This from regular contributor Jim Chevalier on the origin of charred barrels:
Would you believe there’s an Encyclopedia of Cognac? (In French, naturellement). You will learn there among other things that it was the Dutch who decided to distill wine in the region in order to save on transportation costs. With the rather entertaining result that Cognac is arguably a Dutch invention (and one much improved by the Irish Jacobin refugee Hennessy’s use of whiskey making methods).
The idea of oak barrels improving the flavor was apparently an accidental discovery after it took too long to load the boats in the XVIIth century. The charring is called “bousinage.” But they don’t say when it came along. Another source says that this “went beyond’ what was needed to bend the staves, so maybe it first happened accidentally in doing that. At any rate, the word doesn’t seem to appear in earlier centuries, except as a verb (bousiner) meaning to cause a ruckus, stir up trouble, and more rarely, cook.
As always…thanks Jim!