One size does not fit all. At least in the whiskey world.

Determined to make their mark on the red hot whiskey market (and a buck while they’re at it), the new wave of intrepid craft distillers is experimenting with all parts of the process, including barrel size. For years 53-gallon barrels have been the American whiskey standard. But many start-up distilleries across the country and in Minnesota are filling barrels that are a fraction of that size — a hotly debated practice in the whiskey world.

“We’ve been extremely surprised at the amount of flavor we’ve been able to get out of these small barrels,” said Lee Egbert of 11 Wells Spirits.

The St. Paul distillery is one of the state’s first micros with aged whiskey on the shelf less than a year after opening and its mini-sized barrels are to be thanked. Egbert and his partner Bob McManus have released three whiskeys in their experimental Prototype Series, most recently a lovely wheat whiskey rolled out this month.

“Straight” American whiskeys spend at least two years in new oak barrels and at that age are still considered toddlers. Most big-name bourbon producers don’t release anything under four years old. However, 11 Wells’ inaugural aged whiskeys have spent a mere four or five months in 5-, 10- and 15-gallon barrels. By exposing a higher percentage of the whiskey to the barrels’ surface area, the whiskey extracts color and certain flavors faster, reducing the amount of time required to develop a reasonably tasty product.

Further increasing the wood-to-whiskey contact, 11 Wells aged some of its whiskey in barrels that have honeycomb patterns carved into their staves, creating more surface area. According to a chart from Black Swan, the Park Rapids, Minn., cooperage from which 11 Wells sources some of its barrels, its 5-gallon honey­comb barrels mature spirits at least twice as fast as their same sized “traditional” barrels without them.

“The amount of oak flavor that you can get out of a small barrel is closer to the six- or eight-[year] time period,” said Egbert, drawing a comparison to the large-barrel time frame. “But there are things you can’t cheat time on.”

A reason for the change

It’s true, Father Time is a finicky son of a barley farmer. Time is money and Egbert and most distillers are forthright about money motivating the small-barrel movement. It’s hard for cash-strapped entrepreneurs to sit on products for years before seeing a return on their investment.

Although small barrels are less cost-effective, they help distillers get to that big-ticket spirit faster. However, one of their pitfalls is the greater potential to produce over-oaked whiskeys that drink like liquid sawdust.

Smaller barrels increase the rate at which the whiskey extracts compounds from the wood, reducing the window of time when the whiskey is ready, but not too woody, said Far North Spirits’ Mike Swanson. While whiskey can extract vanillins and caramelized sugars fairly quickly from the barrel, certain flavors require more time to develop and gradual oxidization can remove impurities and undesirable sulfides. “A younger whiskey from a smaller barrel requires a little more TLC,” he said. “You have to be a little more attentive in your aging process.”

With his Roknar rye, currently resting in 10-gallon barrels, Swanson tailored his mash bill and barrel proof for the small-barrel format. The Hallock, Minn., distiller also plans to finish the whiskey in 60-gallon wine casks, extending the reaction phase when whiskey, wood and oxygen compounds interact.

Not-so-small options

From his northeast Minneapolis distillery, Scott Ervin experimented with 5- and 10-gallon barrels, but found there was too much variability between barrels. Where one barrel might be ready in sixth months, another might need 11, he said. Eventually, the Norseman Distillery founder settled on 30-gallon barrels for his rye, though he has some bourbon aging in 53-gallon ones. “I didn’t think it was the same product,” Ervin said of the smaller-barrel trials. “But not everybody’s going for the best product. It’s sometimes just to bring stuff to market.”

Egbert and Swanson, who are also stashing away 53-gallon barrels, caution that measuring a young, small-barrel whiskey against a traditional bourbon or rye isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Either way, both admit that once they have a steady supply of older whiskey from standard-sized barrels they may lose the small stuff. But as craft distillers continue forging their paths, few experiments are off limits.

“Underdogs fight pretty darn hard,” Egbert said. “That’s exactly where we are. If you’re creative and are really trying to push the envelope and add value, that’s only going to make things better.”

 

Michael Rietmulder writes on spirits, beer and nightlife. Follow him on Twitter: @mrietmulder.