When you were in kindergarten, you likely weren’t a regular bourbon drinker. In fact, you probably didn’t yet know much about bourbon. This makes sense, as teachers are busy teaching you the basics of counting and cooperation, leaving little time to instruct you in the finer spirits of life. As you matured through the years like a fine bourbon in new charred American oak barrels, you likely developed a taste for Scotch, or bourbon, or rye whiskey. (We base this assumption on the fact that you’re here, and all we write about is whiskey.)
Casks are like the middle children of the aged spirits world. They don’t have the upscale industrial aura of the shining beacons of the spirits world — the stills that produce the spirits. Nor have they the multi-sensory appeal of the finished whiskey.
But casks play a huge role in helping shape the final flavor profile of not only spirits aged in them, but wine and beer, too. They can impart flavors as wide-ranging as vanilla, coconut, and oak, and — when charred on the inside — help charcoal filter the spirits into smooth-sipping glory.
As we close in on the date we run our first bourbon through the stills, we thought it would be worthwhile to explore what exactly bourbon is, because lore and truth about our official spirit seem to have diverged in the snowy woods of time. With your permission, we’ll take the less-traveled road of truth on this one.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a tinny-voiced man roughly the height of a chest of drawers dominated the moonshining scene of western North Carolina. Of Irish descent, his grandfather had fought in the Battle of King’s Mountain during the Revolution, a skirmish that President Theodore Roosevelt later described as the “turning point of the American Revolution”.
The surprisingly advanced technology known as the wooden cask dates back at least 2,500 years, when the Greek historian and world’s first investigative reporter, Herodotus, mentioned casks in relation to palm-wine. In fact, the technology probably predates Herodotus’ account by a number of years when considering that the craft of ship-building had relied on heating wood to bend and shape for a number of years prior.