experience, a $180 kilndried barrel is much more likely to arrive with bilge cracks than a $350 airdried barrel. Additionally, look for damage at the stave ends which can occur if the barrel is dropped on edge. This type of damage can be difficult to repair. If the head hoop isn’t flush with the chime (the edge of the stave), or the hoops have deformations or hammer marks, it suggests the barrel had to be repaired at the cooperage after construction. Other indicators the barrel has been worked on include excessive wax or paste applied to the croze (the groove in the stave end which the head is inserted into), and doweling or wedges pounded into the head to plug gaps. These aren’t necessarily reasons to reject a barrel, but they can be more prone to leak, so I mark them to be filled first as they can be more challenging to rehydrate if allowed to dry out. Donnis Todd, master distiller at Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas (no relation to article author), specifies to his cooperage suppliers that he won’t accept repaired barrels, as he’s found that in the intense heat of their aging environment, the repairs often fail. These types of relationships with cooperages take time to build, but if you know you have special requirements, do everything you can to communicate them to the cooperage in advance and both parties will be happier.
STORING BARRELS After inspecting the barrels, at least some will likely need to be stored until filling time. The environment the barrels are stored in is important, as poor conditions make the barrels much more likely to dry out. According to Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky, the ideal barrel storage environment is 65F with 75% humidity. While some wineries have humidity control, it’s pretty rare in distilleries, so you may have to get creative to mitigate moisture loss from the wood. Garrison Brothers, which orders barrels by the truckload, constructed a specific building for storing the barrels prior to filling to keep them out of the sun and wind. “Early on we learned to keep them shrink-wrapped, and keep them up off the ground on a pallet,” says Todd, as resting directly on the floor seems to suck the moisture out of the wood. At our distillery in Portland, the air is turned over very frequently which tends to dry out barrels rapidly in the summertime. We’ve had better results storing empty barrels in the tasting room (everyone loves to see barrels!) as well as in a shipping container with limited airflow (ie “the barrel sauna”). These steps are all helpful, but the only surefire solution beyond humidity control is to fill barrels immediately upon receipt. Independent Stave Company and Canton Cooperage both stress that any time in storage negatively impacts fill-readiness, and the ideal scenario would be to only order as many barrels as you’ll fill in a month. There are delivery costs associated with that approach, but they might be partially offset by reduced handling of the barrels to get them fill ready.
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