• Barrel transported on old wagon

History of American Oak

American oak and the artisinal craft of barrel making are woven throughout American history. Long before their more modern application to Cabernet Sauvignon, these vessels were used to transport goods across trans-Atlantic voyages from Europe to North America. While commodities established an industry for American oak, today oak barrels are mainly used for aging and fermenting wine and spirits. Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed a renaissance of innovation for the American barrel industry.

  • The first barrels, made from European oak, were developed by the Celts. These barrels are believed to have transported wine from ancient Celtic communities to modern-day Britain. [ 1 ]
  • The Romans discovered a taste for wines transported and aged in oak barrels. [ 2 ]
  • The Mayflower ship
  • The first barrels in America arrived on the Mayflower. The ship’s cooper (or barrel maker) was also its carpenter, a prime example of the period’s close link between boat and barrel construction. [ 3 ]
  • America’s early years and westward expansion – during which barrels were the transport method of choice – made coopers valued craftsman.
  • Pioneer wagon and barrel
  • The growth of the American Petroleum industry, requiring a vast system of commodity transport, drove cooperage expansion. [ 4 ]
  • The industrial revolution and the production line sparked a peak age for American cooperages, lasting until the start of Prohibition in 1920. [ 5 ]
  • Barrel production
  • Due to the cost of shipping white oak from east coast forests, many California wineries used barrels and tanks made of redwood. This practice continued until the 1970s.
  • Commodities like flour stopped being shipped in barrels, allowing cooperages to focus on the production of barrels for wine and spirits. [ 6 ]
  • Prohibition era
  • Prohibition diminished demand for barrels, though not for long. At the end of Prohibition demand for whiskey barrels doubled from 2 to 4 million per year. [ 7 ]
  • The Federal Alcohol Administration Act passed, requiring virtually all American whiskey to be aged in new barrels.
  • Post War era
  • In the post-war years wine and whiskey consumption picked up, fueling the cooperage industry.
  • The shipping container was invented, all but halting the use of barrels to transport goods. [ 8 ]
  • Andre Tchelistcheff, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, begins aging red wines in American oak barrels – initially due to cost savings vs. imports. Andre discovers that American oak’s flavor profile complements the natural flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon [ 9 ]
  • Justin Meyer and Ray Duncan start Silver Oak
  • Justin Meyer and Ray Duncan start Silver Oak and buy used American oak barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards for the first vintage. The aromas and flavors of the American oak profile become a hallmark of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon’s style.
  • American cooperages start selling more barrels to wineries as consumers shift from barrel aged spirits, like whiskey and bourbon, to vodka. Cooperages improve seasoning and production techniques for wine barrels.
  • Fueled by the near-exclusive use of American oak barrels in the production of Australian Shiraz, the export of American oak barrels increases dramatically. Innovation in the American barrel industry takes off, with vast improvements to quality.
  • The Oak Cooperage
  • After sourcing barrels from The Oak Cooperage in Higbee, MO for nearly thirty years, Silver Oak becomes a 50/50 partner.
  • The worldwide American Bourbon boom fuels a technological revolution in the American cooperage industry, followed by an explosion in barrel customization.
  • The Oak Cooperage
  • Silver Oak acquires full ownership in The Oak, becoming the first American winery to wholly own a cooperage and ensuring Silver Oak a consistent and high-quality supply of American oak barrels.