I recently read in USA Today about a theft in Kentucky in which the most valuable piece of loot was a stainless steel barrel full of 17-year-old Eagle Rare bourbon, valued around $11,000.
In my time in the stainless industry I have heard of stainless steel being used in wine tanks and in the tequila-making process, but I was surprised to hear that stainless barrels are now being used in the making of bourbon.
After all, it is the unused charred oak barrel that flavors bourbon as it ages.
During the traditional oak process, though, some liquid evaporates from the barrels—about 2% each year, according to Whiskey Magazine. The loss can be even greater in hotter climates such as Kentucky’s. The part lost is referred to as the “angel’s share” because it is the part of the bourbon the maker is supposedly sharing with the angels.
The theft of the stainless barrel of bourbon highlights one part of the process that many bourbon distillers would likely prefer the world not know about. The stainless barrel is used to store already aged bourbon until it needs to be bottled. Stainless steel doesn’t impact bourbon’s flavor, so the product can remain in the barrels for years until it’s ready to bottle. The longer some bourbons age, the more they can cost on the market. The use of stainless steel barrels in bourbon-making became more common in the 1990s.
The added benefit of storing bourbon in stainless rather than other oak barrels is that the distiller is not giving any more to the angels. Stainless steel barrels won’t allow our precious bourbon to evaporate. So, thank goodness for stainless steel barrels to ensure that the angels don’t overimbibe on America’s Native Spirit.