– Cask and You Shall Receive –

The Importance of Oak Barrels in the Whisky Industry

Barrel aging is the cornerstone of making great whisky

I’ve written about the whisky aging process and the importance of the oak cask in how whisky gets its flavor. But what about the barrel itself? What are its origins and how did it make its way into the whisky industry?
The earliest record of barrel use dates back more than 4000 years to Egyptian wall paintings, which depicts barrels used as measurement. The Romans were also big barrel users, getting their knowledge from the Gauls, who seem to be the first European barrel culture. Early barrels were used for all kinds of purposes, including weapons, where the Romans would load catapults with flaming, tar filled barrels, and launch them at the enemy. Fun.

Barrels in the Roman wine industry

There is some evidence of barrels in Briton from the 1400’s, but it was in the early 1800’s that barrel use in the whisky industry was first documented by the use of sherry casks in the aging/storage process. During the early years of whisky production, new whisky was preferred to aged, due to the inconsistency of the aged product. After all, whisky storage wasn’t really done to age or improve the product. It was just to, well, store it. But new barrels were expensive. If you were a whisky maker and on a budget, then used barrels were the best option. And there were lots of choices – wine barrels, fish barrels, nail barrels, oil, butter, flour, etc. Almost everything was stored in barrels. Some of these used barrels gave the whisky a poor taste, but eventually the industry started to focus on wine barrels, which rendered more pleasant flavor.
Then, around 1815, the wine industry collapsed and the drink of preference in Briton became sherry. Which resulted in the influx of great used barrels for whisky producers.
But why were all these barrels made of oak? For starters, oak was plentiful. And strong, flexible, and tight grained. It also added natural flavor to the whisky that people liked. After all, who doesn’t like vanilla and chocolate? Or honey and nuts. All of which are transferred from the oak into the whisky. Way better than fish or nails. Or crackers. Or soap.

Let’s take a peek at how barrels are made. It really hasn’t changed much over the years. There are four basic steps. First, the oak is cut into strips called staves. These are cut at precise angles that allow them to be eventually fitted together into the barrel shape. Next, the staves are arranged in a circle and bound with metal rings called hoops. Once the general shape of the barrel is made, it is heated to make the staves more flexible. Then progressively smaller hoops are put on until the final barrel shape is complete. Finally it’s trimmed and the ends are fitted. This whole process is done by highly trained specialists called Coopers. Not Bradley, not Gary, not Alice… just Cooper, from the Latin cupa and later German kuper, meaning barrel.

Heating the staves to bend them

There are several different sizes of barrel used in whisky aging. From smallest to largest, the common sizes are the quarter cask, barrel, hogshead, port pipe, butt and puncheon. There are also four different craftsmanship levels of barrel – the slack, the dry-tight, the white, and the wet. The wet, obviously is used for whisky, since all of the others will leak liquids.

Cask sizes normally used for whisky aging.

What else do we need to learn about whisky barrels? How about life span? By the time a cask is filled with whisky, it is usually 2-4 years old. Except for bourbon, of course, which only uses new casks for aging. But the bourbon casks are re-used in the scotch whisky aging process, as are wine casks, such as burgandy, madiera, sauternes, and chardonnay. Of course, ex-sherry casks, such as Oloroso, Muscatel, and Pedro Ximenez, are also an industry standard. As are lesser used casks, such as ex-rum, ex-port, or occasionally, ex-cognac.
Back in the old days, wine, sherry, and port were imported and stored, and, once they were empty, the old barrels were used for whisky. Today, because demand for casks is greater than the consumption of port, sherry, etc, new casks tend to be seasoned with these products for a couple of years, for the express purpose of whisky aging.
Getting back to the original question of life span, many casks have a life span in the whisky industry of 70 years or more. After all, with the price of a new barrel often exceeding $1000, it’s important to get maximum value. Between fills, casks are inspected and may be repaired, reconditioned, and/or re-seasoned.

A whisky barrel getting reconditioned.

Now you’re all caught up and ready to roll out some whisky barrel wisdom on your friends. Don’t forget to treat them to your favorite dram. It’ll hold their attention longer and keep them in high spirits. Cheers!

One thought on “– Cask and You Shall Receive –

  1. 2 pieces of humour…the “Cooper” names, then the “roll out the whisky barrel”. The first one was weak but hit e second one “staved” you


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