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.

World War I, Part 2: The British Rum Ration

Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the second installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War. You can read Part One here.

“Why don’t we get a rum issue every night, or a bottle of beer with dinner? The French get their wine.” – Frederic Manning, Her Privates We.

The British Tommy had a somewhat different relationship with alcohol than his French ally and German counterpart. Although not as restrictive as American military regulations, British policy concerning alcohol in the trenches was more conservative than that of the French, who issued wine as a matter of routine to their frontline soldiers. However, soldiers of the British Commonwealth were given a daily rum ration. The rum ration, much like the wine ration issued to the French poilu, is a key part of British depictions of the war and formed one of the few pleasures of trench life.

Two Tommies drinking rum out of the standard-issue jar in December 1916. © IWM (Q 4619)
Two Tommies drinking rum out of the standard-issue jar at the “Chalk Pit” on the Somme in December 1916. The daily rum ration was much less than that pictured; enlisted men would be hard-pressed to access the unit’s rum jars, which were strictly controlled.
© IWM (Q 4619)

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World War I, Part 1: The French Army and Wine

Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the first installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War.

World War I has often been associated with intoxication in popular culture. Cocktails like the French 75, so named for the kick of a common artillery piece, became popular during the interwar period. During the “Spirit of 1914”– a burst of popular enthusiasm upon the war’s outbreak– European intellectuals likened war hysteria to mass intoxication  After the war, Ernst Jünger depicted modern combat as an intoxicating rush (or Rausch) in his popular novelizations of his own experiences on the Western Front. More recently, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire explored drug abuse, alcoholism, and the rise of organized crime through the stories of traumatized World War I veterans Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow. This entry explores how alcoholic intoxicants like wine and absinthe were used and depicted during the war. Our guide for this exploration is the poilu [1], the typical French soldier, and his fondness for wine.

This 1917 image depicts a poilu saluting a barrel of "father Pinard."
This 1917 image depicts a poilu saluting a barrel of “father Pinard,” the wine issued to French soldiers throughout the war.

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The Points Interview: James Simpson

Editor’s Note:  The Points Interview feature rolls on, as we awaken from our slumber to present the twenty-third outstanding book in the series.  Today’s post features James Simpson, author of Creating Wine: The Emergence of a World Industry, 1840-1914 (Princeton University Press, 2011).  Simpson is professor of economic history and institutions at the Carlos III University of Madrid, and is the author of Spanish Agriculture: The Long Siesta, 1765-1965 (Cambridge 2003).  Here is the Princeton description of Creating Wine:

Today’s wine industry is characterized by regional differences not only in the wines themselves but also in the business models by which these wines are produced, marketed, and distributed. In Old World countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, small family vineyards and cooperative wineries abound. In New World regions like the United States and Australia, the industry is dominated by a handful of very large producers. This is the first book to trace the economic and historical forces that gave rise to very distinctive regional approaches to creating wine.

James Simpson shows how the wine industry was transformed in the decades leading up to the First World War. Population growth, rising wages, and the railways all contributed to soaring European consumption even as many vineyards were decimated by the vine disease phylloxera. At the same time, new technologies led to a major shift in production away from Europe’s traditional winemaking regions. Small family producers in Europe developed institutions such as regional appellations and cooperatives to protect their commercial interests as large integrated companies built new markets in America and elsewhere. Simpson examines how Old and New World producers employed diverging strategies to adapt to the changing global wine industry.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

There are wines for every occasion and pocket, and how these get from the producer to the drinker can vary significantly. Some wines that we buy carry the brand of a grower Creating Wine cover(Château Margaux), or sold under a collective one (Chianti); or perhaps a private brand belonging to the importer (Harvey’s); or that of the retailer (Victoria Wine Company and, more recently, a leading supermarket). In Europe, traditionally hundreds of thousands of grape producers have made their own wines, but in the New World the industry has been dominated by a few large, capital intensive wineries, which purchase grapes from specialist growers. This book shows, amongst other things, why these differences occur, and how this diversity was already established at the beginning of the twentieth century.


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

The book looks at the problems of growing grapes and making wines under very different geographical conditions, and selling it to consumers who might perhaps be in the same village, or thousands of miles away. It also considers the problems of adulteration and fraud, and how the industry responded. In particular it considers when the interests of different groups within the industry (growers, wine-makers, merchants, consumers) coincided, and when they differed, and how some found it easier to influence governments, leading to the early appearance of appellations in France and Portugal, but not in Spain; or the appearance of a wine monopoly in California, but its absence in Argentina or Australia. Read More »