Whiskey Distillers Deal With a Shortage of Barrels

by Lauren Boisvert
(Image by Ivan/Getty Images)

Bad news for whiskey distillers and whiskey fans alike: some suppliers are dealing with a whiskey barrel shortage. Distilleries are seeing delivery times of up to 6 months for their barrel orders, orders that usually took 6 weeks.

“All our coopers are calling us up, telling us to get our orders in now,” Paul Hletko of FEW Spirits told Vine Pair. “A major barrel crisis is coming.” Barrels are crucial to the whiskey-making process because that’s what the whiskey ages in. Without aging, the whiskey is basically moonshine instead. Great if you’re looking to make moonshine; not ideal if you want to make barrel-aged whiskey.

Luckily, it’s not to the point where there are no barrels. There are just fewer than last year, and whiskey distillers are having to pad their inventory from multiple suppliers.

This same thing happened around 2012 due to a wood shortage. It was a trickle-down effect, basically; the housing market crashed in 2007, which affected the lumber industry. The lumber industry bounced back eventually, but the amount of white oak being felled was severely affected, which in turn affected the whiskey barrel industry. “We are definitely entering what I call barrel shortage 2.0,” said Richard Hobbs, The Barrel Mill’s vice president of marketing.

Whiskey barrel suppliers have had to turn down new customers because they only have enough material to supply to longtime, established buyers. So, new craft whiskey distillers are getting the short end of the stick.

What’s Causing the Shortage in Whiskey Barrels?

Essentially, it’s a similar situation to the 2012 barrel crisis, except with the added bonus of COVID-19 affecting the logging and steel smelting industries. Demand has gone up, but there’s not enough material to go around. Additionally, freight and shipping costs have skyrocketed. The raw materials are delayed, and demand is nearly too high to keep up with.

Now, prices are rising along with demand, and whiskey distillers have to pay if they want their barrels. To make sure they don’t run out of barrels, some distillers are ordering more than they need. This just exacerbates the problem and leads to longer production times.

According to Vine Pair, bourbon and rye must by law be aged in “new, charred oak barrels.” In comparison, American single malt can be aged in used casks. Because of this, for those distillers making single malt, the barrel shortage isn’t much of a problem. These distillers can get creative, according to Stranahan’s head distiller Owen Martin, and experiment with used barrels.

“Barrel reuse not only allows us to experiment with the oak/malt balance in our whiskey,” said Martin, “but also allows us to work more efficiently with our inventory while industry supply is down.”

Hopefully, for the whiskey’s sake, this shortage doesn’t last