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Many dry goods were packed in low grade casks, the making of which is referred to as "slack" coopering. In "tight" coopering, casks are made to hold liquids, (such as the barrels we make here) and white oak is preferred. During the barrel making, the intense firing caramelizes the sugars in the oak, which dissolves into spirits stored within. The toasted oak also adds smokiness, and an amber hue to its contents. In addition to wine, beer and liquor, many Worcester sauces, hot sauces, vinegars and a variety of other food stuffs are aged in casks for the added value the charred oak brings, securing a place for the barrel today!

What makes a Barrel a Barrel?
While we tend to use the word "barrel" and cask interchangeably today and to refer to any container made of wood, technically a barrel only refers to a wooden cask holding 30 gallons of liquid. Variations of course abound: Brewers' barrels hold 36 gal., wine makers' hold 30 gal., while oil barrels hold 41.5 gal.. When one speaks of "barrels of oil" today, they are using term as a unit measure, not actual barrels piled up in a warehouse. Other cask sizes include: the "hogshead" (50 gal.) "kinderkin" (10 gal.) and "pin" (5 gal.).

As soon as early European travelers began wresting goods from the coastal waters of the new world, there have been coopers working on barrels in New England. In Maine, cooperages worked in large scale well into the 1960's before succumbing to market pressures. Knox barrel company, with operations in Rockland produced casks for fish packing along side the fishing fleets and mongers on the piers. Hamlen Co. Of Portland made over 300,000 barrels annually, "shook" and shipped to the West Indies for rum production. The cooperage on Swans Island (pictured above) profited from the local packing of salted clams and production of cod liver oil.
The mighty barrel has been used for storage of goods as early as 2690 BC. The unique strength, durability and mobility of a cask made it the cornerstone of all settlements. It would take over 4000 years of technological advancement before the barrel would be replaced by the steel oil drum and cardboard boxing of the 20th century. While coopering is a vanishing craft, the resurgence of craft distilling and micro brewing, as well as the enduring art of wine making has provided a small niche market for the oak barrel. Portland Barrel Company is the first to return to the very prized and old industry of "tight" work locally, for the aging of spirits, like those made right here at

Maine Craft Distilling