Is this similar to what Jim Beam does with its Devils Cut?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It is about that and similar processes that do more-or-less the same thing.

Richard Turner said...

To my mind, the Bourbon distillers have every right... even a duty, if they have stockholders to answer to... to do anything they wish to THEIR barrels. Once those barrels are shipped off to Scotland (or wherever) the purchasers/receivers of them have the same right to do whatever they wish. What am I missing? . . . Other than Scottish sour grapes.

Anonymous said...

It can be complicated. Some of the barrels are owned from new by the Scotch distilleries and leased out to the Bourbon distilleries for first use. I’d have thought exactly what happens to a barrel would be covered in a contract though.

Larry said...

Seems like if the second users of the barrels don't like it they can contract to buy barrels that haven't been rinsed/sweated at a negotiated price. The bourbon distilleries aren't doing this for fun, they are doing it for the economics. If the second hand barrell market made not doing this equally or more profitable then everyone would be happy.

Anonymous said...

I thought the only purpose of bourbon was to prepare the barrels for the aging of real whisky.

Anonymous said...

If you received a product from one of your suppliers the same way for 50+ years, and all of a sudden one day it changes, would you be annoyed?

Anonymous said...

There it is! Slàinte mhath

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

a 200 ltr. barrel form the US or a changed one made into a 250 ltr. hogshead is commonly referred to as a first fill bourbon barrel or hogshead when it receives Scottish spirit for maturation.
Sold as a single cask for example the label states 1st Fill Bourbon Barrel or 1st Fill Bourbon Hogshead.

But is it still if it was leeched to the last drop of its original bourbon content?
The bourbon barrels are used not only because they are readily available and cheap but they do define the distillery style of some Scotish single malt brands.
If the bourbon barrel they deliver to you is suddenly not a bourbon barrel anymore at all you could be in trouble on the Scotish side.

And the next step is the 2nd or 3rd fill bourbon barrel... when you start with a leeched bourbon barrel at your first filling does it make sense to call the bottling 2nd fill or re-fill bourbon barrel when there is not much if any influence of bourbon anymore?
The first filling with Scotish new make should leech the rest of bourbon out of the pores of the American oak so that a second filling will not be much influenced by the first content of bourbon whiskey and you could better call that 2nd fill barrel plain oak.

And so on.

I do strongly believe that it is an issue seen from the Scotish side. As a consumer I do see a diminishing quality in the Scotish whisky category overall. Sherry casks are only sherry seasoned anymore and now bourbon barrels are leeched to plain oak.

If so that would explain a lot about the status of Scotish single malts to me.


Anonymous said...

Now that the Scots are aware of it, the Bourbonniers who don't use this process should be able to negotiate a higher price for their barrels. So the Scotch quality (theoretically) drops or the price goes up. And the economics for Jack Daniels suddenly seem slightly less appealing.

Anonymous said...

More detrimental to the overall product would be the age of the trees being used in the barrels unless they are using the liquid left to flavor the scotch instead of the oak. If that is the case why not just dump a bottle of bourbon in there? The younger the tree the greener the flavor of the barrel. Likely what the issue is imho.

Kyle Henderson said...

I would LOVE to know what Bourbon Distillery of any impactful size is "leasing" the barrel from a Scotch facility. Maybe a small one here or there but the big 9 certainly aren't.

Michael Lazar said...

Any idea if Brown-Foreman is sending rinsed barrels to Benriach, Glendronach or Glenlassaugh i.e. the distilleries they own in Scotland or do these just go to brokers?

Unknown said...

Sounds like the second use guys/companys are crying about nothing. The bourbon distilleries have every right to treat their barrels how they want. Also I read in the comments about Scottish distilleries owning first use barrels. This is highly inaccurate. Scotch distilleries have no dog in the fight when it comes to first run barrels. It is American oak not Scottish oak. Sounds like the bourbon distilleries found a way to cut their barrel proof stuff and the Scots are just pissed cause they content of left-over whiskey is less. I would say make your own barrels then if you don't like ours.

Anonymous said...