Barrels—we rarely acknowledge their importance, but without them we would be missing out on some of the world’s finest beverages—most notably whiskies and wines. The story of wood barrels for aging liquids is one of the most overlooked crafts of whiskey-making. For over two thousand years they’ve been used to store, transport, and age an incredibly diverse array of provisions around the globe. The invention of the barrel dates back from the dawn of time: it was never dated with certainty. However, from as early as the first century, oak casks enabled a variety of spirits to be produced depending on the region and the ingredients they had at the time.
The barrel aging of wines and other spirits was created by necessity and a little luck. All whiskeys that come out of stills are clear. The “whiskey color” is due to the charred barrels in which they are stored. Wooden barrels were the only means of transportation in ancient times. Back in earlier days, clay pots and ceramics were too expensive and fragile. The metal vessels of the time were poisonous or left the spirits unpalatable, with lacking technology to craft proper metal barrels as well. For these reasons, wood barrels were the best alternative. Clear spirits were poured into the wooden barrels and after months of storage, the originally clear spirits took on a light brown, light red or amber hue. Fortunately for whiskey drinkers, this technique produced such unique flavors and characteristics that they are still used today.
Because without barrels, there is no wine…at least no natural wine: before wooden casks, the fermented grape juice was stored in airtight amphorae (tall Greek or Roman jars with large handles) where honey and spices were added. This way, the content would not turn into vinegar right away. It was the “Roman wine”, which has disappeared since then, after having been transformed by the Gallic techniques…
As the Roman Empire expanded, they met (and conquered) numerous cultures, many of them possessing technologies that they embraced. The Romans came across the Gauls, who they found were transporting beer in wooden barrels and were bounding them together with metal hoops. The Celts are recognized as the inventors of the wooden barrel, but it was through the Gauls that the Romans adopted them.
The Gauls were a gathering of Celtic people whose civilization revolved around wood and the forest in general. On the contrary, the Roman Empire bore the heritage of Mediterranean cultures where oak was absent due to the warm dry climate.
The Gauls therefore had privileged access to exceptional raw materials and they started to make oak barrels from very early on in order to transport their favorite foods and drinks: beer and cervoise, among other things. This explains why the etymology of the word “tonneau”, which is the common French term for “barrel”, sends us back to a Celtic root rather than a Latin one.
Through the Romans, the Gauls discovered a passion for wine and started to import it from Italy. Despite the restrictions that Rome foisted concerning the plantation rights, vineyards began flourishing across the Gaul.
From the 1st century onwards, wine growers from the North-East quarter of France started to make wine with oak barrels. Starting off as a mere container, the barrel became a fundamental tool in oenology. The natural wine it led to produce eventually supplanted Roman winemaking: in just a few centuries, the amphorae and their syrupy contents had disappeared. The vineyards from median and septentrional France took over the ones from Italy, imploring their craftsmanship quality and reputation.
The barrel was not only an advance in terms of transport; solid, easy to roll, to pile up, etc. It also allowed Gauls to make wine with simplicity, without having to import spices: the grapes were the only necessary ingredient. Contrary to the amphora, the barrel could be taken apart and renovated, in the case of any breakages or leaks. It was easily cleanable, guaranteeing a better hygiene and its size improved the fermentations. But a sort of happy accident began to take shape as a result of using barrels for transportation and storage. It was found that the longer the distance a whiskey would go, the longer it would be in a barrel, and the darker it would become. Suddenly, it was realized that whiskey tasted better after aging in a barrel for a while rather than minimal to no aging.
Once they were no longer usable, the barrels were recycled: they were reused to reinforce the walls of wells, for example. 2000 year old wood hoopings have been uncovered in this way, proving that oak was already being used by these ancient coopers. However, up until the 3rd century, conifers have also been employed, but this type of essence has since disappeared, at the same time as amphorae.
The barrel has spread all over the world and has maintained its respective status across the centuries as the go-to in aging spirits. Each time a region started to produce high quality wines, new and clean oak barrels were present in the shade of the cellars.
The oak cask imposed itself in customs, to the point of defining the capacity of ships that we still measure in “tonnage” or capacity nowadays, which corresponds to the French word “tonneau” aforementioned. By an odd turn of events, the earthly Gauls marked the sea world.
However, in the second half of the 20th century, the proponents of modernity tried to mark the end of the barrel era. In the 60-70s, numerous people thought that vats made of resin, stainless steel or concrete would replace the two-thousand-year-old wooden barrel. This belief was so persistent that the cooper’s craft almost disappeared. As small distilleries and breweries are continuing to pop up however, the barrel market begins to boom once again.