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Bourbon has been a classic choice and a staple amongst whisky connoisseurs for a long time. Not only has it been there on the menu for centuries, but it has only become better as time goes on. But in the new era, are the traditional methods of aging it in a new bourbon barrel still viable and sustainable for the future?
In general, the barrel in which the bourbon is aged is just used once and then discarded. This practice of “use and throw” is a cause for concern for most environmentally minded people. The very culture of once-used bourbon barrels actually threatens the planet, and now the Bourbon industry has turned into something that needs an intervention too.
Why is the bourbon barrel still around?
In the Bourbon industry’s defense, the barrel used to be sold to the end consumer, and they were made with that in mind. After they used the bourbon, the person could use the barrel as they pleased. Used bourbon barrels were a common sighting even a few decades ago, but most people today prefer a bottle. A bourbon-filled barrel is big and difficult to carry and takes up a lot of space.
Barrel-aged bourbon is a drink that has many enthusiasts and can be had in almost any bar all over the world. From the barrel and straight to the glass is many people’s go-to way to enjoy this spirit. It has become a mainstay in the whisky enthusiasts catalog, and it will be hard to convince people to change their ways.
Are there any alternatives?
Used whiskey barrels started going out of fashion after glass bottles were readily available. Not only do they look good, but they are also easier to carry home, and you can get the desired quantity that you want and not have to purchase an entire barrels worth of bourbon.
So after this happened, the bourbon sold by the barrel saw a rapid decline. Now the onus is on the distillery to get rid of these used bourbon barrels. They use it once and then throw it away, which is very unsustainable in today’s environment.
Can the barrel be used more than once?
Many people have pointed out that barrel aging is not exclusive to bourbon. Whisky and wine are also aged in barrels, but you can use a single barrel multiple times to give the spirit a very specific flavor profile.
Even Tabasco is aged in a barrel and then served to the customers. The only difference between these and the bourbon industry is, as with whiskey and wine, the barrel will be used multiple times before being discarded or repurposed, and not just once. So as time passes, old businesses should try and adapt without compromising on quality. For example, in Kentucky, America, the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Company repurposes old barrels for alternative uses. A master cooper inspects every barrel and then makes the necessary repairs before it can continue its life hosting something else.
Used barrels can have a variety of alternative uses. They can be cut in half and made into flower beds or be used as tables after a top is installed. Not only that, they are being used in many Texas-themed restaurants too. Many places that specialize in BBQ and ribs have been using these used wine barrels to make their decor look more authentic to the cowboy era. These barrels are not only novelty acts but also are functional items that have been repurposed.
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History of the barrel
While the barrel might not have been the first method to use for storing tonics, it quickly became the favorite once introduced. It became a great storage device since wood is easy to find and mold. Wood is also sturdy and more resistant to temperature changes than metals, so it was perfect for making aged bourbon, whiskey, or wine.
When brewers first introduced them, a barrel was 48 gallons, but they later changed this to 53 gallons during World War II. They did this to conserve wood as they would need it for wartime efforts. The main reason why they made the switch to 53 gallons was that it was the biggest size that could fit in barrel storage systems.
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Is bourbon barrel oak endangered?
Bourbon is aged in white oak barrels. The tree itself might not be endangered as of now, but the bourbon barrel business is known for using a major chunk of them. The forests are being cut down, and the biggest and strongest trees are turned into barrels. This kind of harvesting hampers the ability of the tree to regenerate on its own. It is found easily in certain places as it is a native, but judicious harvesting is the need of the present day.
Learn how you can make your contribution to saving the bourbon barrel oak species.
Sustainable plan of action
Land and canopy management will have to go hand in hand as too much or too little sunlight can have adverse effects on the growth of these trees. If there is no shade being provided by the older trees, faster-growing species will take up all the space in the forest canopy.
But if the shade of the older trees is too dense, it can cause problems for younger oak trees. They might not grow at a sufficient pace to keep up with the older ones. This is the main reason why landowners should be educated and taught about sustainable wood harvesting techniques.
Bourbon barrel oak might not be on any list for preservation, but that does not mean the continuing practices can go on in the new age of environmentalism. As the world progresses forwards, some traditions might have to be tweaked while others changed altogether. Single-use bourbon barrels are becoming a thing of the past, and it is time that the aged bourbon industry also makes some small changes and learns from its peers.