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March 10, 2021, 8:25 AM

Dear Friends,

A commercial for Jack Daniels for some reason piqued my interest this past week about the wooden barrels the whiskey or bourbon is mellowed in. Perhaps it is odd, given that I am not an alcohol drinker. What I found intriguing was the barrel “firing” and its’ importance to the final taste. I found that the barrels for Jack Daniels and other whiskey’s, bourbons, scotches, and cognacs are entirely made from White Oak. This one type of oak is the only wood with the desired properties for flavoring the liquor.  

There are four significant components that make white oak the best wood for this process. Hemicellulose, when heated to 284 degrees Fahrenheit, releases wood sugars which allows caramelization to form on the inner wood surface. This gives the liquor a brown sugar, caramel, toffee flavor. Lignin in the wood fiber releases a vanilla/spice flavor the more the wood is charred. Tannins are only needed in small amount to help with successful long-term maturation of the liquor. They are removed either by aging/seasoning the wood (some for as long as five years) or dried in a kiln for five to six months. If not removed, tannins give alcohol a harsh taste and spoils the outcome. And finally, the oak lactones, which of all the oak species has the highest concentration in white oak. The lactones are what produce the woody or coconut flavors found in many bourbons. The more the barrel is charred the lower the lactone influence. 

The are 5 standard char levels for barrels each one producing a different influence on the liquor. # 1 char is for 15 seconds of full interior flame applied to the barrel. # 2 is for 30 seconds. # 3 is for 35 seconds. # 4 is for 55 seconds and is also known as the alligator char due to the interior wood being rough with a shiny finish. # 7 is used for some bourbons and this charring lasts for 3 ½ minutes.  The higher the char level, the mellower the liquor will be as it is filtered through the carbon layer in the wood. Depth of char layers range from 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch. The deeper the char, the more the alcohol can seep back and forth through the wood, picking up the desired taste qualities. By comparison, wines are put in wooden casks which are only lightly toasted (browned) instead of charred to minimize the wood-alcohol interaction.

Another tidbit I discovered, bourbon, by law, can only be aged in “charred new oak barrels.” Apparently somewhere along the way someone tried to reuse the oak barrels and did not produce a good product.  

I share this short course on barrel charring because I glimpsed something of a metaphor for our lives of faith. Our witness to the Gospel, and our testimonies about our faith experiences, would be bland and lack-luster, if we have not over the years had some level of charring ourselves. Our struggles and pain, hurt and sorrow, are the charring effects into which the Gospel has been placed/poured. The level of our charring or toasting not only allows each of our testimonies to be different, but also leaves a different “taste in the mouth” in those who hear our story. Whether smoky or sweet, mellow, or pungent, the Gospel message within us is made evident as we have aged with it. I will stop before getting into alcohol content and leave the barrel charring image with you.  

Paul talks about us being broken vessels into which the Gospel has been poured. He also understood the “charring” that would come as we followed Christ Jesus. Jesus talked about putting new wine in old wineskins (perhaps attempting to reuse the barrel) which did not work.  The wineskin or the barrel need to hold what is put inside it and endure the change that happens within it. Then, when it is opened, you will know whether it is new or aged and mellowed. We may look “normal” on the outside, charred on the inside, and have a Gospel witness that is only ours to tell!

In Christ’s service together wherever He leads,