Why people who can’t use Google shouldn’t write about whiskey

Whiskey Barrels On A Truck

The blunt answer is because they promote ignorance. I could point to a whole slew of articles over the last few months that, after reading them, I wanted to slap my forehead and yell “Did you even bother Googling Bourbon?!?!” or Scotch or Irish Whiskey or whatever. It’s as if they’ve never even heard of Wikipedia and so instead of laying out facts they just make stuff up or word it in a way that ends up being woefully misleading.

In almost every instance the writer could have come off sounding far more knowledgable, and actually promoting education instead of ignorance, if they’d just taken 2 seconds to Google what they were talking about. To illustrate my point more succinctly I’m going to use a recent article from the Washington Post (linked below) about bourbon’s boom and the need for barrels.

In this article Roberto A. Ferdman starts off by talking about how the housing crash from a few years ago and Chinese furniture making has caused so many loggers and forestry operations to go out of business. This in turn is now making it harder for barrel makers to source wood. It’s a decent start and, in-fact, the article isn’t too bad until we hit the last four paragraphs where it all falls apart because Roberto didn’t take 2 seconds to Google “what happens to used bourbon barrels”.

How do I know this? Because, if he had, he would have had a plethora of links at his disposal telling him what happens to bourbon barrels after bourbon distilleries are done with them and he wouldn’t have written this:

Unlike barrels used to age other spirits, including tequila, those used for bourbon are also never used twice, complicating the issue further.

Umm Roberto… tequila is often aged in ex-bourbon barrels. So is rum and other whisky like this little thing called Scotch. I know it holds a tiny market share and is hard to find, so you might not have heard of it, but distilleries in Scotland re-use bourbon barrels 2+ times putting them in service for decades. Decades Roberto… DECADES. Bourbon barrels are used more than twice, not thrown away as you suggest, and are increadibly important in the beverage and condiment industry.

The way that line should have been written is “By law, bourbon must be aged in new charred white oak barrels so the bourbon industry can’t reuse it’s barrels. However, those barrels then go on to age other things such as rum, tequila, other kinds of whisky, beer, coffee beans, hot sauce and maple syrup to name a few.” Instead he just backs up his “gotcha” statement with a quote from someone mentioned earlier in his article.

“The barrels have limited use,” said Johnson. “Since they can’t be used endlessly, that definitely adds to the problem.”

In barrel form no, he’s right, they can’t. After being reused to age whisky and other spirits for up to 70 years the barrel is of use no more. Though even after they’re no longer of any use to the beverage industry the barrels aren’t just chucked in a landfill and thrown away. There isn’t a giant barrel graveyard hanging out somewhere. The wood gets used to make things like furniture, flooring, wood paneling, fire wood, packaging material, landscaping mulch and more.

I swear, sometimes it feels like every editor in the USA has issued an edict that bourbon or whiskey must be used in an article at least once a week no matter what. I’m so sick of seeing these kind of articles that either miss huge facts or willfully mislead people all in the name of trying to grab a headline because whiskey is hot right now. It doesn’t further journalism or our collective knowledge, all it does is promote ignorance and you end up with comments like this.

Bourbon barrel comment

And that’s just the one person who took the time to login / make an account and post that. How many other people walked away thinking the exact same thing? My only hope, and it’s a small one, is that unlike the author they know how to use Google and answered the questions they walked away with themselves.

Josh Peters
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Josh Peters

I read about, think about, write about, and drink whisk(e)y. In short, it's my passion.
Josh Peters
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14 Responses to Why people who can’t use Google shouldn’t write about whiskey

  1. When the two quotes from the Ferdman article are read in context they do make sense. He is talking about the problems sourcing wood/barrels for bourbon hence why they can’t be used twice and be limitless for bourbon. Thus leading to a shortage for bourbon.

    It wasn’t particularly well written but knowing much the same about casks as yourself I don’t have much of a problem about the article.

    • I did read them in context, that’s what pissed me off 🙂

      They’re half statements used to support each other. Especially in regards to backing up the the Tequila statement because that’s what a lot of Tequila is aged in, bourbon barrels. He’s talking about the same thing and doesn’t even realize it.

  2. Hey Josh – Good post! Whenever anything gets popular in our culture, it seems it becomes mandatory to talk about it, while not being mandatory to actually know anything about it.

    Reading this brought up a question I can’t seem to find a straight answer for, regarding part of the legal definition of bourbon. Since you are knowledgeable on the topic, I was hoping you could weigh in. You stated in your post bourbon must be aged in “new charred white oak barrels.” I’ve seen the Jim Beam website say something similar, along with many other websites. But I’ve also seen a ton of sites that state bourbon only legally needs to be aged in “new charred oak barrels.” Not specifying “white oak.”

    As a result, I dug deeper and looked at the ECFR website (ELECTRONIC CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS), specifically Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms / PART 5—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF DISTILLED SPIRITS / Subpart C—Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits.

    It says in §5.22 The standards of identity:
    ———————-
    (1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
    ———————-

    If the government standards website is not specifying “white oak” barrels to be considered bourbon (just “charred new oak containers”), then why are numerous websites declaring it has to be “new charred white oak?”

    I understand from researching American oak species that white oak is the preferred wood used in wine and whisk(e)y ageing, but it does not appear to be legally indicated as mandatory in order to be called bourbon. Yet even the Jim Beam website says “By law, bourbon must be… aged in new, charred white oak barrels.”

    Heck, I used Google and I’m still not sure!

    • Hey Abe,

      Thank you and that is a VERY good question and the answer is that they’re being used interchangeably. In America, and around the world, the white oak species (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Quercus_species) are preferred for the flavors they impart and so white oak species are what’s used the overwhelming majority of the time.

      However as the TTB states (and you point out) it is just “charred new oak containers” that are required http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter4.pdf Which, from the wording could just as easily be a red oak box as a white oak barrel, but that would be unweildy.

      I just got back from visiting Independent Stave Barrel Company down in Kentucky and in talking to the guy running the place, Jimmy, he even mentioned this same clarification. Bourbon could be aged in French oak (a white oak species) and it could still be called bourbon, but experiments with it and other oaks have been less-than-favorable and so it’s American white oak (Quercus alba) that gets used for the barrels. There are exceptions out there like Maker’s 46 who uses toasted French Oak barrel inserts, but they are the minority.

      Which is why I think we all say “charred white oak barrels”. It’s what’s used, what we talk about and what we reference, but you’re absolutely correct that it is just oak containers per the regulations. Technically speaking saying white oak isn’t completely correct or incorrect since it’s oak and what’s used 99.99% of the time, but it would indeed be more correct to just say oak.

      Great question, thanks for the bringing that up and I hope that clears it up!

      • French oak can be used and the name “bourbon” can still be used, sure, but what is lost is the right to call the product “straight bourbon.” Note that Maker’s 46 bottles say “Kentucky Bourbon,” not “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” like Maker’s Mark bottles.

        • Not according to the TTB. The only requirement is “Bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more & Straight Bourbon Whisky may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state” (http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter4.pdf). It doesn’t specifically state it must be White Oak. I don’t know why Maker’s doesn’t include Straight on their label.

  3. I do agree that a lot of media report incorrectly but that info is on google to regurgitate over and over.

    I see you have put a link to Wikipedia, have a read at the Shane Fitzgerald Wikipedia hoax kind of proves the pitfalls of using google for information.

  4. Excellent article Josh, and I agree 100% with your gripe. As a side on white oak, the pores-in the end grain, of all white oak species are plugged with tyloses making it suitable for holding liquids whether in a mop bucket in Colonial Williamsburg or my personal favorite, a bourbon barrel. Red oak on the other hand would leak like the proverbial sieve due to its pores being wide open like a drinking straw. Really enjoy your website by the way.

    • Hey Sheldon thank you and thanks for the info, that’s incredibly interesting to know and probably why we’ve never seen anyone experimenting with the red oak.

      Cheers!

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