Did you know that there are people whose job it is to stop barrels from leaking?
Barrels are miracles of design. I’ve seen their invention compared in importance to the invention of the wheel! Usually around 75 pounds empty, they are designed to be manipulated by one man (albeit a large strong one) and are built to last. There is no glue, no nails or bolts that hold it together. It is the amazingly leak resistant nature of oak and the pressure of the wood staves forced into place, pressing against each other, while being bound in place by steel hoops that gives a barrel its integrity. Steel is a modern addition to an otherwise perfect design that has been used for millennia.
All sorts of things can make a barrel leak. A bad stave or a loose hoop or a healed spot in the wood that has dissolved over time could cause a leak. Unfortunately, many more of the causes are in the fact that staves are no longer left to cure for long enough and without properly seasoned wood (good staves are aged 13 months and more), the barrel’s integrity has already been compromised. The barrel shortage has forced the hand of many cooperages to kiln dry their wood and rush the creation process that has always been the traditional way of creating barrels. So the barrels leak more readily…
Thankfully, the larger distilleries employ leak hunters in the warehouse and they search high and low through the ricks for leaky barrels. Sometimes fixing a leak requires that a hoop be driven back into place. Sometimes a cedar peg is hammered in or a head needs to be changed out. These guys find the tiniest worm hole that is leaking and plug it up. Losing whiskey from a leak takes a huge angel’s share, and, aside from leaking profits away, losing liquid in the barrels ultimately affects the flavor of the finished product.
The smaller distilleries now cannot afford to hire these leak hunters. They are also left with the barrels that they can get-usually much lower quality than that of the larger distilleries. They suffer from more leaks that they cannot repair and lose a lot of profits because of it. Let’s hope that the quality of barrel staves will improve in time. Or perhaps more cooperages will open in the United States and bring back the quality of a well made barrel. Until then, CHEERS TO THE LEAK HUNTERS!!
Here’s a great article by Fred Minnick-