River barges don’t seem large until you’re about to enter one. The vessel before me is 200 feet long, 24 feet wide and 24 feet tall: not diminutive by any stretch. (That a barge pilot and towboat can link together 35 of these and squeeze the lot through a river canal lock is just beyond me.) Inside it’s ricked with 1,700 barrels of whiskey for O.H. Ingram, a relative newcomer to the American whiskey scene.
All who enter the world’s only river-anchored rickhouse must wear a life preserver. Were I to misjudge the 2-foot gap between the dock and the barge, I’d meet the surface of the Mississippi River about 20 feet below. The preserver would keep me above murky green water, but the frightful claustrophobia I’d suffer while squeezed between the dock and the barge would surely make me wish for death.
If you haven’t assumed so already, this is not a whiskey tourism site. O.H. Ingram isn’t angling for a spot on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the far Western Kentucky town of Wickliffe. This is a repair yard and filling station for brown water shipping vessels, and there’s nothing bourbon-tourism romantic about this hangout for grumbling towboats and swinging cranes.
But while it’s the antithesis to Maker’s Mark’s idyllic campus, it’s still cool. It’s the birthplace of river-aged whiskey.
It all started with the central question in Hank Ingram’s MBA thesis several years ago: If whiskey were aged on a barge, would it affect its flavor? The notion of barge aging was all but a given for Hank III. His family owns Ingram Industries, whose main asset is the Ingram Barge Company, one of the nation’s largest brown-water shippers.
“As a kid, I’d go out on towboats with my dad and be in the pilot house looking out onto the river,” Ingram said. “I thought it was cool work, and I knew I wanted to be in the family business. (And he is.)
“But I’m also interested in trying new things. And anytime someone says to me that a crazy idea won’t work, I want to try it.”
Vanderbilt University approved his thesis, which became a business plan for manifesting the river aging idea. But the TTB and multiple lawyers weren’t as keen on it. Lawyers told him it wasn’t legal to warehouse spirits on a vessel, but Ingram, undeterred, reached out to another barrister who saw things differently. Citing a 2014 Supreme Court case, the lawyer determined that to be determined a vessel, the floating object must be powered and maneuverable. All Ingram wanted his barge to do was float while chained to a dock. Eventually, the TTB allowed him to proceed.
AND YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUN
Scott Beyer yanks hard on the metal entry door at the top barge and its rusted metal hinges protest with loud groans. He steps inside and takes the ambient temperature at the top of the stairs—102 F—before heading down the two-story staircase.
When I follow him in, I’m reminded of the scene in “Cool Hand Luke,” when “Carl the Floor Walker” gives his infamous night in the box speech. Like the box itself, it’s dark, hot and humid within the Ingram barge, and despite being surrounded by so much whiskey, I don’t fancy a night in the barge.
When we reach the bottom, where it’s noticeably cooler, Beyer, who is director of sales for O.H. Ingram, takes a second reading: “Eighty degrees,” he announces. It’s far better than up top, but it’s still swampy. “There are days when it gets over 120 in here, and it always seems to happen on the days we’re racking barrels.”
O.H. Ingram’s website describes river aging thusly: 1. The river’s motion keeps the whiskey “constantly churning,” which increases barrel extraction. 2. The diurnal heating and cooling extremes experienced in land-based ambient temperature rickhouses is even more intense on the river. 3. The naturally high humidity experienced in a floating rickhouse keeps barrels moist and assists in “slowing down evaporation of the whiskey (known as the Angel’s Share).”
Beyer allows that the river’s movement plays no role in forcing whiskey deeper into the barrel, “but the whiskey that’s in the middle and not touching anything wouldn’t go anywhere in a regular warehouse. The thought is more the more you keep working it around in the barrel—which the river does—the more contact with barrel overall.”
The extremes of the daily heating and cooling cycle also are clearly unique to river barge aging. Last year, he measured 124 F at the top of the barge and 90 below. “But at night the bottom went down to 75 because the water flowing by pulls the heat off that steel.” Doubtless that influences the whiskey.
But my lone quibble was with the trio of clams is that humidity reduces angel’s share when, in reality, it does the opposite, especially to barrels at lower tiers in a rick. There, surrounded by water-laden air, osmosis can force out some of the alcohol to make room for the impeding water vapor. The result is a lower proof spirit whose increasing water content gains better access to the barrel’s wood character—i.e. richer flavors—than alcohol would or could.
And, indeed, dumps of OH Ingram barrels prove this. Though O.H. Ingram’s spirits are entered into the barrel at 125 (all its whiskey is now made at Green River Distillery in Owensboro, Ky.) proofs of some at dumping are as low as 110, Beyer said.
“It’s too early for us to give any hard data on this after only eight bottling runs,” Beyer began. “But overall, we’ve seen higher yields than we predicted, and I think the high humidity has been a factor in those yields.”
I’ve never had an O.H. Ingram bottled release (our reviewer, Jim Knudsen has, and here's review one and review two), but Beyer treated me to several tastes straight from the barrel. All were outstanding. (Yeah, I know that barrel strength is not always the best measure of a whiskey, but it’s a great starting point, and those whiskeys were, unscientifically speaking, markedly unique.) The two wheated bourbons—both from different mashbills—were abundantly fruity and laden with toasted bread aromas and flavors. The rye bourbon was also delicious; complex and crisp with a long finish. Also, all were older than OHI whiskeys currently bottled, so I’m sure that’s an advantage younger initial releases lack.
As we all know, context can influence the mind when tasting whiskey in unique places and absorbing their backstories, so perhaps I’m overly excited about OHI whiskeys. But I’m convinced river aging is not only a thing, but a technique that could yield some truly innovative products in the very near term.
OHI is convinced as well. A second, newly designed barge is on the way. Expect more to come from Wickliffe, KY.