Wooden barrels have a variety of uses, from aging wine or liquor, to the storage of food or liquids, to using reclaimed wooden barrels in constructing custom furniture pieces and other wood projects. The popularity and multiple uses have even allowed makers of wooden barrels to recently see an uptick in business as well.
In St. James Parish, about 50 miles west of New Orleans, LA, wooden barrels are used to cure Perique (peh-REEK), a type of tobacco known for its strong, powerful, and fruity aroma. The distinctive flavor comes from barrel fermentation, a technique the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes were using to cultivate the tobacco back in the 1700s, which processes the tobacco under high pressure, without exposure to air.
The production process of perique has changed little since Louisiana settlers picked up the technique for their own use. After the plants are harvested, they are hung from rafters of a barn to dry. The leaves are then placed in oak barrels and kept under pressure using oak blocks and large jack screws, forcing nearly all the air out of the leaves. Workers take all the leaves out every few months, putting the bottom layer on top and pressing the tobacco back under the screws. It takes more than a year to complete the entire curing process.
The finished tobacco is dark brown, nearly black and very moist, sometimes described as spicy, earthy and rich. The perique rarely makes up more than 15 percent of any given blend because of its intense flavor.
Perique is one of the rarest tobaccos in the world. At one point 15 years ago, the supply of perique was down to a mere five barrels, on the verge of extinction. Most Louisiana perique was cultivated by farmer Percy Martin, who passed away last year. Ray Martin, Percy’s son, has since took over the farm and has witnessed resurgence in the supply of perique, looking at 236 wooden barrels sitting on his barn floor this spring.
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