In the days before branded glass bottles became common, spirits, as well as wine and beer, were transported in barrels from where they were made to where they were sold. The time and constant motion along the way mellowed and matured these spirits at a faster rate than would happen if they never moved. Eventually, barrel aging along the way to market was replaced by aging and bottling at the source, but one old and several new spirits brands have decided to return to the practice of putting barreled booze on the move.
Inside a barrel, spirits soak into the wood, and interact with the wood char and oak. Both water and alcohol evaporate out of the barrel wood at different rates depending on the temperature and humidity where the barrel is stored. In locations with a range of alternating high and low temperatures throughout the year, such as Kentucky, the frequent weather changes force more liquid interaction through the barrel, and the spirit matures relatively fast. To take advantage of this, some producers physically move their barrels through locations with different climates.
So we have two strategies to move booze: moving/shaking/sloshing the barrel around locally, and sending barrels on journeys into different atmospheric conditions.
Bon Voyage, Barrels
Linie has been aging barrels of their aquavit on ships since 1805. According to the brand the practice started when they shipped barrels of aquavit to the East Indies, but the spirit didn’t sell and the shipment was returned to the company in Norway. The website states, “On its arrival in 1807, it was discovered that the sea voyage had vastly improved the taste. Since that day, every drop of Linie has been sent on a sea journey across the world to mature, crossing the Equator twice. It’s the constant rolling and changing temperature and humidity during the journey, which gives Linie Its unparalleled smoothness, and perfectly balances the spices and cask aromas.”
Linie’s voyage takes four months; not a long time as far as aging goes, but enough time to increase the flavor impact of the sherry barrel on the unaged aquavit. Similarly, WhistlePig RoadStock Rye Whiskey was aged at home for several years, but then finished in Jordan Winery and Firestone Walker Brewery barrels over a 6,000 mile road trip from Vermont to California and back in a “rolling rickhouse” of an 18-wheeler truck. Much like Linie, the time on the road was meant to speed the finishing of the whiskey rather than the entire period of aging.
Brush Creek Distillery’s Railroad Rye traded a big truck for a train, leaving Chicago in a “60-foot side-load rail cart” and traveling for 1776 miles along the Transcontinental Railroad route until reaching Saratoga, Wyoming. The whiskey was matured and then finished aboard the train, though as far as I can tell they didn’t move the barrels into new ones first.
In 2022, Goslings Rum released Spirited Seas, a blend of rum that was additionally aged on the container ship Oleander. The ship travels from New Jersey to Bermuda weekly with imports and exports. For over 40 weeks, nearly 60,000 miles, and over 80 Atlantic crossings, the rum travelled aboard inside 60 barrels.
In the press release for the launch, Malcolm Gosling Jr., said, “The stormy seas and air had an extraordinary effect on the aging rum blend. Extreme changes in weather forced the rum to expand in warmer climates and contract in colder temperatures.” A video onboard can be found here.
Jefferson’s bourbon and rye whiskeys—like its Ocean Aged at Sea Rye—have been taking trips on boats for years now. And instead of one consistent route, the whiskeys are sent to different parts of the world, each voyage seeing (on average) over 25 ports, five continents, and two equator crossings, according to the brand.
The website provides Captains’ Logs for several of the journeys with information about the ships’ routes and weather conditions. The website declares: “The constant agitation and changing climate imparted a sweet, caramelized flavor reminiscent of dark rum, while the salty ocean air and sea spray gave the bourbon the savory, briny character of an Islay scotch whisky.”
The Motion of the Ocean
If you wanted to slosh the liquid around inside a barrel in order to increase wood contact, and didn’t want to spend the money to send them across the equator on boats, you could roll the barrels around a warehouse or put them on an exercise treadmill. That would be fun to see, but some producers have figured out that you can get all the motion you want for free by harvesting the power of the sea.
The distillers at Iron Works Distillery in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, make a rum aged partially at sea on a floating boat warehouse. The boat stays moored in Lunenburg Harbour, and they let the motion of the Atlantic Ocean toss the rum about inside its barrels. Twice each year they dock the boat and switch out the barrels before bottling the spirit as Rum Boat Rum.
Similarly, O.H. Ingram River Aged Whiskey is “mellowed” on the Mississippi River in a floating barrelhouse moored on the riverbank of Ballard County, Kentucky. The brand says that the river aging impacts the spirit in three ways. 1) The river motion keeps the liquids churning inside the barrels, exposing more liquid to the surface of the barrel; 2) Temperature shifts between day and night cause the liquid to be pulled into and out of the wood of the barrel on a daily basis. 3) The humidity from the river slows down evaporation of the whiskey, aka it reduces the angels’ share.
Clearly, some of these spirits aged while in motion will experience more of an impact than others depending on the length of aging and all the other conditions mentioned. Some of these treatments seem little better than gimmicks, but they all evoke images of the stormy seas, a cross-country train ride, or a road trip with your pals and a bottle of whiskey. In all cases, they’re far more exciting than simply hanging out in a warehouse for a few years.