There are many confusing aspects of the whisky industry. How are a blended malt and a blended scotch different? Why can a Single Grain whisky have several different grains but a single malt can only have one malt? How come they put 15 year old whisky in a bottle that says 12 year on it? (*For at least a few answers to some of these questions, try our blog post titled, “Clearing the Muddy Waters of Whisky Labeling’. )
Today, we are tackling a somewhat simpler topic…whisky cask sizes (and the previous spirit they would have held). The scotch industry uses all types of casks to mature spirit, these days. Although bourbon barrels are still predominant, many other types of casks are used; sometimes for full maturation and other times just to ‘finish’ the spirit for a shorter period of time (usually a few months to a year, or so). We’ll quickly look at some of the more popular cask types and give a few details about each one.
Here we go…
- Barrel/ASB (American Standard Barrel): Barrel’s are usually 200 litres and previously held bourbon. They are made of American Oak. Because the bourbon industry is only allowed to use a cask once, by law, for maturation of bourbon, these casks were at one point used to mature over 90% of scotch. Most of the time, bourbon barrels are broken down into single staves, shipped across the Atlantic and re-built in Scotland to be used for scotch maturation.
2. Hogshead/Hoggie: Hoggie’s are typically 250 litres. From what I have read, they are essentially 5 barrels (200 litres) that have been broken down and re-assembled into 4 hoggies with a 250 litre capacity. Apparently new cask ‘ends’ are also added to these hoggies.
*Note: There ARE, in fact, Sherry Hogsheads & Bourbon Hogsheads and I have seen different sources say each one is more common than the other (more confusion). Hogsheads can therefore be made from either American or European Oak. If you see a whisky that says it was matured in a ‘refill hogshead’, I am told it is safe to assume it was a bourbon hoggie, but further investigation is probably needed.
*Note to whisky producers from whisky nerds: Please state the following on your bottles, from now on:
- The type of cask including the spirit it previously held (Ex. Bourbon Hogshead)
- The number of times the cask has been used. This means putting 2nd fill, 3rd fill or 4th fill and not just ‘refill’. We deserve to know how spent the casks are that were used to mature the whisky. There is a big difference between a 2nd fill and a 4th fill cask and we deserve to know.
This picture (whiskywash.com) shows the larger hoggie on the left compared to a standard bourbon barrel on the right.
3. Sherry Butt: (haha…he said butt) Butts are what Sir-Mix-A-Lot likes and he cannot lie. Seriously though, butts are 500 litre casks that previously held sherry. They are typically made of European Oak. There are several types of sherry so if you see a whisky with one of the following sherry types on it, it was probably matured or finished in a sherry butt (unless it was a sherry hogshead…..):
- Oloroso (very popular)
- Pedro Ximenez (also popular)
In this highly educational photo (jerez-xeres-sherry.blogspot.com), you can see the difference between a big sherry butt and a smaller bourbon barrel.
4. Quarter Cask: Laphroaig had the quarter cask market pretty much covered but a few more QC releases are trickling into the market (Arran: The Bothy). Quarter casks are exactly what they sound like…one quarter of a cask. But, here is where more confusion sneaks in; what cask is a quarter cask a quarter the size of (you may have to read that a few times)?
To be honest, I always assumed Quarter Cask was a 50 litre cask (1/4 of a 200 litre bourbon barrel). Well I assumed wrong. A quarter cask is 1/4 of a 500 litre sherry butt which means it is a 125 litre cask. I was very thorough in researching this and Laphroaig definitely uses 125 litre casks for their Quarter Cask release (probably one of the best deals in the whisky world right now).
The Laphroaig quarter casks are made of American Oak but I could not find information anywhere on whether this was virgin oak, or not. They can be made out of other types of wood and hold other types of spirit…it really is up to the cooperage and the distillery. Also, I have heard of distilleries using casks as small as 50 litres but, for the sake of this blog post, a quarter cask is 125 litres. Clear as mud, right?
This picture from tastytastywhisky.blogspot.com shows a quarter cask (2nd from right) compared to a bourbon barrel (middle cask), a butt (far left) and a hogshead (2nd from left).
5. Port Pipe: We are starting to see more and more ‘port finished’ whiskies on the market. I have had several and, like most types of whisky, some are great (Tomatin 14 Port FInish) and some are not so great. A port pipe is a 550 litre cask that can be made of European or American Oak (I’m assuming usually European Oak but I could be wrong). You may have guessed already, but port pipes previously held port which is a type of fortified wine, like sherry, that was made in Portugal.
Below is an image of a man pushing a port pipe to give you an idea of scale. (Image: blog.grahams-port.com)
6. Gorda: I am going to let the folks at ‘Whisky For Everyone’ explain a Gorda for you: A “Gorda (capacity 700 litres) is a huge barrel used originally in the American whiskey industry. Made from American oak, they are occasionally used for maturing whisky but mostly for the marrying of different whiskies for blended or vatted whisky production.” Gorda’s can hold various spirits prior to being used for whisky maturation.
Finding Gorda pictures wasn’t easy, so here is another picture with lots of casks. The Gorda is 2nd from the right on the bottom. (Image: ccjccj2.asuscomm.com)
7. Puncheon: Puncheons are also 500 litre casks (like butts) but Puncheons previously carried Rum or Sherry. There aren’t a lot of rum cask matured whiskies on the market, but I have seen a few out there. Puncheons can be made out of American or Spanish Oak.
The image above has a puncheon in the bottom left corner.
All right, I am all casked out. There are other, more rarely used, casks that I have not discussed here. For a very succinct list of cask sizes that is probably less confusing and definitely more informative, check out this website: http://claxtonsspirits.com/discovery/cask-influence/
Please feel free to correct, praise, or ridicule me below or on Twitter/Instagram @ScotchClubYEG
Until next time…cheers/slainte!