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HOW BARRELS OF DENATURED ALCOHOL CREATED A

WRITTEN BY JOHN MCKEE 

I

n 1872 the Mary Celeste was found in the middle of the Atlantic without a crew and without any sign of disturbance. The pillows looked slept on, dinner was set, and the sails were still rigged, but no one was aboard. Although there are many theories as to what happened one of the more compelling possibilities has an interesting connection to our industry of distilling. The Mary Celeste had been contracted to transport 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol from America to Milan. After the abandoned ship was discovered, a small crew boarded it and sailed it to Gibraltar for salvage hearings and investigations, during which no blood or signs of struggle were found. The captain’s logbook was missing, a lifeboat was missing, and nine of those 1,701 barrels of denatured alcohol were empty while the remainder of the cargo was completely undisturbed. Your first guess may be that the crew were drinking the denatured alcohol and the poisonous after effects of the denaturing led to the disappearance of the crew. Overall that might be a good guess, but you’d probably be wrong. Even if you think that sailors of that era were salty dogs indeed, the 18 crew members couldn’t ingest 250+ gallons of

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GHOST SHIP denatured alcohol in 10 days without some pretty instant effects. Additionally, one of the passengers was the three-year-old daughter of the captain….so let’s assume she wasn’t boozing along with the entire crew. In our industry, it’s understood that white oak is the superior wood for storing all manner of liquids, not just alcohol. Other woods are more porous than white oak, and as a result, often allow greater evaporation or just plain leakage to occur. It’s the reason you don’t often see barrels of balsa, pine, cherry, Russian Olive, etc….and if you do and if they’ve been sitting even for a short while, they’re probably empty. At Headframe, we know this because we have a barrel that a friendly antique dealer dropped by a few years ago. It was originally coopered in 1913 for a distillery in Kentucky. When it arrived, it was super dry, so much so that we could turn a dime sideways and push it between the staves. Not to be deterred, we steamed that barrel up and worked the staves and hoops until we could get it to seal and hold liquid. We took some experimental whiskey, filled it up and said, “We’ll call that the 100-year whiskey!” Within months we figured out that wasn’t

IN OUR RAPIDLY INNOVATING INDUSTRY, WE’RE ALL CONSTANTLY EXPERIMENTING AND LOOKING FOR NOVEL WAYS TO DO THINGS.

LET THE MARY CELESTE BE A WARNING. 47

Artisan Spirit: Spring 2018  

The magazine for craft distillers and their fans.

Artisan Spirit: Spring 2018  

The magazine for craft distillers and their fans.