Small Barrels: A Bird in the Hand

What can a historic jazz recording teach us about whisky production?

by Sean Fousheé

Buffalo Trace Distillery recently sent out a press release that is causing quite a stir in the whisky industry, "Buffalo Trace Distillery Announces Small Barrel Experiments Are Failures." The subject of their release is a "failed experiment" in which Buffalo Trace matured their standard bourbon recipe in small oak barrels, similar to the ones popular with craft distilleries. Their conclusion is that after six years of taking annual samples of the maturing spirit the small barrels failed to produce quality whisky. An interesting conclusion, and one that has rekindled a long growing disagreement over the use of small barrels in whisky production. It wasn't only the experiment that was a failure, so were the premise and methods used by Buffalo Trace, and I can best explain the error in this 'experiment' with a bit of Jazz history.

In May 1953, at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, a concert was held by a who's who list of jazz greats - Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Charlie Parker. A selection from the recording of this concert, "Jazz at Massey Hall", is below:

Perdido, "Complete Jazz at Massey Hall" (1953)

While the music alone is great, it's the side story of Charlie Parker's performance that night that is illustrative in helping to explain why small barrels aren't failures, as Buffalo Trace's recent press release alludes. Parker, or known more informally by his nickname 'Bird', arrived at Massey Hall without his saxophone; some historians believe he sold it days earlier for money to buy heroin. Instead of searching Toronto for a suitable replacement, Parker was given a Grafton Saxophone, an unique instrument in that it's body was made entirely from plastic. Up to that night, and years long after, the Grafton had a reputation as being a horrible instrument, unsuited for professional musicians and scorned by saxophonists the world over as being nothing more than a gimmick. Does that sound like a familiar argument? Listen to the clip again... would you have guessed that was a recording of the world's worst produced saxophone, made from plastic?

But then what parallels can we draw between a distillery's panning of the use of small barrels in maturation and this historic recording of Bird's performance with a plastic sax? Simply that, as a tool used in production, whether a barrel or saxophone, it is only in the hands of a true artisan that the tool's potential is fully realized. That might sound a bit high minded and philosophical for some, and I'm certainly not trying to insinuate that the distillers at Buffalo Trace aren't masters of their craft, but when you approach a new tool with the same expectations and methods as familiar, similar implements, you're setting yourself up for failure. Bird knew this and what I'm surprised by is that - based on their own press release - Buffalo Trace did not. That night at Massey Hall the plastic saxophone, the same instrument that had befuddled and frustrated professional musicians, found itself in the hands of a master who understood the limitations of the tool and changed his approach to allow it to produce music that wasn't just passable but exquisite and up to his standards.

The approach Buffalo Trace took with their small barrels was exactly the opposite. Instead of varying their recipe or cuts in anticipation for maturation in smaller barrels the distillery simply filled them with their same rye mash recipe that has evolved over decades as best suitable for use in standard cask maturation. Instead of testing the spirit every few months to monitor the effects of increased surface area had on the whisky, they opened the barrels just once a year. Instead of placing the barrels in various spots within their rickhouses, in order to monitor the effects of temperature and humidity had on the maturing whisky, they simply lined them up in the same spot with larger casks. To try and bend a different tool to fit within an already preconceived process is folly, but to learn and adapt your process to allow that same tool to fully contribute it's unique aspects to your production is the very essence of craftsmanship.

The vast majority of craft distillers aren't using smaller barrels in an attempt to reproduce the same style and profile of whisky produced by the older, larger distilleries - although some businessmen may have attempted it in the past as a get rich quick scheme to cash in on the whisky craze. No, the majority of true artisan whisky needs to be viewed as a new breed of whisky, at times less refined and perhaps rough around the edges, but by no means less deserving of our attention or adoration. And when these distillery's production matures to fully realize how to adjust their manufacturing process to take full advantage of smaller casks the results are as beautiful as Bird's mastery of bebop with a plastic horn. It might not be Bach or Mozart, but the result is as awe inspiring and entertaining.