Barrels & Racking:

Modern Systems, Historic Preservation and Refurbished Options Producing Optimal Results

By: Cheryl Gray

In 1879, distiller Frederick Stitzel patented a revolutionary method that put a new spin on how barrels for spirits and other crafted drinks are stored.

  Some 150 years later, the practice of racking barrels, also known as ricking, is an industry-standard. Placing barrels on their sides, rather than upright, and supporting them underneath with either timber or metal, increases air circulation and space.  Racking keeps pressure off barrel staves, a problem that Stitzel and other early distillers learned could result in losing a barrel’s precious contents through leakage.

Space to Breathe

  Western Square Industries, headquartered in Stockton, California, has been in business for 43 years and is among the global leaders in its field. The company originally catered to the agriculture and livestock industries, specializing in two main products, steel gates and corrals. Western Square Industries now manufactures a broad range of barrel racking systems for distillers, breweries, wineries, meaderies and cideries. It serves clients across the United States, with a significant client base in California, Texas and the Eastern U.S.  

  President and CEO Trygve Mikkelsen took over the company in 1993 and quickly recognized its potential in manufacturing barrel racks. Mikkelsen told Beverage Master Magazine about one of the company’s most popular barrel systems for distillers expanding their operations.

  “The Barrel Master is our most popular model for distilleries in growth since the user can mix and match sizes of barrels in a safe forklift-able stacking system. The Barrel Master can also be bought with the barrels sitting on wheels for easy rotation if desired. This is possible because there is no weight on each barrel.”

  The Barrel Master 30/53 allows barrels ranging in size from 30 to 53 gallons to be stored on the same rack. The rack-on-rack design allows barrels to be more visible and accessible. There is also the opportunity to stack barrels higher without compromising stability. An optional wheel design provides 180-degree barrel rotation in either direction. Unlike other systems, which are more like pallets between barrels and require a uniform barrel shape and size, Mikkelson said Barrel Master’s rack-on-rack function eliminates any barrel putting pressure on another below. The rack also features a storage-saving design in that it can be nested into a stack when empty.  The racking system is manufactured from stainless steel and is available in several color and coating options.

  Mikkelsen said breweries and distilleries also use his company’s seven-inch two-barrel racks and another product known as Big Foot. Sometimes, Mikkelsen said, full access is less important than space.  In that case, clients choose the company’s low-profile rack, known as two-barrel four-inch racks.

Tradition and Preservation

  While newly established distilleries may look to modern-day solutions for ricking, the name Brown-Forman evokes a history like no other, including that it is the only distillery company in the world to make its own barrels, which are stored in a range of distilleries, some with warehouses and barrel ricking systems dating back to the late 1800s.

  When a young Jack Daniel first learned the art of making whiskey under the tutelage of a soon-to-be ex-slave-turned-master-distiller, Nathan Nearest Green, neither could have imagined that the whiskey created would become synonymous with the tradition and preservation of some of the most historic distilleries in the world. Brown-Forman is the keeper of that tradition, in the form of four distilleries, three in Kentucky and, of course, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee. 

  With some 130 years of warehouses spread across four distilleries, the barrel ricking found in any given Brown-Forman warehouse depends upon many variables. Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve Master Distiller for Brown-Forman, explained that while a modern distillery can install all one type of ricking, the historical distilleries of Brown-Forman have operated on a different premise.

  “The date of construction for the numerous warehouses at our distilleries ranges from 1890 through 2020.  Needless to say, this means we have many types of barrel rick material, from wood to metal. Within those two groups, we find different types of wood and metal in use over the years. That depends on the era an individual warehouse was constructed and who built it. We also have some palletized storage as well as floor dunnage. The Woodford Reserve Distillery, for example, has warehouses with wooden ricks and others with heavy iron rails. Woodford also has some palletized space and floor dunnage. 

  “While our ricks are made of various materials, they are all using the same design that was patented in 1879: the ‘open rick’ design. Now, this again will vary in length and height, based on the size of the warehouse. Some wide houses will have a rick that holds 31 barrels, while others may only hold 11 due to the narrow width of the house. Most of our warehouses have ricks that are ‘three high’ or have three tiers of ricks.  However, we do have one house that has ‘six high’ ricks. Still, the design doesn’t change.  When our cooperage makes a barrel for a distillery, like a Woodford Reserve specific barrel, it doesn’t know which warehouse it is going to be entered into, so that barrel has to fit in every warehouse’s ricks.”

  When it comes to proper storage, Morris said, some things never change. “The proper storage for a barrel in the rick is simple. Rick it with the bung in the 12 o’clock position to minimize leakage. If a barrel already has a leak, rick it with the leak point at 12 o’clock. Otherwise, it is the condition of the warehouse that is important, rather than how the barrel sits in the rick.  We want clean, dry conditions in the warehouse.”

  Morris also said that there is no need to rotate barrels if there is good inventory control, along with batching barrels together to make a consistent flavor profile. A barrel matures based upon warehouse temperatures and the length of time the barrel spends in the warehouse, not by how it sits.

  “There has been a tremendous amount of study conducted on the impact temperature has on the maturation process,” he said. “Brown-Forman has research papers that date back to the 1920’s – we operated during Prohibition under medicinal permit KY—3. Based on these many studies, we never allow our Kentucky warehouses to drop below 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. This requires that each of our warehouses be constructed with thick masonry walls so they can be heated as necessary. They will get as hot as they will in the summer because they can’t be cooled. Jack Daniels has ‘iron clad’ warehouses, so they can’t be heated and will, therefore, get cold in the winter. So, Brown-Forman matures its whiskies across a variety of maturation styles.”

Reusing Resources

  Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, is home to The Barrel Broker, co-owned by John and Kathleen Gill, who started the business 11 years ago in California. The company sources and supplies used barrels and racks for breweries, wineries and distilleries. While its clients are primarily in the Midwest, The Barrel Broker also has business overseas.  The company’s customer base prefers barrels freshly emptied and slightly wet. A lot of that barrel stock comes from bourbon distilleries which, by law, can only use a barrel once for bourbon.

  Accordingly, The Barrel Broker has some insight to share on how to store barrels and what its customers prefer when selecting used racks. John Gill, who has a background in the wine tourism industry and heads quality control for the company, said that for his clients, choosing a racking system really comes down to need, preference and budget.

  “Racks are designed to safely store barrels two wide and up to five stacks high while being able to be moved with a pallet jack or forklift. The seven-inch racks allow ample space to access the bungs while stacked for pulling samples or topping off.  We suggest used, refurbished or new two-barrel racks in three-to-seven-inch sizes.  We sell them all for barrels, 15 to 60 gallons.” 

  Gill agrees with other experts, such as Morris, who say that barrels don’t need to be rotated. He told Beverage Master Magazine that he also believes that keeping the proper temperature in a warehouse is key to a successful product outcome from any barrel.

  “Ideal for breweries is high humidity, 60% to 70%, and cool temperatures to minimize evaporation loss. Ideal for distilleries is a continuous change of temperatures and humidity to achieve complex flavors and complexity in barrel-aged spirits.”

  Price and preference dictate what racking systems a brewery or distillery may choose. However, experts agree that controlling warehouse temperature, avoiding undue pressure on barrels, and keeping tabs on inventory control produce the best results.  Whether wood or metal, racking is a matter of knowing what will stack up as the best outcome for the product inside a barrel.

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