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Wood, Whiskey and Wine

A History of Barrels

Barrels—we rarely acknowledge their importance, but without them we would be missing out on some of the world’s finest beverages—most notably whiskies and wines—and of course for over two thousand years they’ve been used to store, transport, and age an incredibly diverse array of provisions around the globe. In this comprehensive and wide-ranging book, Henry Work tells the intriguing story of the significant and ever-evolving role wooden barrels have played during the last two millennia, revealing how the history of the barrel parallels that of technology at large.
Exploring how barrels adapted to the requirements of the world’s changing economy, Work journeys back to the barrel’s initial development, describing how the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe first crafted them in the first millennia BCE. He shows how barrels became intrinsically linked to the use of wood and ships and grew into a vital and flexible component of the shipping industry, used to transport not only wine and beer, but also nails, explosives, and even Tabasco sauce. Going beyond the shipping of goods, Work discusses the many uses of this cylindrical container and its relations—including its smaller cousin, the keg—and examines the process of aging different types of alcohol. He also looks at how barrels have survived under threat from today’s plastics, cardboards, and metals.

Offering a new way of thinking about one of the most enduring and successful products in history, Wood, Whiskey and Wine will be a must-read for everyone from technology buffs to beverage aficionados who wish to better understand that evasive depth of flavor.

224 pages | 50 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2014

Food and Gastronomy

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“Work has done a fine job directing the spotlight toward an object that seems to beg for inattention. Although much diminished from their peak a century ago, coopers are today thriving again with American bourbon makers clamoring for new casks. (Federal regulations require that anything labeled ‘bourbon’ be aged in new oak casks). The number of craft spirits producers has also surged in the past decade, and barrels are suddenly in short supply. Among vintners, high-quality barrels also remain in high demand, although makers of cheaper wines have embraced workarounds, including the use of oak chips and short planks placed in stainless steel tanks. Work offers a breezy tour through all this and more. When you reach the end of this book, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t think of barrels the same way again. Next time you pass a geranium planter made from an old whiskey barrel cleaved in two at Home Depot, take a moment to pause and pay your respects. This was the container that built America.”

Wall Street Journal

“There is plenty in it of interest, and not just for the many fans of wine and whiskey. . . . Work sets out to demonstrate the technological, cultural, and economic importance of barrels from their development, probably before 500 BC, to their ubiquity for storage and transport from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century. . . . Wood, Whiskey and Wine provide a snappy alliterative title and happen also to be Work’s own direct experience; he is a cooper who has worked in the vineyards of Napa Valley, Kentucky whiskey distilleries (he knows to spell it without the “e” when talking about the drinkable stuff) and in New Zealand.” 


“A thorough and entertaining journey from amphorae, barrels’ predecessors, through their period of domination, to their relative demise due to replacement with such as plastic and metal containers. . . . There is much to interest both the general reader and the beer enthusiast in this well-written history of a container that has been with humanity for so long.” 

London Drinker

Wood, Whiskey and Wine is an enlightening study of this humble wooden receptacle. In simple, non-academic prose, Work traces the wooden barrel from its Celtic roots, through its heyday as a necessity for seafaring industries, to its current utility in aging alcohol. . . . Casual and concise, this is a book for every wine drinker who enjoys a bit of history.”


“Henry H. Work, a cooper himself since the ’70s, takes us through the two millennia-long story of cooperage—from the birth of the trade to the evolution from bucket to barrel to its function in beverage to the uncertain future of the craft. This is an interesting and thorough look at the modest container’s significant role in history. It’s sure to give any beer, wine, or whiskey enthusiast a serious (metaphorical) rager.”

CRAFT magazine

Table of Contents


1. Need: Why Wooden Barrels?

2. Evolution: From Buckets to Barrels

3. Celts: A Nexus of Skills and Technology

4. Romans: Employing the Barrels for Trade

5. Middle Ages: A Surge in Barrel Use

6. Parallels: Wooden Barrels and Wooden Boats

7. Organizations: From Guilds to Cooperages

8. Oak: Wood for Barrels

9. Air, Water and Fire: Crafting Wooden Barrels

10. Wine: Barrels and Oak Ageing

11. Craftsmen: The Coopers

12. Other Barrels: Spirits, Fortified Wines and Beer

13. Oak Flavouring: Oak Alternatives and Barrel Shaving

14: Cooperage: The Bigger Picture

Photo Acknowledgements

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