Barrels have been the maturing containers of choice for many types of alcohol for centuries. Two identical mashes put into different kinds of barrels will end up very different. How does the cask your whiskey goes into affect the end result that you pour into your personalized whiskey glasses? From the type of wood to what the barrel contained previously and how many times it’s been reused, the barrel itself can significantly influence the final outcome. Here is what you need to know about casks and their effect on whiskey.
Common Types of Casks
Two major wood types are used for whiskey barrels: American white oak and European oak. Whiskies matured in American oak barrels tend to have a sweeter, softer taste, with notes of vanilla and caramel. European oak barrels, usually from Spain or Portugal, tend to produce a spicier whiskey with bitter notes.
Another barrel you might find includes French oak, typically used to age wine and cognac, which gives notes of vanilla, pepper, and a subtle spiciness. Some pioneering distilleries use cherry wood barrels to give whiskey ginger, coconut, and black tea flavors. Japanese oak lends sandalwood and coconut flavors with some spices. As might be expected, maple barrels sweeten the whiskey and impart notes of maple syrup.
What Did the Cask Hold?
Casks must be “seasoned” before they hold whiskey. What the cask held can completely change the character of the whiskey. Seasoning the wood before filling it with whiskey opens up its pores, making it easier for the whiskey to mature. The most common seasoner is bourbon. This adds sweetness and creaminess to the whiskey, with notes of vanilla and caramel.
Sherry barrels aren’t uncommon, especially to “finish” the whiskey. This influences the whiskey without making the sherry flavor overpowering. It adds the taste of figs, dates, raisins, cherries, nuttiness, and spice notes such as clove and cinnamon. Plenty of other liquids impart different flavors, from Pedro Ximenez sherry to port and Madeira.
Cask Size Affects Maturation Time and Complexity
The typical range for cask sizes is from 13 gallons all the way up to 172 gallons. The American Standard Barrel or bourbon barrel is 53 gallons. Hogshead barrels are 63 or 65 gallons, while a butt barrel—where the term “butt load” comes from—is 132 gallons. The Madeira drum is 172.
Smaller barrels are the blood tub at 13 gallons and the quarter cask at 33 gallons. Some non-standard barrels can be half the size of the blood tub. The larger the barrel, the more the wood impacts the whiskey, but it takes longer to mature. Smaller barrels can get the whiskey into your personalized whiskey decanter faster but will be much less complex. Smaller barrels are often used for finishing whiskies or blends.
Toasting and Charring the Cask
The inside of the cask is set on fire before the whiskey is poured in to create a layer of charcoal. This helps filter out unwanted compounds that contribute to flavors and odors. Some casks are toasted and heated over an open flame at high temperatures. This caramelizes some of the sugars, adding nutty or honey notes to the whiskey.
The Differences When Reusing Casks
The more times a single barrel is used to age whiskey, the less it affects it. After the third fill, the wood inside is often shaved to expose new wood. It would need to be treated again if it was toasted and charred.
About Crystal Imagery
In 2001, Eric Schuchart started his hobby of making personalized engraved glasses. What he didn’t know, as he gave them as gifts to friends and family, was that his life would change. The glassware earned rave reviews, so a dozen years later, he made his hobby his job, starting Crystal Imagery. Sherri Blum, a noted interior designer for celebrities, joined him. Crystal Imagery uses a deep etching technique, producing a shadow and depth in the glass that competitors can’t match. Crystal Imagery offers personalized whiskey glasses, customized beer glasses, champagne flutes, wine glasses, crystal ice buckets, highball glasses, and other glassware options. When it’s time to elevate your home bar, choose Crystal Imagery.
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