Angel’s Share

Anton Dekom, Austin Beierle, and Sebastian Hernandez received their bachelor of architecture degrees from Cornell University in 2012. They are currently working in Seattle, and collaborating on a joint research project called the Architecture of Aging.
In the late 19th century, a new building typology revolutionized American whisky production. The whiskey barrel warehouse — a structure finely tuned to the methods and climate of the Old World — proved unsuitable when exported to the New World. Early American distillers departed from traditional methods in order to adapt whiskey maturation to a new geography, warmer climate, and the industrial revolution’s shifting technological landscape. Both the spirit itself and the warehouse that housed it were born out of and are fundamentally representative of this need for adaptation. When whiskey became bourbon, the warehouse became the rick house.

In Scotland, distilleries had built long, low, stone buildings to house stacks of whiskey barrels. As bourbon production in the United States increased, so too did distilleries in Kentucky, and initially they followed Scottish storage traditions. Barrels were stacked on their sides in rows three to four high, with two four-by-four rails placed in between each tier so that the barrels could be removed by rolling rather than lifting. But there were problems with this method: not only did barrels
on the bottom of each stack tend to leak under the weight of barrels above, but they were also difficult to remove. This latter problem was exacerbated by bourbon’s relatively quick maturation period. Whereas Scotch whiskey was often left to age for 10 to 20 years, bourbon whiskey was typically in storage for only 3 to 4 years. Even more serious was the mold that began to grow in between the barrels as they sat in the hot, humid Kentucky climate.

Such pitfalls were decisively addressed in 1879, when a distiller by the name of Frederick Stitzel patented the “rack for tiering barrels.” Just as Kentucky’s early distillers appropriated available grain for the production of their spirit, so too did they adapt their storage system to take advantage of another abundant resource: wood. Stitzel proposed that a modest timber structure be built to store the barrels, and the success of his patent is likely due to the simplicity of his solution. Distillers already used four-by-four timber rails to separate each tier of barrels, and Stitzel merely proposed that those rails be bolted to regular timber frames, thereby, according to patent USRE9175 E, “avoiding the danger of crushing the staves by weight ... permitting a free circulation of air between the barrels, and at the same time making it easy to remove any of the barrels in any of the tiers without interfering with those above or below.” So great were the resulting operational improvements that distillers quickly upgraded their warehouses to accommodate the “patent racks.” Existing warehouses could now reach capacities of about 3,000 barrels, and newly constructed warehouses began to see numbers as high as 10,000.

While Stitzel’s racks are undoubtedly the progenitors of modern-day ricks, they were only the first step in the evolution of a fully formed building typology. The racks were originally intended for relatively small-scale distilling operations, but were modi ed in order to keep pace with the industry’s exponential growth. What were originally conceived of as a freestanding single- or possibly double-story frameworks, capable of being disassembled and transported, evolved into a more permanent system of storage that was integral to the structure of the warehouse building itself (a potential Stitzel brie y mentions in the closing lines of his patent). The repetitive module of the timber rack was quickly shaped by the desire for efficiency and standardization, increasing in scale as it was reconfigured to leverage the economy and time-tested intelligence of stick-framed construction. The freestanding timber frames of early racks were replaced by site-built heavy timber “studs” joined together by header and footer plates and made laterally stable with an abundance of horizontal bracing. The rick had become rather robust and, unlike its early prototype, was no longer as amenable to being assembled within an existing building. It had outstripped its original intent and become the fundamental element around which new warehouses were conceived and built.

It took time, however, for distillers to understand the potentials of this new stick-framed rick and, more importantly, to cast off the preconceptions of traditional warehouse design. The load-bearing capacity and the rigidity of the rick had dramatically improved, and distillers realized the structural and spatial inefficiencies of the heavy timber post-and-beam superstructures that were typical of traditional warehouses. The superstructure was eliminated and, by extension, so too were the floors. While some designs maintained horizontal divisions between levels for purposes of re separation, in most cases the floors were simply omitted. The rick was perfectly suited to being stacked on top of itself (footer plate on top of header plate), and the removal of the floor system resulted in reduced material costs, simplified construction, and increased air ow over the barrels.

It is by way of these modi cations and many others that the rick system and the rickhouse itself became one and the same, that the building’s shape became inexorably linked to its purpose. Through incremental changes vetted over the course of decades, a new building typology emerged that differed from its predecessors not simply in degree but in kind. What started as a standalone piece of equipment became a self-supporting, multistory matrix of timber scaffolding and the basis of a highly specific industrial typology adapted to the problem of the whiskey barrel.

While the construction of the rick had become fairly standardized by the turn of the century, the way in which the rick was manipulated and arrayed to form the rickhouse itself would remain a point of departure among different distilleries. The rickhouse could be reconfigured to respond to different conditions of site and weather, to re concerns, to the availability of materials, and a number of other factors. It is this kind of flexibility that led to the widespread adoption of the rick system, which in turn fueled even more opportunity for typological mutation.

A taxonomy of rickhouse variations must take into account a genealogical hierarchy that exists as a result of the typology’s historical development. As railroads became a more ubiquitous form of transportation, distilleries were built in the countryside where land was plentiful and where the embodied energy of streams and rivers could be harnessed for milling grain. In these rural environs, rickhouses were at first clad in brick, but as the typology gradually adapted to the new conditions, wood framed exterior walls clad in corrugated metal became more prevalent.

Gabled roofs and rudimentary siding, the vernacular of barn structures, proved more fitting in the new agrarian context. While there is not a strict and consistent division between designs of urban and rural rickhouses, the development of the typology
can be broadly understood within this dichotomy.

In some cases, the flexibility of the rick has manifested itself as radical reinvention. In response to the ever present threat of re and destructive weather events, the 1950s saw the growth of a new branch in the rickhouse genealogy. Large concrete rickhouses were built (mostly in urban areas) that were more structurally stable and capable of withstanding the punishing winds of a 100-year storm. Their heavy concrete floor plates are naturally more resistant to re, and with the addition of a curbed slab edge can contain a re to a single floor. The timber rick, however, proved surprisingly resilient in the face of technological advancement and remained at the core of the concrete rickhouse, even while the shell around it was reinvented.

While the timber rick has remained the typology’s defining attribute, the structure’s exterior is nevertheless critical in constructing a morphology of the rickhouse. One of the most recognizable characteristics of the rickhouse is its minimal and regularized fenestration. A variety of materials are used for exterior cladding, but in almost all cases the rhythm of the building’s façade elements is directly tied to the repetition of the modular structure within. The few windows that are necessary (often more for the purpose of ventilation rather than sunlight) are invariably beholden to the building’s structural order. Consequently, the overbearing regularity and ruthless efficiency of the rickhouse places it close to the genus of grain silos and other industrial typologies championed by modernist architects like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
The vast panoply of rickhouses forms a complex and inherently differentiated series of parametric compositions. Each building’s unique nuances and idiosyncrasies constitute a shared architectural grammar that, through its varied implementation, situates the typology in a dialectic of similarity and difference, of convention and deviation. They are the “anonymous sculptures,” as described by Bernd and Hilla Becher: utilitarian buildings so overwhelmingly shaped by industrial and economic forces as to possess an aesthetic quality by virtue of their rationality and underlying order. However, to interpret the rickhouse on formal grounds only is to neglect the fundamental (and somewhat intangible) role that these buildings play in the development of a bourbon’s taste and in the construction of a distillery’s brand. The rickhouse, like the barrels within, is not merely a neutral container for the spirit but rather an active participant in the maturation process. The same batch of spirit, having been aged in two barrels made from the same oak tree, will have a noticeably different taste if allowed to mature in separate, distinctive regions of the warehouse.

The precise mechanics of the aging process are not well understood, and the mystery that surrounds the production of flavor imparts an enigmatic aura to both the distillery and its products. The very use of the word spirit is rooted in alchemical origins and speaks to the quasi-mystical process by which clear, harsh distillate is transmuted into a subtle and complex amber liquor. The angel’s share, the portion of whiskey that evaporates through a barrel’s staves during maturation, is also the process by which aging whiskey oxidizes and interacts with the atmosphere, resulting in a deepened and enriched flavor. Rickhouses too play an indispensably critical role in the development of the spirit, concentrating and aggregating the cumulative environmental data of a place over years, and sometimes decades. This “terroir,” while less overt than the oak barrel, manifests the function and ethos of the angel’s share at an architectural scale.

Some distilleries construct different types of rickhouses in order to leverage their unique properties for purposes of experimentation or to accentuate the particular flavor profiles of their different lines of bourbon. For most distilleries, however, the variability and unpredictability of different rickhouses (and even fluctuations among the micro-environments within them) present challenges for creating a consistent product year after year. Many distilleries continue to build copies of a singular rickhouse design for fear that any alteration to the layout of the barrels might affect (adversely or otherwise) the flavor of the whiskey being aged within. The differences in strategy are often a consequence of a distillery’s historical development and are therefore an integral part of a distillery’s ethos.

While it may seem as though the rickhouse has reached a level of develop- mental stasis, the forces of typological churn are still active within the industry. As large beverage conglomerates buy up smaller distilleries, disparate distilling operations are typically consolidated and, in some cases, completely shuttered. In the last year, however, craft distillers have purchased two major properties in Kentucky that have been inactive since the eighties, hoping to restore the grounds and share in the success of Bourbon Trail tourism. Their campuses are crumbling and overgrown, but their empty rickhouses and cultural cachet are waiting to be salvaged.

Indeed, these “micro” distilleries have sprung up all across the United States, spurring a renaissance of small-batch whiskey production. Their rise has interesting parallels to the early days of industrial whiskey, not the least of which involve the appropriation of existing industrial spaces for fledgling operations. Storage of barrels occurs wherever sufficient floor space can be found, fueling a resurgence in demand for flexible, transportable barrel racks which, unlike Stitzel’s, are made of steel and designed for the tines of a forklift. This change in production and storage (coupled with a healthy desire to challenge the industry’s traditional wisdom) has also led craft distillers to experiment with drastically shorter aging times and different sizes of barrels, resulting in new and unique whiskey varieties. Much like their 19th-century predecessors, modern distillers are adapting to new social and economic conditions with novel methods of production and storage which, in turn, will likely alter our very conception of American spirits.

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