November 27, 2016
The Ubiquitous Barrel
The barrel, as we know it today, is primarily used to store, age and, to a lesser degree, ship alcoholic beverages and other valuable liquids. I think wine probably uses the largest number of barrels with whiskeys perhaps in second place.
A micro-history of the barrels goes something like this:
Nobody knows when the wooden barrel was invented since wood does not survive - archaeologically speaking. It could be thousands of years, ever since man knew how to bend wood, and illustrations of ships built with bent wood date back to the earliest civilizations. These old cultures, however, used the clay amphora as the generally accepted method of shipping and storing wine - it was certainly cheaper to make than a barrel.
The Gauls (today's France) appear to be the first ones to have made barrels in any significant numbers; they were skilled wood and metal workers, and they used their barrels to store and transport their alcoholic beverages. When the Gauls were conquered by the Romans the barrel was quickly identified as a better way to ship wine; it was air and water tight, less likely to break, and one barrel could be rolled around by one man. They also soon noticed that many times wine shipped from Gaul to Rome tasted better on arrival than on departure. Thus the use of barrels, and particularly oak barrels, became a major component in the art of making wine.
Coopering, or barrel making, was one of the most respected trades throughout history. I can't find the source for that, but I read somewhere that during medieval times in one Italian city-state the children of coopers were the only ones allowed to marry into nobility - just to keep the coopers from moving elsewhere.
Barrels also have some less conventional uses:
The Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have lived in a barrel in a market place. No running water except when it rained.
The Gauls built fire bombs using barrels filled with pitch, tallow and firewood, set them on fire and rolled them down a hill to stop the Roman invaders. That did not work.
The Roman emperor Maximus used empty barrels to build a sort of pontoon bridge to cross a river in northern Italy with his army. That did work.
The barrel is used in some popular expressions such as 'hitting the bottom of the barrel'', ''roll out the barrel'' or ''a barrel of fun''.
And then there is Tim McKernan (1940-2009), a diehard Denver Broncos fan known as the ''Barrel Man'', who for many years went to every Broncos' home game ''dressed'' in nothing but a cowboy hat, boots, and an orange painted barrel.