PREPPING THE BARRELS When you are ready to fill the barrels they should be inspected again, looking for gaps between staves or loose/out-ofplace hoops which indicate the barrel is no longer fill ready. I smell the barrels and record my impressions (officially referred to as “nosing the bunghole for its virtue”) as well as inspect the interior with a dental mirror and flashlight to confirm the toasting and charring align with my expectations. There are a few different methods to prep or hydrate a barrel for filling. At Garrison Brothers, Todd has a six-inch deep concrete “kiddie pool” filled with filtered rainwater. Barrels are stood on their ends in the pool and the recess of the head is filled with water. The barrels are periodically flipped until water stays on top of the head, which can take several days of soaking. By not filling the barrels directly with water, Garrison Brothers cuts back significantly on their water usage. Occasionally barrels fail to swell up, but because of the distillery’s barrel specifications to the cooperages, it’s relatively rare. Experience has shown them that any barrel that needs more help to swell tight will likely leak or perform poorly when exposed to the intense aging environment in Texas, where the barrel may see 500 or 600 100°F summer days over the course of its maturation. Lee Medoff, Head Distiller and Founder at Bull Run Distillery in Portland, Oregon, has had good success with a different approach. For new barrels, he gives them a quick rinse with a spray-ball attachment to remove any sawdust or excessive char. The barrel is then filled with a couple of gallons of filtered 110-120°F water, bunged up, and stood on end. After an hour, the barrel is flipped onto the other head for a spell. WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
If no leaks are detected, the barrel is ready to fill. If there are noticeable leaks more water is added to the barrel and poured into the recess of the head. Medoff emphasized that the water must be filtered and chlorine-free, of the same quality used to proof spirits, and that he won’t leave water in a barrel longer than overnight as it may start to go stagnant and turn the barrel musty. He’s also found if you are working with larger-than-standard barrels like 500L puncheons or sherry butts its critical to not let them dry out, as they can be extremely challenging to get back together and tight. At Stone Barn Brandyworks, we follow a similar procedure. After inspection, we fill the barrels with three to four gallons of filtered 140°F water and close them with a silicone bung. The barrel is then gently rolled back and forth, taking care to keep the bung pointed away from the face. The hot water pressurizes the barrel and water is forced out of any gaps between the staves or head, so it’s important to wear appropriate protective gear. Generally, hotter water is more effective for swelling the barrel, but can extract more barrel character. Similarly, rolling the barrel too aggressively can knock a lot of char off the staves, depending on the type of barrel. The barrel is stood on each head for 30 minutes, and after one hour, if no leaks are detected, the bung is removed (there should be a hiss of pressure). The water is dumped and tasted to get a sense of the barrel flavor. If the water has much or any color, the water was too hot or sat too long. Any leaks generally swell shut within the first hour, and if the barrel is still leaking after 24 hours, it is unlikely to swell shut on its own. Leak repair is another ball of wax (and spiles and tools and irritation…), but the simplest and first course of action
is to try tightening the hoops. Using a hoop driver and three pound hammer, pound down the hoops at even intervals around the barrel, starting at the bilge hoop and working upwards. Then, flip the barrel and pound the other set of hoops. If you tighten the hoops before swelling the barrel, it’s possible to overtighten the hoops, which can damage the staves when they do swell. If you don’t have a hoop driver, a squaredoff masonry chisel could be used, but you’ll be happier and safer if you purchase the right tools from Barrel Builders or a winery supply house. (If you ever plan to take a barrel apart, get a head puller while you are buying equipment; it’s the best $10 you can spend.) If the barrel gets too dry, the hoops may slide off if they aren’t nailed in place, which creates some challenges for rehydrating. Using a ratchet strap around the bilge to cinch up the barrel can provide some structural integrity while you position the hoops. Try to return the hoops to their original position (usually there are marks where the hoop originally rested) and hold them in place with L-shaped hoop clips. For very dry barrels, a kiddie pool-style soaking bath is usually more effective than filling, as at first the water will pour out about as fast as it goes in. Be sure to change the water regularly to prevent bacteria from growing, and as you struggle through the process, you’ll have plenty of time to think about improvements to your barrel storage arrangements!
Andy Garrison is Head Distiller at Stonebarn Brandyworks, where he’s worked since 2012, and has distilled at a few other Portland-area distilleries including New Deal Distillery and House Spirits Distillery. For more info, email Andy.email@example.com. 43
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