Art to Science: in making whiskey barrels

Whiskey is aged in oak barrels, and oak wood is highly variable. But barrel-making can still become much more scientific.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was more art than science. Now we have a healthy dose of science in with the art.” Larry Combs, the general manager for Jack Daniel’s

Recently, the two companies completed the decade-long Single Oak Project, in which they made 192 barrels, each using the wood from a single log, to find what constituted the “perfect” bourbon. (Among other things, they found that wood from the bottom of a tree made for the best aging.). Computers track each stave as it moves through assembly, while sensors analyze staves for density and moisture content. Instead of guessing how much to toast a barrel, operators use lasers and infrared cameras to monitor the temperature of the wood and the precise chemical signature that the heat coaxes to the surface — all subject to the customer’s desired flavor profile.“They’ve developed technologies so that if we say we want coconut flavors, they can apply this or that process” — like applying precise amounts of heat to different parts of the wood to tease out certain flavors — “and we’ll have it,” said Charles de Pottere, the director of production and planning at Jackson Family Wines…

… Black Swan makes barrels with a honeycomb design etched on the inside, which increases surface area and reduces a whiskey’s aging time.

Their approach: learn by experimentation, and use the new knowledge for tight process control. Same approach as machining, aviation, …. And this is a 400+ year old industry. Now I just need a word that’s better than “science” to describe this approach. (See my previous post.)

Last comment: according to the article, one of the main forces driving willingness to learn was competition from superior French barrels.

Source: Packing Technology Into the Timeless Barrel – The New York Times

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