Life Lessons From Whiskey Barrels

The fourth and fifth weeks of my 12-week “Midlife Reimagined Apprenticeship” at Cleveland Whiskey were primarily spent working with wood in the distillery’s woodshop. Specifically, wood from whiskey barrels. I realized I have a lot in common with these barrels, and they remind me of some important life lessons.

The Cleveland Whiskey distillery produces bourbon whiskey, and there are rules that must be followed for a whiskey to be designated a “bourbon” whiskey. One rule is that it must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

At the Cleveland Whiskey distillery, after the whiskey barrels are emptied they are then taken apart, back down to their staves. The staves are sanded on the outside — the non-charred side. After that they are cut into strips, and then into small cubes. These cubes — or “Bricx” as they are called by Cleveland Whiskey — are then used to flavor more bourbon in a proprietary process. Some Cleveland Whiskey bourbons use other woods besides the barrels’ oak, and those woods are charred by hand at the distillery.

Smurf/Hot Goddess in the woodshop

The Flavor of Experience

Charred barrels are burned on the inside. Much like people, the inside of a barrel is where all the beautiful flavor is — where the scorched wood has soaked up the experience of aging whiskey that’s been stored inside. It’s the burned wood interior that adds personality and character to the whiskey, transforming it.

The outside of the barrel is scarred, blemished, stained, imperfect. Sharp splinters create a jagged surface. Sanding takes away all imperfections, leaving a smooth, clean exterior, but the charred side remains. Pieces flake off and float away, carrying bitter and sweet spirited memories of what once was. Sawdust and black ash from dislodged char swirl everywhere, filling the air, leaving a dark film that sticks to skin, inside nostrils, ears, on hair, finding its way to invade every space despite protective coverings. There is no escaping the dust and char. No real protection from these remnants of a barrel’s past. There’s no hiding from the past of a whiskey barrel. Just like there’s no hiding from the past in life.

Charring sugar maple wood

A Lesson in Reinvention

Barrel staves are sanded smooth on one side, their charred black remaining on the other side, and then cut into cubes. These small pieces of what once was are then sifted, sorted, measured, and stored, to later add the flavor of their experience to new whiskey. A fresh exterior with a scorched interior helps form a new spirit. I found this very satisfying, this barrel wood reinvention, as it calls to mind my own reinvention. I can relate to the charred whiskey barrel.

I, too, sanded off my outside — my teaching job, a long-time romantic relationship, my belongings — while keeping my flavorful, charred past as inspiration for creating a new, authentic life. Like the barrel staves, I reshaped myself to create a new spirit — a new life — I love.

From teacher-as-a-second-career, to early retiree, to 70-day solo around-the-world traveler, to blogger, to whiskey intern. A journey of reinvention, from blackboard to bourbon, flavored by a charred past. “Whiskey. Reimagined” is Cleveland Whiskey’s slogan. I’m talkin’ Life Over 60. Reimagined.

In life, there is no escaping the past. No hiding from prior experiences. You can sand away the outside, but when the dust settles, your inner char will still be there. Our charred insides linger, even when camouflaged by a smooth exterior smile. Just like bourbon barrels, our inner char changes the flavor and builds the complexity of each new experience after.  We can’t escape it. And we shouldn’t want to.

A Lesson in Taking Responsibility

These whiskey barrels also give me the chance to practice what I’ve always preached, as a teacher and as a PR counselor before that: Always take personal responsibility when something goes wrong.

Last week it was pointed out that “someone” had marked a barrel “Empty” when, in fact, there was still whiskey in there. I didn’t think much about this at first because I knew I would never designate a barrel as empty unless someone told me. This sounds strange, I know, but it’s not scientific — just observation with a pen light stuck inside a small hole in the very dark barrel. One person’s empty can be another person’s not-quite-absolutely-empty. I’d watched my trainer taking time to try to pump nearly every drop of whiskey out of a barrel, like slurping the last bit of milkshake out of a glass with a constantly searching straw. Only after that last slurp of whiskey does he remove the pump hose, replug the barrel, and roll it to the side, to be marked “Empty” with white chalk.

So I didn’t really think much about the mislabeled barrel…until I noticed the handwriting on the barrel in question. It was mine.


Oh sh*t. How had that happened? How had I screwed that up? Then I remembered when I was pumping out the barrel into a processing tank during my third week as an intern. Someone other than my trainer noticed the fast clicking sound of the pump, and told me to switch out the hose from the barrel to a different whiskey supply vessel. He then moved the barrel, which was no longer offering a fast flow, off to the side.

I’d been doing what my trainer did — pulling the hose out of the barrel as the whiskey level got low, cleaning off char from the hose screen, and then repositioning the hose in the barrel. I’d been slurping the milkshake. This person’s method was different, and also correct. Yet I still thought, by switching the pump hose from the barrel to a different supply vessel, that meant the barrel was now empty. I should have known better. I was able to roll it and flip it as I’d done with other empty barrels, so it didn’t occur to me that this barrel was not empty. I was wrong. My mistake was not asking. Clearly, this person’s method was not the same, and I should have confirmed barrel status before trying to be “helpful.” Lesson learned.

I saw a used barrel that had been switched out and rolled off to the side, and assumed it had no more spirit to give. Damn. If that’s not a metaphor for how society can look at over-60 and midlife women, I don’t know what is.

I do know it’s critical to always take responsibility when something goes wrong. I practiced this as a teacher, as a business owner, and as a PR counselor advising clients in crisis situations. There are no extenuating circumstances, no excuses, no justification. Just ownership. And then an action plan to fix the wrong, and prevent it from happening again.

Owning screw-ups is not fun. There may be someone who doesn’t want you where you are, and delights in your mistakes as proof they are right in their opinion that you don’t belong. And that’s OK. Just keep on rollin’, like that (not yet empty) barrel. Remember, good leaders seek evidence their opinions are wrong, not right, according to Adam Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I wrote about Grant’s book in this blog post. Good leaders appreciate the power of mistakes and being wrong.

I am so grateful to the awesome folks at Cleveland Whiskey for giving me a chance to learn, be curious, be wrong, make mistakes, and grow. The distillery manager even resumed weekly bourbon tastings after I expressed an interest in improving my tasting knowledge and honing my bourbon nose and palate. (More on these “Tasting Thursdays” in an upcoming blog post. Best internship ever!)

Know what you don’t know. Stay curious to know more. When you screw up — when things get f*cked up — own it, learn from it, fix it, and move on. Embrace being wrong. Also learn to embrace your char. To value your scorched pieces — your burned, flavorful inside. Recognize and understand that’s where your strength and spirit come from. Give yourself permission to use it to transform your life.

Happy Friday. May your weekend be spent celebrating everything that’s You🖤.

All images from retired_rewired_inspired.

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  1. Insightful and entertaining. I’m an avid reader of The Hot Goddess blog; and I’d rate this one as at top three favourite! Loved the story. Loved the analogy. Loved the lesson. And would a Thursday tasting! Kudos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely article! And wow, the more you share, the more it’s so obvious that you are on such a divine path, and the metaphors you are coming across, that validate everything, are just beautiful. And you are such a goddess for recognizing all the magic in your life! Also, wow, that quote: good leaders seek evidence their opinions are wrong, not right 🤯🤯🤯 Thank you for writing and sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a lover of whiskey and a woman that just celebrated her 57th birthday, I love the analogy of this story.

    I’m sharing it with my friend that turned 59 yesterday, he’s my “whiskey and wine” friend and he’ll get this story so well.

    Liked by 1 person

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