Whiskey

The Art of Whiskey Barrels: A Complete Guide

Whiskey is considered one of the richest alcoholic drinks in the world for its unique flavor. And the majority of the flavors come from its aging process. Aging is done to mature the whiskey in wooden barrels, at least in most cases. It’s believed that up to 80% of the final flavor of the whiskey comes from the barrels. 

So, it’s clear that the barrels play a very important role in the overall whiskey manufacturing process. In this post, we’ll go over every single detail regarding whiskey barrels. We’ll know how they are made. We’ll know how they are treated. And we’ll know how they contribute to the flavor.

 Let’s get started. 

What is a Whiskey Barrel?

Before we jump into complex details, let’s get you acquainted with the general idea of whiskey barrels. These barrels are often called casks, butts, or hogsheads, depending on where you are. The size and type vary a lot from country to country and all of it goes into the alteration of the flavors. 

The standard carriers where whiskey is stored are commonly known as barrels. Similar to barrels but slightly larger ones are known as Hogsheads. And butts are often the biggest ones in use. There are even larger barrels than butts, but they are rarely used. We’ll get into the details of barrel sizes later in this post. Stay with us. 

Different Types of Casks and Flavors 

Each whiskey tastes a little different. Even two identical bottles might not taste the same. While the base notes are the same for Scotch, Irish, or American whiskey, the signature tones are different. And that’s because the whiskey is matured in different barrels, under different circumstances. The environment around the whiskey barrels also influences the flavor a lot. 

Size

Our first stop in figuring out the details of whiskey barrels would be their sizes. There is a multitude of sizes found across the world when it comes to whiskey maturation. We’re going to cover all the different units that you might come across, no matter where you are in the world. 

 

Name Capacity in Liters Capacity in Gallons (US)
Barrel/Bourbon Barrel 200 53
Hogshead  230 63
Butt 500 132
Quarter 125 33
Puncheon 320 85
Bloodtub 50 13
Bordeaux  225 59
Port Pipe 500 132
Madeira Drum 650 172

 

Different Wood Types

The type of wood used is the most influential factor in whiskey maturation. The wood directly controls the strength and the tone of the flavor. Mostly, oak is the go-to tree for the whiskey industry for its unique chemical and physical composition.

Oak has radial rays in the wood which is perfect to handle the pressure of being shaped into a barrel. It’s one of the ‘pure wood’ variants, crucial to delivering a strong flavor to the whiskey. It has the chemical properties to infuse different tones in any whiskey. 

Let’s take a look at some of the oak variants widely used in whiskey maturation.

  • American White Oak 

This is probably the most used wood for whiskey barrels in the world. One of the finest whiskey types, Bourbon must be matured in new charred barrels. The barrels are later used to mature Scotch, Irish, Tennessee whiskey, etc. 

American oak boasts a very mellow tone of vanilla and caramel. The flavor is very subtle yet very distinguishable. This tree is found in the eastern region of the USA and some forests in Canada. Most manufacturers opt for American white oak rather than European oak because it’s more cost-efficient. 

  • European Oak

Have you ever experienced a spicy whiskey? If you have, it was probably aged in a European oak whiskey barrel. These trees grow very slowly and have a tight grain. It can absorb flavors more effectively than any other variant of oak trees. 

The whiskey matured in European oak barrels tends to have a deeper tone with mild bitterness. The wood can take out most of the impurities from the spirit and penetrate with its own flavors. 

 

  • Mongolian Oak

If you know what Japanese whiskey tastes like, you know the flavors Mongolian oak provides. It’s widely known as Mizunara a.k.a the Japanese oak. But in reality, it’s originated in Mongolia. It has vanilla, rye, sandalwood, coconut, and a spicy tone. 

It’s unique and a lot of people love whiskey matured in these barrels. These trees sometimes take 500 years to grow before it can be used in whiskey maturation. This is the most expensive of all.

  • Sessile Oak

It’s a European oak, but not very common. Some people call it the Irish oak.

How Does Oak Influence the Flavor of Whiskey? 

The biological composition of the Oaktree has made it the ultimate choice for whiskey maturation. Using oak for whiskey barrels is an ancient technology that supposedly dates back to the Roman Empire. 

Oak is very suitable for coopering and it has amazing liquid tightness. An element called medullary ray is present in the wood that gives oak the strength to become a whiskey barrel. The tree is very porous by nature, but the ‘tyloses’ clog the pores once filled up so the whiskey doesn’t leak. 

Fast forward to today, we might have better technology and vessels to mature whiskey, but nothing can replace oak and its flavor. It’s largely dependent on the treatment of the wood before shaping them into whiskey barrels

Once the wood is selected, it must be seasoned, toasted, and charred before it can be used as a whiskey barrel. 

Seasoning a Whiskey Barrel

Seasoning is the process of drying out the water inside the wood. When oak trees are freshly cut, it contains over 60% water which is not good at all for whiskey maturation. Seasoning can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the type of oak. Seasoning is done to make sure that whiskey doesn’t get diluted while aging. 

Seasoning is a completely natural process. It is done this way because any external force might crack the wood which is an instant disqualification for being a barrel. 

It’s done completely outdoors. The wood might get rained on; it might face the harsh winter. It’s all part of the process. They give oak the signature flavor that whiskey lovers around the world cherish. 

Toasting a Whiskey Barrel

Toasting is done much later in the barrel making process. Typically, after the barrels are shaped. Toasting is a type of heat treatment to break down chemicals in the wood. And it all goes into the whiskey. Toasting directly results in the vanilla tone by releasing the Vanillin in the wood. 

To toast the whiskey barrels, the cask is treated under low heat for longer periods. The more vanillin is required, the longer the wood is toasted. The barrels are put on heating elements rather than direct fire. The lower the heat, the fruitier tone is extracted. Doing the opposite brings out the smoking vanilla flavor. 

Charring a Whiskey Barrel

Charring is another heat-treatment process. It’s similar to toasting but charring is done with direct fire. The inside of the barrels goes up in flames for a very short time. It creates a layer of char by burning the sugars inside the wood. It’s responsible for the caramel flavor we enjoy in our drinks. The char layer also soaks up the unwanted flavors from the raw spirit. 

Charring is measured on a scale of 1 to 4. The more it’s charred, the more intense the flavor. For a whiskey to be called Bourbon, the aging barrels must be newly charred. Toasting is an optional requirement for this. Charring is an exclusive process that goes into whiskey making. Wine and beer maturation uses only toasting. 

How Whiskey Barrels are Made

We’ve already covered fragments of the whiskey barrel production routine. Now, it’s time to go in deep. 

The oak tree must be matured before they are cut down. The huge logs are carved into staves, usually in a sawmill. The seasoning of the wood takes place when the staves are ready. 

Once the wood is seasoned, it goes to cooperages where the barrels are shaped. The seasoning may also take place here. 

Now it’s time for shaping. All of the staves are cleaned and plained to match the width. Longer staves go into making the body of the barrels while shorter ones go into making the lid and the bottom. From there, it’s drilling holes and fitting everything together. 

The plain and square staves are shaved into trapezoid shapes that give the whiskey barrels their signature look. An average of 31 staves goes into making one barrel. A metal hoop is used as placeholders for the staves. 

For an experienced cooper, all the pieces fall into places if the previous steps are done correctly. The process of assembling whiskey barrels is often known as raising a cask. 

Once the cask is ready, toasting and charring are performed according to the requirements of specific distilleries. Finally, hoops are places all around the barrel to give it the strength of handing years after years of whiskey maturation. 

Leak Tests

It’s a crucial step in the barrel making process. It’s not uncommon that too much toasting or charring had cracked the wood. The casks are filled partially with water and pressurized air to test for leaks. If water comes out, it’s fixed with cork wedges or spiles. In some cases, one or more staves might need replacement. 

Once the testing is done, the barrels are shipped to the distilleries to start the aging process. 

Usability of the Whiskey Barrels 

The lifespan of whiskey barrels can vary a lot depending on what it’s used for. For example, bourbons are required new charred barrels. So, a barrel is used only once to mature bourbon. Then, it can go on to mature other types of whiskeys. 

The first time a barrel is used for maturation is known as the ‘first fill’. After that, all of them are ‘refills. Some whiskeys go through aging in different barrels to give them a dynamic flavor. This is known as secondary maturation. 

With time, a barrel’s ability to infuse whiskey with flavors degrades. The exhaustion of the charred layer is the primary reason. But distilleries often use a process called STR which stands for Shave, Toast, and Rechar. 

Whiskey is matured in barrels that have been previously used for maturing bourbon, rum, wine, sherry, etc. Especially, scotch whiskeys tend to use refill barrels instead of brand-new ones. It gives the whiskey a different character and tone. 

Warehousing Whiskey Barrels 

As we’ve stated earlier, the flavor of a whiskey is heavily dependent on the barrels. It’s also very much dependent on the environment. That’s where warehouses come into play. How the barrels are placed plays a vital role in maturation. 

Rickhouses

Most American distilleries use racked warehouses, also known as rickhouses to store their whiskey. Rickhouses have consecutive racks across the property to hold the barrels. The barrels are sorted horizontally, going to up to three barrels per rack. 

In most cases, these warehouses don’t have any climate control. It translates to a very strong and dynamic flavor to the whiskey, especially if the warehouse is in an area where the temperature fluctuates with seasons.

Palletized 

In such a warehouse, the barrels are placed vertically on wooden pallets, often going a lot higher in stacks than rickhouses. It’s great for space-saving and handling the barrels is easier. A forklift can take away most of the physical labors that go into rickhouses. 

However, palletized warehouses often lack air circulation, a crucial element for whiskey maturation. The added pressure of stack on top of each other increases the risk of leaks by a fair margin. 

Dunnage Warehouses 

These warehouses are traditional whiskey maturing plants in Scotland. Rather than brick and concrete, the floors of dunnage are earthen and the walls are made of stone. Scotland doesn’t experience much of a season change, so the maturation process is quite long.

Conclusion 

The complex maturation and the legacy of the process give whiskey the character it is known for. While a lot of factors go into brewing an astounding bottle of whiskey, barrels play the largest role. How the barrel is made and processed directly influences the flavor. Now you too have in-depth knowledge regarding whiskey barrels