In the mid-1500s, farmers in the rolling, chalk-soil wheat country around the French provincial town of Cognac began distilling the light white wine that they made from the grapes grown on the slopes too steep for their main crop. The resulting brandy was loaded onto barges and floated down the sleepy Charente river to the ports of Tonnay-Charente and La Rochelle, whence it would go to Amsterdam or London or other points north.
If through some magic of modern physics you were able to reach back to the 1560s to take Jehan Serazin, a pioneer “marchand et faiseur d’eau de vie” (“merchant and maker of spirits”) from La Rochelle, and yoink him through time to the present and then drop him in the middle of one of the massive warehouse complexes in the middle of Cognac, he would be shocked. “Sacré bleu!” Monsieur Serazin would say, and “mais qu’est-ce que s’est passé ici? C’est un catastrophe!” Perturbed, he’d have a fusillade of questions: did the river silt up? Is there a naval blockade? Did some plague exterminate all the English and the Dutch? Because what in the Holy Name of St. Denis is this ridiculous amount of inventory doing gathering dust in the warehouse?
To the seventeenth-century pioneers of Cognac distilling, oak barrels were what they had always been, ever since the Celts came up with them some 1500-odd years before: pure and simple, they were shipping containers. The last thing you wanted was to leave product sitting around in them until they got old and dusty.
The way things worked in Cognac, the grapes would be harvested in the fall and pressed into wine, which would be distilled throughout the winter, with the new spirit going right into barriques—the fairly small, maneuverable 54-gallon barrel traditionally used for shipping Bordeaux wines. These might be new or they might be old, having been returned from market for reuse. They would be floated downriver on flatboats to Tonnay-Charente, near the river’s mouth, or further on up the coast to La Rochelle, and then warehoused until the spring storms subsided in the Bay of Biscay, at which point the Dutch and English customers arrived to roll them into their ships and take them home.
As a piece of design, the genius of the wooden barrel can scarcely be overstated. It’s light—at least, compared to the clay amphora against which it competed. It’s strong (you just have to look at an amphora slantways and it will break). It will float when it’s empty and it will still float when it’s full, which means you don’t even need a dock to get it on a boat (an amphora, on the other hand, makes a pretty fair anchor). Best of all, for the barrique, at least, whether it’s empty or full, one person can move it, crabbing it along on the rim if it’s upright and rolling it along handily if it’s on its side, pivoting it through the turns with no trouble at all. The larger sizes—for wines and spirits, that generally means the 110-gallon pipe and 220-gallon butt—are tougher to handle, but by no means impossible.
In any case, between distillation and landing in Amsterdam or London the new brandy would sit in those barriques for anything from three months, for one that was distilled late and sold early, to nine months or more (distilled early, sold late) before reaching the end user. Then it would remain in barrels until it was parceled out for retail, although probably not the same ones: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dutch and English spirits-wholesalers pretty much blended, proof-adjusted, sweetened, colored and otherwise adulterated every drop of liquid that passed through their cellars. Often, the cumulative time in the barrel was long enough for another one of its properties to kick in. Nowadays, we call it aging: the complex triple-whammy of extraction, oxidation and concentration that turns raw firewater left in a wooden container into tawny, nectareous throat-oil.
These linked reactions are far too complex to explain here in any detail, but I’ll at least skim through the basics. First of all, alcohol and water, the two major components of any spirit, are both solvents; when you leave them in a barrel long enough they will leach out tannins—tangy and bitter—and other compounds from the wood, including some that add vanilla notes and perceived sweetness.
But setting aside vodka and some kinds of white rum, most spirits also contain significant amounts of “congeners”—compounds that pass through the still along with the aforementioned C2H5OH and H2O. Some of these are more volatile than the alcohol and the water, others less so. Since wood is slightly porous, over time the more volatile ones will largely evaporate. As they tend to be biting and hot and nasty-tasting, that’s a good thing. But porousness is a two-way street: it also means that air gets into the barrel, whereupon the oxygen reacts with some of the other, heavier compounds, including some leached from the wood. Molecules break apart, their pieces combine with parts of others, and new compounds are generated, many of them tasty.
Finally, the longer the spirit sits in wood, the more of the alcohol and water in it evaporate (the so-called “Angels’ Share”). On the one hand, this is bad for the bottom line, as you have less booze to sell. On the other hand, a lot of evaporation generally means a long time in the barrel, so lots of extraction (depending on the newness of the barrel) and oxidation (that breaking apart and re-forming), but also a thickening of texture and a concentration of flavor from the higher concentration of heavier compounds left behind by the alcohol and water that have vamoosed to meet with the angels.
This process makes for a much richer spirit, which nowadays you can sell for more money—if you’re smart, a lot more. (Distillers always complain about the percentage of their spirit which has evaporated, but they never tell you the percent by which the price of what’s left has appreciated in the process.)
With Cognac, it took a good while for people to appreciate the advantages of this aging, in part because until the 1700s the stuff wasn’t kept in the barrels long enough to get full benefit (once it was, those chalk-soiled wheat fields were almost all turned over to grapevines, just as they are today). There was, however, another spirit popular in the 1600s that spent a good deal longer in the barrel and brought much higher prices.
In 1619, the Dutch East India Company—the V.O.C, as it was known—built itself a fortified headquarters on the north coast of the Indonesian island of Java for its holdings in the East Indies. “Batavia,” as the town was called, was home to Dutch and Indonesians, to be sure, but also a large and industrious overseas Chinese community, who made, among other things, large quantities of a spirit from mold-inoculated rice cakes (a traditional Chinese fermentation starter) and palm wine. By the mid-1820s, they were also adding molasses from the new sugar-works that the Dutch had hired them to run.
The V.O.C took this “arrack”—the lingua franca name for spirit in Asia—and used it to provision their ships for the long return journey to Holland, pouring it into large, 150-gallon teak leggers rather than the ceramic jars traditionally used for storage and shipping in Asia. (Like oak, teak is a close-grained hardwood that, when well-seasoned, makes tight barrels.)
Since the company’s fleets only sailed two or three times a year, the barrels might have to sit in a warehouse for as long as six months before being loaded aboard. Once there, they would hunker in the ship’s hold as it sailed through the Indian Ocean, around the bottom of Africa and through the South Atlantic and much of the North Atlantic (crossing the Equator along the way) before hitting the English Channel and the bottom of the North Sea.
Not every V.O.C. crew drank up all the arrack they were allotted, try as they might, and when the folks back in Amsterdam tasted what had survived its slow journey halfway around the world, they found it good—indeed, very good. Before long, so did the British, the Germans, the Swedes, and many others: the Dutch were very good at shipping things and selling things. Batavia Arrack became the world’s first super-premium spirit. In the London market, it cost more than any other spirit from the late 1600s until at least the early 1800s. (For a rather more detailed look at this fascinating drink, look here.)
I’m convinced that one of the reasons for this is that when it was first available it was aged longer than anything on the market. Now, the difference between sitting in a barrel for nine months and 14 months isn’t all that much, as far as aging a spirit is concerned. But the arrack wasn’t just sitting in a barrel. For at least eight months, that barrel was being rocked by the waves, sometimes violently. Down in the bottom of the ship, it spent the days getting hotter and hotter as the tropical sun turned the hold into a wooden oven and the nights cooling as the ocean swells surrounded it. The air that seeped into the barrels was sea air, with all the clean, briny aromas that brings.
As we’ve seen, aging is a chemical reaction, or rather a complex series of them. Adding energy to such things can speed them up: the heat of the tropical days supercharged the oxidation of the spirit and all that sloshing kept the molecules mixing and brought the spirit in and out of the wood more quickly, as did the expansion and contraction brought on by the rapid temperature changes. Even that smell of the sea would have to be marked as a factor influencing the final spirit: smells are molecules, too, and the human nose is remarkably sensitive to them. If they can make it into the barrel, they can make it into the spirit, there to either break down and recombine or persist unchanged. In either case, they must have an effect, however subtle. Ultimately, compared to a Cognac that spent at most eight or ten days at sea, by the time it was hoisted onto the quay in Amsterdam this arrack was positively old.
Batavia arrack wasn’t the only spirit to spend significant time aging at sea. Rum from Jamaica, Barbados and the other islands in the British Caribbean had its own voyage to make to reach the London docklands, where the barrels were sold (the Spanish, French and Portuguese tried to suppress rum-distilling and did not allow it to be exported until the nineteenth century). It might be three or four months, not eight or nine, but the period was still significant.
Of course, by the time rum started crossing the Atlantic, the cat was out of the bag as far as aging was concerned. By the early 1700s, producers in Cognac had learned to sit on their barrels for a year or two before shipping them off to market, and London merchants were offering things such as “Old Cogneac [sic]—fit for drams.” As the London distiller Peter Shaw observed in 1731, “Old French Brandy, by having long lain in an oaken Cask…becomes a dilute Tincture of Oak.” The same, of course, could be said of any old spirit—unless, that is, it was a tincture of teak, or chestnut, or one of the other woods used for maturation. But while long aging in a cellar or rickhouse might get a spirit to roughly the same place as ocean aging, if somewhat more slowly, it can never get it to exactly the same one: different conditions make for different chemical reactions, and that makes for a different spirit, no matter how subtly.
Even Scotch and Irish whiskies used to spend time aging at sea, at least when they were exported to America. The barrel was the dominant shipping container until the end of the nineteenth century, when the sealed, individual bottle began to replace it. For arrack and rum, as colonial products, their time aging at sea was part of their DNA until well into the twentieth century. Colonial powers preferred that all the value added to a product would be added at home country’s end, not at the colony’s, and that included aging, blending and bottling.
These days, ocean aging—that is, true ocean aging, where the spirit sails the seas in a barrel, not a bottle or a bulk tanker’s hold, as some commodity rum is shipped—is pretty rare. But Norway’s much-beloved Linie Aquavit has been doing it for ages (it was sold here as long ago as 1910), and is still going strong. These days, the old sherry barrels it’s aged in spend four months on the deck of a container ship, going to Australia and back and thus crossing the Equator—the “Linie,” in Norwegian—twice along the way. On the way, it makes ports of call all around the world.
The newest brand to turn to ocean aging is Jefferson’s Bourbon, which in 2012 (after a fascinating experiment with multi-year aging at sea) began shipping some of its Kentucky-aged bourbon around the world. In the six months or more it spends at sea, it touches at five continents and crosses the equator four times. Now, historically, not a lot of American whiskey was shipped abroad during the barrel age, so you can’t really call this a traditional product. But by turning to the very oldest tradition in the world’s international luxury spirit trade, Jefferson’s Ocean makes a pretty good argument that sometimes it’s worth reaching beyond the narrowest traditions of the American whiskey industry.