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The Square Barrel: Is It Time to Take a New Shape?

When picturing a distillery (oft daydreamed about, really), it is hard not to imagine a room full of beautifully rounded barrels at the back of it, full of resting yet evolving golden-hued liquids before their journeys to the bottle.

But what if, instead, the rounded barrels on their wooden racks were replaced by squares stacked right on top of one another? Does that change the image, change the romanticism of a Whiskey barrel? Either way, it’s not so much a speculation as it is a current practice, albeit small for now.

Behind the Square Barrel

The square barrel was a concept that first appeared in the 1850s when the transport of spirits barrels by ship was a lot more prevalent. At that time, much like now, the barrel standard was a rounded barrel. But the idea here was to make the spirits’ transport across the seas safer, where they would sit nicely next to each other and lack the propensity to roll even in the most tumultuous of waters. Of course, a square achieves this nicely, however, the benefits of on-ship transportation improvements ultimately did not outweigh the cost on the other end. Or the front end. That is, the square barrels were a lot harder to get on and off the ship, as barrels were usually transported in and out by rolling them where they needed to go. The occasional high-seas-storm barrel roll won out, and we see the outcome of this trial today.

And that’s why we didn’t see this catch on, and why we still don’t see it in the distilleries we visit. But today, we have more producers spread across more geographies, a greater industry awareness and a trend toward local production, sustainability, and consumption, as well as many new transportation methods, making this rolling-off-the-ship factor less of a concern with more factors to consider against (or even instead of) it. In this new era, some—albeit not many—are again entertaining this concept and returning to the square barrel for a variety of reasons and beverages.

Squarrel, the Square Barrel

One of the larger companies in the square-barrel space is Squarrel, a company turning to the square with an innovative eye toward making the aging process as sustainable as possible.

Of course, not all square-barrel problems lie shipside. Another concern is its ability to swell and warp with grace like a circular vessel; when barrels swell, the shape ensures that the staves press evenly against each other. Squares, on the other hand, don’t have this structural unity but more edges and corners, leaving them susceptible to a lack of seal.

But, of course, there is technology and innovation for that, and that brings us to the unique material makeup to make a Squarrel possible—and perhaps the best choice, this time around, for the barrel.

The majority of a Squarrel is actually made of metal, slatted here and there with oak staves to create a sort of cage- or crate-like appearance. This serves two purposes: it both prevents any kind of leakage due to shapeshifting in aging and also repurposes and saves precious new oak that would otherwise be turned to wood chips. Additionally, it saves resources in the production of each barrel, as no rounding (by means of heat and/or water) is needed.

The wood slats use for the Squarrel are too small for any traditional barrel, the heads included, and these salvaged wood planks are used for each Squarrel. However, this does not sacrifice the duration or overall ability to age; it has been observed that only about 20 to 30 percent of the wood used in a given barrel is really necessary for imparting aging flavor, while the rest is there to simply keep the barrel together.

Given that wood is a precious and limited resource, can only make one to three barrels per tree, and less than one half of a tree can be used, Squarrel decided to use the wood more strategically in their barrels—while it uses only the amount necessary and also, optionally, ribbing the wood, Squarrels manage to maximize the use of their wood panels. With cross-cut staves, the spirit can be aged eight times faster than traditional aging methods with end-grain exposure.

And then, rather than disposing of an entire barrel’s worth of wood after it has aged a batch or two, the wood panels in the Squarrel can be removed and replaced, and with each replacement can be fully customized from a variety of both new and treated staves from American oak, French oak, and Mongolian oak trees. Moreover, Squarrel offers a variety of toast levels, which shapes the flavors brought out of the wood, in addition to four char levels.

With a combination of faster aging and endless stave combinations, it’s an infinite playground for the experimental that would be hard to mimic in a traditional barrel and is primed with more limited-edition, small-batch release craft spirits. While many of the square-barrel converts are currently running in quieter, smaller circles, I’d keep an eye out for this to reach some of the larger, more innovative players in the market.

However, the benefits of on-ship transportation improvements ultimately did not outweigh the cost on the other end. Or the front end. But today, we have more producers spread across more geographies, a greater industry awareness and a trend toward local production, sustainability, and consumption, as well as many new transportation methods, making this rolling-off-the-ship factor less of a concern with more factors to consider against (or instead of) it.

In this new era, some—albeit not many—are again entertaining this concept and returning to the square barrel for a variety of reasons—and beverages. Given that wood is a precious and limited resource, can only make 1-3 barrels per tree, and less than one half of a tree can be used, Squarrel decided to use the wood more strategically in their barrels.

With a combination of faster aging and endless stave combinations, it’s an infinite playground for the experimental that would be hard to mimic in a traditional barrel and is primed with more limited edition, small-batch release craft spirits.

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