I didn’t end up making the aforementioned trip to Kentucky to see the cooperage operation for Brown-Forman, but I also didn’t go to Niagara Falls as my wife had schemed. Where the family actually went (after much begging from my daughter Grace, who is fascinated by all things historical) was Mystic Seaport. At the other end of Connecticut from where I live, it was an easy day trip into a time that occurred many days ago (more than a century would be closer).
Mystic may now be more famous for the cheese pies for which the movie Mystic Pizza was named and for which daughter Abigail begged, but in the nineteenth century it was a bustling whaling port. Now the Seaport historical area (mysticseaport.org) is a recreation of a New England port town, replete with ships, large and small, and the shops, buildings and homes that would have lined the streets.
Lo and behold, it also contains a working cooperage as most goods—notably whale oil--were shipped in wood casks at the time. While the demonstration wasn’t specific to whiskey (as is the one in Kentucky), it was nevertheless educational and dealt with some really old-school coopering as it was all done with hand tools in that era.
The term barrel in the coopering world more properly refers to a cask size than a general term for a wood storage devices. For most purposes a barrel is around 31½ gallons, which is twice the size of the typical metal keg in which beer comes. In the whiskey world, however, a barrel is about 53 gallons. The sizes aren’t well standardized, especially since they mean different things in different countries. A hogshead at twice the size of a normal barrel (63 gallons) is what they used for storing tobacco. Wine typically shipped in pipes, or butts, at twice again that size.
When these products reached port they shifted to smaller containers, which visitors to Mystic encounter at the village general store, also called a crockery.It proudly displayed a cigar-store Indian out front, and here in, the guide told us, would have been sold delicacies from around the world “including tea from China and cigars from Cuba.” The store didn’t have much in terms of other tobacco artifacts, except a tobacco plug cutter and a cigar box with the words “B&S Specials Londres Grand.”
I encountered one more cigar artifact, this one in a building that otherwise stored figure heads for ships. The explanation for this was that as the shipping industry broke away from adorning its prows with ornate wood statuary, the wood carvers of the late nineteenth century looked elsewhere for work. One natural expression of their craft was creating wood advertisements for a host of products. The outlet for their art that survives most memorably is cigar promotion in the form of the cigar-store Indian. But as this picture shows, there was at least one cigar-store seafarer. I wonder if anyone has ever found that politically incorrect.