The Points Interview: Henry H. Work

Editor’s Note: Points is delighted to welcome Henry H. Work, an American cooper (that’s barrel-maker for those who don’t know) who now lives in beautiful New Zealand. Work’s new book is called Wood, Whisky and Wine: A History of Barrels (University of Chicago Press, 2015), and it tells the surprisingly important story of the humble barrel and its important, millenia-long effects on the production of intoxicating spirits. Wood was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the role that barrels have played in the drinks you might enjoy today, as well as the long history of how barrels have shaped human history. 

Henry H. WorkDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The bourbon, scotch, or Cabernet Sauvignon served to bar patrons has been aged in barrels. Most likely the same for that Chardonnay, or at least it has an oak influence. Rums, whiskeys, cognacs, ports and sherries are also barrel aged. One has to appreciate the fact that so many of our traditional alcoholic drinks have been aged or processed in wooden barrels. That this simple container, developed at least 2,000 years ago, is still so much a part of the alcoholic beverage industry is pretty amazing. And its role is largely unmentioned, as it normally performs its functions quietly, behind the scenes.

To the bartender, understanding how barrels are made, and more importantly how they modify and enhance the liquids that are stored and aged in them, will improve the drink-lore narrative and customer’s appreciation.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Today, the wooden barrel is primarily used only for the aging of alcoholic beverages. This, of course, is still a critical part of information for historians as they attempt to piece together how alcoholic beverages were used and evolved in the various cultures. However, it was but a few decades ago that the barrel was the container of choice for aging, shipping and storing a vast and mixed number of other commodities and supplies. And for Western society, this was true for at least the past thousand years, and they were possibly in common use in Roman times.

One of the obvious uses of barrels was to ship crude oil – for which we still use the term to measure the amount of bulk petroleum. Other products ranged from apples to vinegar and cement to whale oil. Certainly, this information is only peripheral within the scope of an alcohol historian’s research. But because the barrels were such a common container, especially starting about five hundred years ago, their understanding can aid the historian’s understanding of why and how certain beverages could develop and progress.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I find fascinating is the public’s lack of knowledge about barrels. Unless one tours a winery or distillery, we normally see barrels only as tables in bars or cut up into planters; not as their intended use. Even the term for the craftsmen who built the barrels, the coopers, is not commonly known, nor is their art understood. And yet barrels were ubiquitous and extremely common up until just a century ago.

So I want the general public to be aware of this important tool which helped traders and seafarers spread our society and culture, for better or worse, around the world.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

It is believed that the Celtic tribes living in France and Germany, before being invaded and overrun by the Romans, were the first to develop the wooden barrels of the style we still see today. But exactly where or when? Because the Celts had no written language, it is extremely difficult to trace the barrel’s origins. Additionally, this research is complicated by the fact that the barrels, being made of wood, decompose quickly, leaving nary a trace. To pinpoint the barrel’s origins is my next quest.

Through vastly improved archaeological technology in recent years, much more is known about the Celtic culture. There are now a number of museums and on-going digs at some of the European Celtic oppidum (hilltop forts) which are continuing to provide insight. Actually visiting these places to research the details of the Celtic culture may provide further clues to the barrels true origins. A tour of these sites is something I hope to do in the near future.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I would choose someone with a deep baritone voice, and preferably someone with an English accent as that seems most appropriate to this historic container.