Do you know your Butt from your Hogshead?
10 Questions about Whisky people don’t dare to ask (but secretly Google a lot)….
This article is for those who want to dive a little deeper and demystify the secrets of the dram by learning about the intriguing terms used to label whisky barrels or casks and what they mean.
Integral to the age-old craft of whisky-making is maturation in a wooden barrel – to be called ‘Scotch whisky’, the whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. It’s way more complicated than that, though. Casks come in a range of shapes and sizes and can have a capacity of as little as 40 litres or as much as 650 litres.
Working our way from the smallest to the largest, here’s a list of the different casks used to make – and sometimes only used to finish – whisky:
A quarter cask is a quarter of the size of the American Standard Barrel, holding 45 to 50 litres, but with the same dimensions. The ratio of wood to liquid is much higher in a quarter cask, speeding up the maturation process. They’re usually used to finish a whisky.
The American Standard Barrel (ASB) holds between 190 and 200 litres and is used to make bourbon whiskey. Barrels for bourbon maturation are required by American law to be made from new, pre-charred American white oak. They are then often used a second time to mature Scotch whisky – in fact, they’re the most commonly-used casks for Scotch whisky maturation.
A 250-litre cask is called a hogshead and it will be made from the staves of a bourbon cask with new oak ends. This is the second most commonly-used cask to mature Scotch whisky and because they’re larger in size, they are used to mature whisky that will be in the cask for a longer period of time. The smaller the cask, the faster the maturation. Most hogsheads previously held other spirits and often sherry.
A barrique holds 250 to 300 litres, making it slightly larger than a hogshead; however, it has the long shape of a butt, common to the wine industry. Barriques are usually constructed from French oak, although some may also be made from American white oak. Although barriques were historically uncommon in the maturation of Scotch whisky, recent decades have seen an increasing amount of single malts and blends experimenting with these casks.
A cask that holds between 475 and 500 litres and is the standard size cask used for sherry maturation and is called a butt. Butts are usually used to mature whisky over a period of 15 – 20 years and they are traditionally made from Spanish oak, although many butts are also American white oak (having been used to mature bourbon).
Puncheons are the second most common cask for sherry maturation after butts, holding 450 to 500 litres, and more squat in shape than a butt. Puncheons are typically made with Spanish oak staves, while machine puncheons are made from American white oak and generally used in the rum industry.
Port pipes hold 550 to 650 litres and are used to mature port wine. They are long and similar in proportion to sherry butts, although their width is closer to an ASB. Like quarter casks, port pipes are mostly used to finish Scotch whiskies during their final years of maturation.
Finally, Madeira drums are used to mature Madeira wine and hold between 600 and 650 litres. They are much dumpier than sherry butts or port pipes and are only really used to finish aged whisky – even then, they are not commonly used for this purpose.