Domestic wine, bourbon and many other spirits are typically aged in American oak barrels made from Missouri white oak. What makes white oak the tree of choice for barrel-making? And why are the nation’s most prolific cooperages based in Missouri?
T.W. Boswell, who founded a stave company in 1912 that made barrels, is the man to thank. By the 1920s, he owned 36 stave-production operations and sawmills across multiple states that produced barrels for storage of spirits, wine, and beer. Boswell’s son J.E. renamed the company as Independent Stave, renovated the Lebanon, Mo. location, and in 1951 began producing white oak barrels.
The wood cells of white oak trees contain a plastic-like substance called tyloses that makes the durable wood waterproof and accounts for its use in barrels, buckets, and ships. Beyond functionality, white oak barrels also impart highly desirable qualities to the liquid contained.
White oak’s cellular structure allows small amounts of oxygen to permeate barrel staves and diffuse its contents. Chemical reactions help soften tannins from the wood and stabilize color of the liquid. Charring and curing the oak before construction also imparts aroma and flavor. Contact with fire-bent, toasted oak introduces a range of flavors and affects mouthfeel of the spirit. Exposure to heat converts compounds in the wood and brings out aromas such as vanilla, caramel, nut, and smoke.
Today, Missouri white oak barrels are built by Independent Stave Company, now a worldwide operation, and its subsidiaries. A & K Cooperage in Higbee, Mo. is another supplier to major and craft distilleries and wineries across the U.S.
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