Last month John Hansell, publisher and editor of Malt Advocate, wrote on the subject of small barrel aging, which has become a big issue with micro-distillers, many of whom insist that spirits 'age faster' in a small barrel.
(We're talking barrels in the range of 10 to 30 gallons. A standard whiskey barrel is 53 gallons.)
Hansell, in my opinion, framed the issue correctly. "Do smaller whiskey barrels mature whiskey faster? Or do they just make whiskey taste woody faster?" For some people, those are fighting words, and his post drew over 100 comments.
Here is something I posted on this subject last year.
This topic also comes up regularly over on the ADI Forums, most recently under the subject line of "Charcoal Filtering of Whiskey."
Some of this has to do with language. I'll probably always disagree with someone who says "small barrels age whiskey faster," because it's a claim that one can get the exact same results in less time using small barrels, which is almost certainly false.
The real questions here are: Do small barrels age differently? (Almost certainly, the answer is yes.) And, if they do, how can the spirit so aged be characterized, and are the results good, bad, or indifferent?
One observation on the ADI discussion is that everyone just assumes whiskey aged in small barrels will only get better, that the benefits of the small barrel accrue at every age, and I'm not so sure that's right.
Clearly, the small barrel accelerates extraction, but extraction is just one part of aging, and there is more tannin in that barrel than anything else. That is Hansell's point. Faster tannin absorption means the whiskey may become overaged and bitter sooner. By the time you get the oxidation you're looking for, something which only comes in time, you may have too many extractives. It doesn't necessarily balance out.
As for the Lincoln County Process (the intense charcoal filtering done by Jack Daniel's and George Dickel), distillers in Kentucky quite routinely and unselfconsciously refer to it as 'charcoal leaching.' They, and their counterparts in Tennessee, usually will accept my characterization of it as jumpstarting the aging process, but many in Kentucky feel it ruins the whiskey by stripping out too much flavor.
One drinker's 'smooth' is another's 'bland.'