The Brilliance of the Barrel
Why it was the container that built American commerce—and still is big business
A couple of years back I was wandering around at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in early September in Bardstown, Kentucky, when I spotted a man fashioning a barrel from what appeared to be some untidy scraps of wood. I felt a little sorry for him. Most festivalgoers had come to sample bourbon. The barrel man had no bourbon to offer, so few people were stopping to chat.
I walked over and said hello. I thought it charming that one could still meet a cooper. He had, I presumed, a sort of feral and outdated occupation, like a phrenologist or a television repairman. According to the sign overhead, he was employed by the Independent Stave Company. I imagined he toiled with a bunch of hale fellows in leather aprons in an open-air barn.
I asked him how many barrels Independent Stave might produce in a year. He took a moment from assembling a nearly completed barrel and scratched his elbow while he thought. “Well, I don’t exactly know,” he said, “but I think it’s something like a million.”
That an industry could be so vast yet so invisible to me was mildly shocking—like learning that America has 51 states. What else didn’t I know?
When it came to barrels, a whole lot. When I got home, I set out to learn what I could about barrels. Who made them? What were they were used for? How had they evolved through history? When we talk about a barrel of oil, are we really talking about, you know, a barrel of oil? (Short answer: yes. The standard-size wooden barrel used for whale oil and then coal oil was once 42 gallons, so that’s what OPEC uses today for a measure of petroleum.)
America may be a melting pot, but it grew up speaking one language—the language of commerce. And barrels, casks, and kegs were a big part of that language. Barrels were employed for transportation, for storage, for packaging. They were used and reused almost indefinitely (a cooper could take two battered barrels and craft a single sound one), and they were constructed of an endlessly renewable natural resource. They were specialized units, each with its own name, a list of which today reads like a Hobbit genealogy: kilderkin, rundlet, firkin, hogshead, butt, puncheon, tun, queen’s pipe, keeve, kier, tierce, tank. “Probably no single phase of industrial development has been less publicized than the development of the cooperage industry in the United States,” wrote the historian Franklin Coyne. “Very little has been recorded and much taken for granted.”
Ron Raiselis, a tall man in a leather apron, has brown-green eyes and a salt-and-pepper Kris Kristofferson beard. He’s making a flour barrel when I arrive at his cooperage in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, banging down elm hoops over staves with a curiously shaped wooden mallet while talking to a young family. “A lot of containers we use today that you see in stores, like a ketchup bottle, are very distinctive,” he says between hammer strokes. “I don’t think anything else is shaped like a ketchup bottle.” Much the same can be said for barrels, he continues. Flour barrels were different from wine barrels and nail kegs. The coopers used different woods, and some barrels required three hoops at each end, some two. He points to a grainy picture of a Civil War soldier sitting on a cask and says, “That’s probably not gunpowder but meat.” Gunpowder casks used wooden hoops to hold them together, eliminating the chance of iron hoops banging together and throwing off sparks.
“Look at the construction or the thickness of the staves and you can get an idea of what was in there,” he adds. “Those made of white oak were usually for liquids. And if it has a real steep bevel on it like this”—he points to a barrel close by—“it was probably something that was solid that could be loaded in, with the heads snapped in afterwards.”
Raiselis is, as his business card proclaims, a “Manufacturer of Casks and Barrels and Various Cooperage Stock, Also Buckets, Pails, Tubs and Kegs, Shaven, Split, Brass and Iron Hooping.” He’s been the in-house cooper at Strawbery Banke, a historic village in Portsmouth, for about two decades. He works in a tiny board-and-batten cooper’s shop, built around 1800 and moved here from a nearby village. It’s cluttered from floor to rafters with scraps of wood, perfectly round hoops, slightly elliptical staves, and inscrutable tools. The compactness seems to suit him: “If I had a real big shop, I’d just make a mess of it.”
He makes museum-quality reproductions andoften builds his barrels based on specifications he finds in a tottering pile of dusty legal statutes he keeps in a corner of the shop. In 1830, for instance, a potash barrel had by law to be 30 inches high and fully watertight. His barrels go to historic museums around the nation, to television shows (including PBS’s “Colonial House”), and to moviemakers. You may have seen his barrels in their supporting roles in Amistad , The Crucible , and Highlander.
Raiselis learned his skills the way most makers of barrels through the years have learned them, from another cooper. He worked at Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts for eight years, absorbing the craft from someone who had learned it at Colonial Williamsburg. “It’s like a foreign language,” he says. “You learn the same way. You get a little bit of information and practice until it works, and then you learn a little more. Trades have to be taught. Mostly it’s experience that teaches.”
He calls himself a “small general master,” the kind of cooper you’d once have found in rural areas throughout the country, handy at making many sorts of containers and a specialist in none. He patiently answers questions while he works and shows an acceptance of the fact that society’s understanding of the barrel has been lost. “We have no need to know about them,” he says. “Only those in particular industries, like picking potatoes or selling nails back in the 1950s, would have been around wooden kegs at all. And even then they were just packages.”
But a barrel is much more too. “The barrel, like the wheel, is one of the outstanding basic inventions of mankind,” noted the author William Sprague in a 1938 essay. That much many can agree on. But few agree about other aspects of the technology’s long history. The Roman writer Pliny sought to find the beginnings of the cooper’s trade and concluded only that the first barrel makers may have lived at the foot of the Alps. Wherever that protobarrel surfaced, it probably began as a hollowed stump, its ends sealed with hides. The hides would have leaked and imparted to the contents unwanted flavors, so containers made wholly of wood soon emerged.
These quickly proved more durable and convenient than bulky, clumsy, easily broken clay pots and jugs. In the middle of the last century excavations of a British village dating from the late Iron Age turned up staves and a complete tub seven inches across. By the first century b.c., the historical record shows, wooden barrels were being used across Europe for wine, beer, milk, butter, and water. During the Crusades they were used to haul spices and salt west to Europe. As the barrel maker and historian Kenneth Kilby put it, barrels had by then become “the container of the future.”
The coopering trade was an old one by the time the Mayflower sailed for North America in 1620. John Alden, the future acting governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was hired at the last minute as the Mayflower ’s cooper, charged with repairing damage to the water casks on board. As the new colonies grew, some settlers proved adept enough at making barrels to become journeymen coopers, traveling from town to town with simple hand tools like a cooper’s adz (a short-handled ax) and a fro (a drawknife), making barrels for customers on the spot. In addition, many farmers practiced coopering during the slow winter months, converting cleared trees into cash profit.
As American trade with Europe and the West Indies grew, so did the demand for barrels. They were essential for shipping salt cod, one of the first major exports from the colonies, and from the mid-1600s on they were relied on for whale oil. As the demand for barrels rose, they commanded higher prices, in turn enticing more skilled coopers to emigrate from England. By 1648 the coopers of Boston had united with others in New England to form a company of coopers, one of the first labor unions in the New World.
Barrel making quickly evolved from a dooryard trade into a full-blown industry. A ship sailed from Salem to Suriname in 1707 loaded with 50,000 red oak staves and 3,000 boards “fitt for heading”—that is, for the tops and bottoms of barrels. In the South thousands of barrels were needed to export rice, tar, turpentine, and dried beef. In 1754 some 116,000 barrels went through the port of Charleston, and the historian Carl Bridenbaugh writes that the making of barrels was “the largest single craft in the South.”
It’s hard today to conceive how ubiquitous the barrel was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was the essential cargo container for better than two centuries, filling the holds of clipper ships headed to the Far East, stacked on buckboards en route to remote upland settlements, and filling boxcars of the expanding railroad networks. When the barrels were rolled into shops, and the upper hoops were popped off and the heads removed, they instantly morphed from container to display, much like corrugated cardboard boxes razored open to reveal their contents in warehouse-style stores today.
Untold thousands of barrels were used to transport common goods: Boston rum, milled flour, gunpowder, molasses, sugar, dried meats, soap, coffee, salt, Pennsylvania whiskey, tobacco, shoes, lobster, paints, pickles, vinegar, dried milk, rice, maple syrup, apples, naval stores (such as rosin and turpentine made from Carolina pines), gears, grinding wheels, chains, powdered chemicals, lime, cement, wire, nails, and even cash money. Hard, dry crackers were also transported in barrels, and the habit of customers congregating around these open bins in general stores gave rise to the term cracker-barrel politics .
The things were ubiquitous because they were ingenious. In fact they are far more complex than their appearance suggests. The barrel is actually made of two sets of arches running perpendicular to each other, making it astonishingly sturdy. A barrel bows out slightly in the middle (called the bilge ), and each stave thus forms a broad longitudinal arch between the barrel’s top and bottom. And the staves, each one abutting two neighbors, collectively serve as a 360-degree latitudinal arch.
Thanks to this ingenious double-arched construction, the container is astoundingly durable. If it falls off a wagon onto the ground, the shock of the fall will be transmitted to every other element in the barrel, spreading the impact and reducing the chances of damage.
The barrel’s sturdiness was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated in the many ill-conceived efforts to survive trips over Niagara Falls in it. In October 1901 Annie Edson Taylor went over the falls in a specially built barrel that was four and a half feet tall and three feet in diameter and fitted out with leather harnesses and cushions. She survived with a few bruises. Barrel and Box , a publication for manufacturers of packaging, noted that “while we are pleased with the ability of our coopers to make a barrel that will stand the racket, still the lady … ought to have been spanked and put to bed for taking such a foolish trip.”
The barrel is not only sturdy but a laborsaving device that can be handled by one person even when it weighs hundreds of pounds. It can be rolled on edge when standing upright, and when on its side, it moves easily even if full. Thanks to the bowing out of the staves, only a small part of it touches the ground, reducing friction. A light push will start it rolling. What’s more, it spins freely on its side and thus can be turned to any point of the compass before being nudged in that direction.
It also has a natural handle in the chime, the recess between the head boards and the end of the staves. An ice-tong-like barrel hook attached to a small crane can use this recess to grip a single barrel easily, with the barrel’s own weight holding it firmly in place. And a single worker seeking to upend the barrel from the prone position can hold it at the chime end and rock it until it swings upright.
Alas, the barrel is not indestructible. The wooden staves can get smashed (hence the term stave in ), and a loose barrel can fall apart. “Nothing can be more grotesque than the appearance of a cargo of sugar when first landed from a ship that has had a rough passage,” noted one nineteenth-century author. “Here then is a mass … encrusted with syrup dried into a hard cake … over which is another casing of syrup not yet dry, the whole surmounted with an outer covering of dirt.” But even then all was not lost. A cooper on the wharf could replace staves, fix heads, and reset hoops to return a bad barrel to the spring of life.
As barrel making rapidly evolved from a handcraft to a mechanized industry, all manner of inventions were devised to improve manufacturing. Probably the first cooperingrelated patent was granted in 1811 to William Baley, of Kentucky, who developed a stave-and-shingle-making machine that could be operated by a man, a boy, and a horse. By the 1860s whole barrels were being essentially assembled by machine.
The industry thrived where the best material was found, from the cypresses of the Gulf Coast, whose wood coopers found superb for tanks and tubs, to the Pacific Coast, where the California Barrel Company was founded in 1883, in Northern California. The Ozarks had abundant stands of stout white oak, a tree with a cellular structure that makes for uncommonly watertight barrels. Memphis emerged as a major cooperage center, home to the Chickasaw Cooperage Company, which in 1890 could produce 1,000 barrels and 30,000 staves a day.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, the cooperage industry hit full stride, supplying the world. In New Orleans sprawling heaps of rough staves shipped down the Mississippi River cluttered the waterfront, then were exported abroad to be finished and assembled. In 1918, according to port records, some 8.5 million staves were shipped out of New Orleans.
The durable, versatile barrel was here to stay—or so it appeared. As late as 1940 a book on barrels was almost giddy about the demand for the product: “It remains the belief of the coopers that there will always exist a substantial market for various types of barrels—tight barrels for the aging and storing of liquids and slack barrels for many products that are best shipped in bulk,” wrote the volume’s author, Franklin Coyne. “Thus the wood barrel seems destined to roll on in its own time-honored fashion.”
And after a fashion, it has. That’s thanks to a curious fact. Certain beverages are immeasurably enhanced by exposure to oak, a tree whose flavor has otherwise nothing to commend it.
A small herd of barrels rolls slowly along an inclined track at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, which produces an eminently sippable small-batch bourbon. The barrels, each holding 53 gallons of whiskey, bump along like cars on a kiddie ride at an amusement park. They travel by gravity down narrow steel tracks, heading toward dim and redolent limestone warehouses, where freshly distilled whiskey, which recently emerged from the still nearly as clear as water, will mellow and darken, taking on the characteristic cat’s-eye amber color of a fine bourbon. Watching the barrels amble along, as they have for decades at distilleries throughout the region, is like watching a slow-motion ballet of bourbon history.
Barrels are no longer ubiquitous in industrial America. They have been displaced by other transportation methods, storage containers, and packaging, just as wooden sailing ships have been replaced by steel-hulled cargo vessels. Steel drums, corrugated cardboard boxes, tin cans, inexpensive glass jugs and jars, and durable plastic containers have pushed aside the wooden barrel for getting products to consumer markets and displaying them when they arrive.
But wooden barrels have never entirely left the stage, of course. And in the past few years they’ve had an extended curtain call. The cooper is back, and America is again cooper to the world. Between 1994 and 1998 exports of barrels and other cooperage products more than tripled, from $21.9 million to $70.3 million, driven in large part by the demand among producers of high-end spirits and wine, who often need good oak barrels to turn a passable beverage into a good one and a good spirit into one to be revered.
A visitor gets a sense of the sheer scale of the barrel industry today on a driving tour through Kentucky’s bourbon country, where distilleries make such well-known products as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve. The rolling bluegrass hills are dotted with hulking warehouses in which the bourbon ages in the close company of oak. The buildings are swaddled in the haze and drowned in the syrupy buzz of a country summer, and inside they are filled with a smell like that of overly ripe cherries.
Here, the barrels quietly perform their magic. “The barrel is critical in the production of bourbon,” says Fred Noe. “Also, it’s the law.” Noe is the bourbon ambassador for Jim Beam Brands, a job for which he is qualified in part by being a direct descendant of Jim Beam himself.
Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon, he explains. To earn the name, the spirit needs to be produced and aged following strict guidelines. (One distillery tour guide described the process as follows: “You put some moonshine in a charred oak barrel, add a bunch of federal regulations, let it sit, and you’ve got bourbon.”) Bourbon must be made from a mash that is at least 51 percent corn (rye, wheat, and barley make up the remainder), and neither the taste nor the color can be adulterated. Bourbon also must be aged for a minimum of two years, and—critically for the cooperage industry—this must be done in new oak barrels.
“One hundred percent of the color comes from barrels,” Noe says. “And it greatly mellows the bourbon.” Here’s how: After the staves are assembled into their familiar form, the open-ended barrel is set over a gas flame for up to a minute. This chars the inside and leaves it sooty black. Bourbon makers order their barrels according to how deep a char they need for their product. Noe says that Jim Beam uses a number four, the deepest char, which leaves a crackled, alligator-skin pattern inside the barrels.
“When they char the inside of that barrel,” he explains, “the natural sugars in the wood come to the charred area, and a caramelized layer sets up right where the char begins and the wood ends.” After the barrels are filled with whiskey—called “white dog” when fresh out of the still—they’re rolled into the warehouses, where they age for 2 to 20 years. Sun heats the warehouses and night cools them, and this cycle causes the whiskey to expand and contract, passing back and forth through the charred oak. This process triggers a complicated interaction of flavors between the spirit and the wood, taking some of the burs off the rough-edged new whiskey while lending it complex notes of vanilla and caramel.
Much the same process occurs with barrel-aged wines. The boom in demand for upscale wines has led to a voracious appetite for new wine barrels, with vintners from South Africa, Australia, and Chile clamoring for barrels of American white oak. Wine and barrels have a complicated relationship. The wine absorbs tannins from the oak in the barrels, and the exposure to oxygen that penetrates permeable wood subtly alters the wine’s chemistry. Wine barrels aren’t charred. Instead they’re “toasted” over a lower heat and for a longer period of time, giving them a light brown hue inside. This brings more subtle oaky flavors to the surface, allowing the wine to mature and gain depth.
Finer wines embrace this oak flavor deftly. The barrel is often the second most important element in the taste after the grape itself. Less vaunted wines tend to use heavy oakiness as a crutch, covering up flaws in the grape or the winemaking process. Even less expensive wines employ other shortcuts: Winemakers reuse barrels well beyond their natural lives and compensate by inserting planks of new oak as a sort of flavoring agent. The least expensive wines aged with oak forgo barrels entirely and are decanted into stainless steel vats with oak chips added and strained out afterward.
Happily for the barrel industry, American wine drinkers are becoming more educated about fine wines, and the demand for good barrels is rising. Indeed, wine barrels of American oak have come into their own of late. They long languished in the shadow of French oak barrels, which cost about twice as much and have an almost mythical reputation. A handful of forests in France—in Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Tronçais, and Vosges—are especially renowned for producing tight-grained oaks; in barrels that means less wine seeps into the wood, and thus the taste is more refined. So important is this that DNA tests have been developed to ferret out counterfeit barrels that claim a French pedigree but actually are from less desirable forests in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.
American oak traditionally produced stronger, harsher flavors in wines than French wine barrels. But in recent years barrel makers have found ways to temper the American oak, in part by copying French barrel-making techniques. That includes airdrying staves outdoors for two years or more, rather than kiln-drying them, and splitting staves rather than cutting them. American oak barrels are no longer considered the poor cousin in winemaking circles. American coopers, like those at Independent Stave, have plenty of work today.
Compared with the barrels used for cargo long ago, the casks employed to age whiskey and wine have relatively short life spans. For wine the beneficial qualities of the oak are spent after about five years. And by law bourbon makers can use a barrel only once before discarding it. That means a lot of used barrels are headed for unemployment each year. Jim Beam alone purchases 300,000 a year from Independent Stave, and a similar number roll down the exit ramp. Where do they all end up?
“We sell them to the Scotch guys,” says Fred Noe. “And some tequila distilleries are buying them now to age their tequilas.” In the West Indies travelers often see barrels from Kentucky and Tennessee lined up at rum distilleries. Other spirit industries, which don’t have restrictions on barrel usage, are also happy to use the old bourbon barrels. Once-used bourbon barrels might be recruited for two or three aging cycles by Scotch, rum, or tequila manufacturers. But after that they serve no purpose to the beverage makers. And then?
Like many retirees, they end up in the backyard, tending geraniums. They’ve become a suburban-yard cliché, those half-barrel planters for sale at Home Depot and Lowe’s, destined to be filled with topsoil and brightly colored flowers.
At my local garden-supply shop I recently stopped by a stack of barrels with rusted hoops, each of which had cost a bourbon distiller maybe $300, then $150 when it went to a second distiller, and now cost about half that. I looked at a half-barrel set out in front of the stack and wondered what sorts of stories it could tell. I imagined that it had sat for decades in a stone warehouse in an old port city, that it had been rolled by hand off ships, that it had contained the rum that fueled the American Revolution or the flour that built the Midwest. At the least, I hoped it had aged an especially good bourbon in the more recent past. I sniffed. I smelled nothing.
A young clerk hurried by, and I asked him what he could tell me about this half-barrel. “I think it was used for some kind of whiskey or something,” he said, scarcely breaking stride.