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Let's talk about barrels, baby...

Well, most of us of a particular era will know the real lyrics to the song the title is playing on, but we're not here to talk about 'that.' However, we are going to talk about wood, in particular, barrels.

Whiskey, bourbon, and other spirits spend a lot of time in the dark, in wooden barrels. Those barrels taking on the flavors from the spirit and the spirit taking on flavors and color from the barrels. What a wonderful relationship.

When we talk about casks or barrels, it may sometimes be confusing what we are talking about. Casks come in many assorted sizes, in a variety of wood types, and in a range of pre-used states. Below, we will describe different casks by size and what properties they impart to spirit.

Cask size:

Casks that hold less than 200 liters:

Blood tub (50lt) and quarter cask (125lt)

Casks that hold between 200 and 400 liters:

Any hogshead (Sherry 245lt, standard 238lt), American Standard Barrel (ASB)(200lt), Bourbon (200lt), Barrique (225lt), Bordeaux (225lt), Cognac (300lt), Puncheon (320lt)

Casks that hold more than 400 liters:

Butt (500lt), Port Pipe (500lt), Madeira drum (650lt)

Note: these liter figures may fluctuate a little

Next, we can look at what kind of flavors different casks impart to spirit (we mean whiskey!)

Starting with the most relevant to this site, we will look at the American Standard Barrel and Bourbon barrel. Made from American White Oak (Latin: Quercus alba), this is the wood in which most American whiskey and bourbon start life. This oak imparts those lovely vanilla, caramel and toffee, soft, sweet notes.; and those flavors come from "monogalloyl glucose." American Oak is fast growing, meaning that it is cheaper than other wood to buy.

As you know by now, when bourbon is made, it MUST be matured in NEW oak barrels, i.e., not used for any liquids previously, and those barrels should be charred. Most barrels, once used, are sold on to other whiskey makers. Imagine all the flavor that is now in the wood. That new American barrel has now become a Bourbon barrel and distilleries across the globe will buy these barrels to mature their whisky in, taking those sweet flavors into their spirit.

The next most used barrel globally, especially in Scotland, will be the sherry hogshead. Built from European Oak (Latin: Quercus robur), these barrels, as indicated by the name, have previously been used for holding sherry. The wood has a slightly different chemical structure and includes Gallic acid, which can give a tannin effect to flavor. Of course, other flavors from sherry casks will depend on the sherry style that was in them previously but will include dark dried fruits, spiciness, nuttiness, and maybe dark chocolate. 

While ASB/bourbon and sherry casks are the main casks used in bourbon and whiskey making, we know that the boundaries of whiskey making are being pushed and a world of flavor exploration is taking place. You can find whiskies now that have been either fully matured, partially matured, or finished in a wide variety of casks, including Port, various wines (red, white, and dessert), cognac, tequila, ales, cider, and even other whiskey styles. Depending on your personal flavor preferences, you may find a dram that matches your favorite non-whiskey drink style. 

Above, we noted that whiskey/whisky may not always be from one cask type. Labelling may say what cask the spirit has matured in, i.e., Bourbon cask. Sometimes, it may say "Double Cask." The label may tell you what barrels were used, i.e., "Bourbon cask & Sherry Hogshead." But then we have "finishing." Finishing does not have a firm time-related definition. Still, it generally means that a whisky has spent most of its time in one cask and is then transferred into another for a shorter period to add an extra level of flavor. 

If the spirit spent four years in a Bourbon cask and then three years in a sherry, it is a double cask maturation. However, it would be a finish if it spent six years in a Bourbon cask and six months in an Amarone cask. 

Not all labelling is clear, so when you get the opportunity to speak with a brand ambassador or visit a distillery, you may find out more detailed information. 

Last but not least, the size of the casks will have an impact on the speed at which the wood imparts flavor. A large barrel, holding a large amount of spirit will take far longer to impart a lot of flavor, whereas a small cask, like a blood tub or quarter cask, will take less time. 

Now you know more about casks; you may find yourself more confident in wanting to become involved by owning your own. Contact our team, who will be delighted to help you on the first step of this journey.

We’re on a mission to make whiskey barrel ownership accessible to collectors worldwide. As the first-ever global marketplace for whiskey barrels, you can connect with distilleries and collectors worldwide to build your own portfolio. For a whiskey experience unlike any other, request access today.

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