Barrel Aging / Rhetoric / Information Design

If this is your first foray into aging, why not do it from the perspective of an exotic tax scenario?

State Board of Equalization Office Correspondence, June 7, 1954

The above link is a correspondence related to a tax case from 1954 concerning barrel aging. The heart of the issue is whether barrels are a primary ingredient in the whiskey and should not be taxed or if as a vessel for storage they are just a manufacturing aid that rubs off a little and should be taxed. A lot of money was at stake and of late this is a timely topic due to a trend in barrel aged cocktails, a recent shortage or new barrels, and the very recent exorbitant value put on ultra aged American whiskeys by the nouveau riche finance crowd. These whiskeys are often criticized for their over extraction of compounds from the barrel–too much barrel as primary ingredient.

There are many accounts of the significance of the barrel on a spirit but I singled out this paper because of its audience of non scientist law makers and emphasis on organization to support its rhetoric.  This document is trying to be persuasive to a specific audience which is something I need better mastery of.  I need to think of myself as more of an information artist like Leonard Koren whose work I return to constantly.  The author explains to an audience of laymen, who back then had better understandings of chemistry than today, the basics then in last page, switches on his lawyer attack.  He has to bring his audience up to speed quickly and succinctly for them to catch and fall for the rhetoric of his last arguments.  Rarely does common spirits writing have such purpose.

The writer of the paper, John H. Murray, wants you to see barrel aging his way and at stake is millions of dollars of tax revenue.  My own accounts of science & art do not have so much resting on their shoulders and that lack of pressure probably hinders my ability to organization and persuade.

Just recently the idea of a barrel tax has come up again in Tennessee which targeted Jack Daniels.  At the time there was no tax on barrels, which implies there hasn’t been for a long time and probably all around the country, but the county desperately needed more revenue so they tried to impose a tax in a way that would target the Jack Daniels distillery specifically.  The county ended up losing to Daniels and unfortunately the case did not produce any great organized explanations of the barrel aging process. It did however value a reasonable tax on barrels at $10/barrel or $5 million a year for Daniels.  The Jack Daniels tax was not based on any philosophical point of view of the barrel relative to the final product, but rather just the right to impose an arbitrary fee to raise badly needed money.

Over the years, countless people have asked me varied questions regarding barrel aging and it has proven a hard topic to tackle unless you want to over simplify and dodge some science. I think this paper is a great, accessible, historic look at the topic and I hope people spend some time with the source document linked above.  I’m just going to do the usual and select some quotes so they are well indexed and then chime in with some extra background information.

“For this reason, taxpayer contends that the barrels are substantially consumed in the aging process, portion of the barrels become a component of the finished product, and therefore tax should not apply on the sale to them of the barrels.” So there is no tax on the corn but there is a tax on the vessels that the corn ferments in so are the barrels they age in like the corn or like the fermentation vessels?

They reference Changes in Whiskey While Maturing by A.J. Liebmann and Bernice Scherl and “a transcript from the conference of October 22, 1947, between representatives of Association of Maryland Distillers and representatives of the State of Maryland on the subject of ‘Tax on Whiskey Barrels’.” I cannot seem to find this transcript, but maybe some better positioned readers could help out?

“When once used these containers cannot be reused for the aging of straight whiskey. They may be used, however, for the storage of wine and other uses not connected with the aging of whiskey. Whiskey will not mature properly unless the charred oak barrel is new.” What I’ve been wondering about lately is how much fixed non-volatile acidity the whiskey soaks up on each filling.  The first filling no doubt can absorb a lot but does it diminish much during the second? pH is so much more important to aging than is commonly thought.

“The alcohol molecules, being larger, do not pass through the barrel at the same rate as the water molecules. For this reason, although there is some evaporation of water and alcohol during the aging process, the water evaporates more rapidly than the alcohol and the proof tends to increase.” This I think relates to humidity and some warehouses in other parts of world can actually lose more ethanol than water.

“Certain solids extracted from the barrel contain acids and are responsible for the reddish brown color of the matured whiskey.” These acids that get absorbed are also responsible for the equilibrium between esters and fatty acids that form. Acids might have been added to faux whiskeys back in the day to synthesize the acids that would have been accumulated during time in barrel.

“During the early stages of the maturing period there is a rapid increase in total acidity. This may be due, in large part, to the extraction of materials from the barrels. Fixed acids, that is acids in the solids, increase rapidly during the first 12 months of the aging period. Liebmann and Scherl state that the entire fixed acidity normally is due to the extractions from the barrels.” Another thing I’ve been wondering after drinking quite a few bottles of the Renegade rums, which were well aged then finished in wine barrels like Madeira, is whether finishing barrels can significantly bump up the acidity of a spirit. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with the whole Renegade series and each had an acidic tang like no spirit I’ve ever encountered.

“The acid content is responsible for the ‘tang’ of aged whiskey.” I don’t believe many people think of aged whiskeys like Bourbon being tangy because the word sweet gets thrown around so often instead.  Imbibers these days articulate and differentiate between relative sweetness but not relative tang. What is strange on a sensory level is that the tang is an authentic gustatory sensation while the sweetness is often an illusion due to sensory convergence with olfaction where prior co-experience allows you to categorize olfaction in terms of gustation and link the separate modalities so strongly it feels like genuine synaesthesia.

“During the aging process there is a fairly steady increase in the ester content. This would indicate that the esters are probably formed chemically during that process.”  Esterification continues to happen as the pH drops because acidity is a catalyst in the reaction between free fatty acids and alcohols. Supposedly pH drops rapidly at first then levels out and continues to decrease proportional to the angel’s share changing the volume.

“During the first 3 years there is an increase in aldehydes, but after that the rate of increase levels off. That is, aldehydes are probably produced by chemical reactions during the aging process.” Aldehydes, at the moment, are a large hole in my knowledge of congeners.

“During the early months of the aging process there is a rapid increase in furfural. Newly made whiskey does not contain this substance and apparently it is extracted from the barrel since furfural is formed in the process of charring wood.” This is not the whole furfural story. Furfural is also a product of direct fire heated pot stills due to the degradation of pentoses.  Furfural ends up in the tales of the distilling run and is mostly cut away.  Esters and aldehydes and higher alcohols are commonly subdivided in analysis but furfural is something that I do not know much about its sub divisions. Is the furfural accumulated in the barrel much different than furfural accumulated in the pot still?

“Fusel oil (higher alcohols) constitutes an important component of whiskey as far as character and quality are concerned. Its content is dependent upon the method of distilling used. There is very little change in the fusel oil content during the aging period and apparently any increase is due to the increase in concentration by reason of the evaporation of water and alcohol. Some of the esters may be produced by an interaction of the various constituents of the whiskey and the fusel oil.” The majority of esters are from ethanol linking to fatty acids but esters can also be formed by higher alcohols linking to fatty acids. A few of these higher alcohol esters are considered flaws in large concentrations and are more likely to form in column stills because of the tendency for higher alcohols to accumulate in certain plates within the column which the fatty acids have to pass through. I think the banana aroma of goslings rum is due to a higher alcohol ester.

“The solids contained in whiskey are derived entirely by extraction as are the tannins. The solids apparently affect color, the tannins the acid content.” Tannin is acidic but I suspect there might also be more acids at play though I cannot name any off the top of my head.

The paper cites IRS chemist extraordinaire Peter Valaer from “the conference between the Maryland Distillers and the tax representatives of that State [...]”

“During the aging process the percentages of substances other than ethyl alcohol and water increase by about five times.” Pretty high! Makes you wonder when the rhetoric starts and what side he is gong to be on! Tension building..

“The aging process, he indicates, consists of the extraction of some of the materials from the wood and the interaction of some of the acids on each other producing esters and at the same time alcohol is oxidized producing more acid. The aging process consists of a series of those changes. He is of the opinion that about one-half of the congenerics in the matured whiskey are produced by changes taking place in the barrel and the remainder are extracted from the barrel. The body of the whiskey is determined by the fusel oil content and without it the whiskey would have no character.” So here we have a summary of the opinion of the most privileged spirits chemist of the era. An astounding amount of samples from around the world came through Valaer’s IRS laboratory for analysis and he even pioneered numerous analysis techniques.  Valaer seems to paint a picture of the barrel as ingredient but then the fusel oil content, which is not a product of the barrel, contradicts it? So far it is still difficult to figure out the author’s stance.

“From the foregoing it would seem logical to draw the following conclusions:” From here I retyped the complete remainder of the paper which is more or less the last page.

“The maturing whiskey in charred oak barrels is one of the steps in the process of producing a marketable whiskey. The type of whiskey and much of its flavor is determined by the type of mash use, fermentation process, and method of distillation. Newly distilled whiskey is colorless and unpleasant in aroma and taste. The maturing process in the charred white oak barrels results in some of the higher alcohols and fatty acids being absorbed by the char eliminating some of the unpleasant characteristics that these substances would otherwise impart to the whiskey (Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, Volume 1).” Here he paints a picture of the barrel as a filter which would be a manufacturing aid.

“The whiskey attracts from the barrel various solids and other matters which give it its characteristic reddish brown color and also extracts some furfural which may affect the body of the matured product.  The fusel oil which primarily determines the body of the whiskey is present in the whiskey from the time of distillation. Some acids are extracted from the barrel, other acids are formed in the barrel by oxidation of the alcohol and by interaction of the various substances upon each other esters are formed. These esters affect the odor of the whiskey and give it a distinct fruity odor. During the entire aging process the barrel acts as a semipermeable membrane allowing the evaporation of water and some alcohol and the introduction of oxygen into the material through its small pores. In this way the barrel and the charred interior act as a catalyst aiding in the various chemical changes which take place in the whiskey.” I feel here that he is breezing past and downplaying the importance of the compounds added by the barrel. And again fusel oil, which is not from the barrel, gets over emphasized. His stance is becoming apparent.

“It is readily apparent, therefore, that the barrel serves a distinct purpose as a manufacturing aid in the maturing of the whiskey. It acts as a container for storing whiskey during that period, its semipermeable natures makes possible the complicated series of chemical reactions which take place during the process, and the extractives from the barrel give the whiskey its characteristic color and impart to it some of its flavor. Thus, minute portions of the barrel become an important part of the finished product.” Readily apparent, what rhetoric! This again downplays the extracted compounds and their role. It also down plays their weight as a percentage of the congeners which a dissenting opinion might emphasize and requote Valaer.

“If the only purpose of maturing the whiskey in the charred oak barrel were to add to it the tannins, the furfural, the solids, and the color, the use of oak barrels would be an extremely expensive process to impart to whiskey certain chemical compounds. These compounds could undoubtedly be added mechanically much cheaper and easier. But the function of the barrel is much more important than merely imparting to the whiskey these compounds. It is used to store the whiskey and to aid in certain chemical reactions the end result of which produces a matured pleasant tasting beverage. This would seem to be the primary use of the barrels and accordingly the barrels are primarily manufacturing aids and are considered subject to tax.” Silver tongued devil!

“Perhaps we can draw an analogy to the iron balls used in the grinding of cement. During the grinding process a portion of the iron in the balls wears off and becomes a component of the cement. Iron is a necessary ingredient in the production of high quality cement. The iron balls thus contribute in two ways to the manufacture of cement (1) by grinding it to a powder and (2) by imparting to it at least a portion of the required iron content. Nevertheless, the iron balls are manufacturing aids and are considered subject to tax.” What an analogy! If I didn’t know better I’d almost be seduced myself.

“In 1948 A— D— Company sued the State Board of Equalization in Sacramento Country to recover some $X,000.000 tax on its purchases of charred oak barrels used to contain and mature its whiskey. The primary contention there made was that the barrels were sold with the matured whiskey and consequently were nonreturnable containers and exempt from tax. The court discussed the use of the charred oak barrels in the processing of the whiskey and indicated that the barrels were used for a purpose other than retention, demonstration or display and that such use was sufficient for the imposition of tax. The court did not pass on the question of whether the barrels by reason of the absorbtion by the whiskey of a portion of their content became a component part of the finished product and thus exempt from tax.” Here he discusses a related case where they try to categorize the barrels as non returnable packaging. This makes me wonder if part of being a manufacturing aid requires a higher degree of re-usability?

“Taxpayer presented a letter from the State of Maryland which indicated that the Maryland Controller had ruled that distillers could purchase new cooperage to be used for the aging and curing of bonded whiskey tax free. The basis of this ruling is not apparent from the letter.” Any legal scholars available to find more information on this Maryland case?

“It is recommended that the petition for redetermination be denied.”

If you wanted to argue it in the other direction what other evidence would you use and what other analogies would you present?

One thought on “Barrel Aging / Rhetoric / Information Design

  1. Pingback: Supplementary 19th century Rum History | Boston Apothecary

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