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The cask has a crucial effect on the flavor of whiskey and contributes to the whiskey’s final flavor. As known to everyone, the cask maturation of whiskey is one of the most effective processes that define the taste of your favorite whiskey. The length of time the whiskey matures is also important; thus, choosing the right type of cask is necessary. This is because the wood of the cask adds different complex flavors to the distillery character of the newly made spirit.
Americans have an intense love affair with whiskey. But how many of you know where it gets its distinctive flavor and why it is aged in cask. Fortunately, this article has it all. We will give you a full detailed description of the maturation process, including the types of whiskey barrels.
First of All, What Is a Whiskey Cask?
Whiskey casks and barrels are synonymous with aging. The amount of time whiskey is stored in the cask is essential, as different woods impart distinct tastes. Usually, an oak cask is used to mature scotch whiskey and other spirits. It is also known as barrels, butts, or hogsheads.
The hogshead is a barrel made from the staves of a bourbon cask using new oak ends. Simultaneously, a butt is the standard size cask used for maturing sherry (a fortified wine originally made from Southern Spain).
The type of wood used, age, size, and previously used liquid in the cask can make a massive difference during whiskey aging. Many experts even say that about 60-80% of your whiskey’s taste comes from the cask.
These 5 factors can influence the whiskey in the cask.
- Type of predecessor liquid
- Type of wood
- Size of the cask
- Level of charring
- Reuse of the casks (First Fill vs. Refill)
When it comes to whiskey maturation, there are 4 key pointers that you need to consider:
- The number of times the cask has been used (more usage means less flavor and vice versa).
- The size of the cask (greater surface-area-to-volume ratio means more flavor and vice versa).
- The storage time of the whiskey in the cask (more length of times means more flavor extraction).
- The intensity of the spirit (light intensity spirit means more influence from the wood).
Returning back to our main topic, there are 5 common types of whiskey cask:
1. Bourbon Whiskey Cask
They are the most common cask used in the maturation process of Scotch Whiskey. According to law, it’s compulsory to age bourbon in new oak casks. This means that right after their first usage, these casks are used for other purposes. Thus, you may find a plentiful supply of oak barrels in the market. Here, the barrels used are medium-sized casks containing around 200 liters of spirit.
This is the reason why Scotch Whiskey is matured in bourbon barrels or traditional whiskey casks. They are perfect for aging, owing to their vast availability and affordability. Further, the bourbon held for 2-3 years tends to soften the oak, giving you smoother and subtle whiskey.
Bourbon barrels are made from American Oak that gives your whiskey honey and vanilla characteristics. These notes are imparted by natural sugars present in the wood and the chemical compound ‘vanillin’ present in the vanilla pods.
Rocky Mountain Barrel Company offers used whiskey barrels for sale!
2. Sherry Whiskey Cask
This 500-liter cask is very popular and expensive at the same time. It may cost up to 10X the cost of a bourbon barrel! Thus, not many distilleries choose it or cannot afford to have it. The casks used to age different styles of sherry are also used for aging whiskey. In the sherry industry, hogshead and butt are commonly used.
Hogsheads are made from American white oak and are built from staves that are taken from bourbon barrels. They’re seasoned with sherry to create a sherry hogshead. Butts are also common and widely used in the sherry industry. It is traditionally made from Spanish oak and American white oak.
3. Port Whiskey Cask
Port casks are used to hold ruby ports. Although, tawny or white are also used to add richness and a refreshing dryness to your whiskey. Many distilleries also use casks for the red styles of port to introduce notes of strawberry and raspberry.
Some casks can also give you a perfect balance between dry, spicy flavor viz flavors of clove, nutmeg, and red fruits.
4. Rum Whiskey Cask
It’s a lesser-seen type of cask known to add a whack of tropical fruit and loads of sweetness to the whiskey. Rum-cask finished whiskey is unusual compared to those whiskies that spend their final stages in casks like port, sherry, or wine. They give sweet tropical fruit notes to the lush flavors of your whiskey.
5. Wine Whiskey Cask
These casks vary from sweet to dry, with both red and white wine used. The Sauternes cask offers sweetness and honeyed fruit notes, whereas dry white wine viz. Chardonnay casks bring bitterness and a mouth-coating texture. Due to the presence of tannin in red wine, wine casks impart dryness and fruity notes. Bordeaux cask will display an amazing integration between red fruits and earthy, smoky notes of grapes.
Other than these variously used whiskey barrels these casks are used to age whiskey, including Madeira, Marsala, New (Virgin) Oak, Cognac, and likewise. The type of cask can influence the final flavor of the whiskey. As in Scotland, the spirit should age in casks for a minimum of 3 years before it’s legally called ‘whiskey’. Thus, it’s imperative to understand how these casks contribute to giving characteristics to your whiskey. Let us tell you more about that too.
The type of wood
Mostly, whiskey casks are made from American white oak or European oak.
American white oak gives a sweeter, softer, and smoother taste with notes of caramel and vanilla. On the other hand, European oak is a bit spicier and adds a strong woody taste. Even French oak is used to age wine and cognac, bringing notes of vanilla, pepper, and a tinge of spiciness.
The cask sizes
The liquid will take longer to mature inside a bigger cask. Thus, you need to choose your cask size wisely.
Barrel: It can hold up to 180-200 liters and is made from American Oak. It is commonly used for bourbon.
Hogshead: It carries about 225-250 liters and is used to age Scotch whiskey. It’s larger and allows the whiskey to be aged in the warehouse.
Madeira Drum: It contains 600-650 liters and is made from French oak and Madeira wine.
Port Pipe: It is made from European oak and has a capacity of 550-650 liters.
Sherry Butt: It is made from both American and European oak with a total capacity of 475-600 liters.
Toasting and Charring
All casks need to be toasted but not necessarily charred. Here, every new cask goes through heat treatment and toasting before adding the liquid into it. Toasting helps caramelize the wood sugars and bring all the lovely vanilla and caramel notes from American oak and impart more tannins and spices from the European Oak.
During charring, the charcoal inside the cask helps to mellow the sharp flavors from the distillation process. Every distillery has different levels of toasting and charring, depending on its preferences. Usually, used bourbon barrels are charred for 40 seconds and even up to 3 minutes sometimes. The higher the char level, the more it allows the spirit to get into the oak’s pores.
The number of previous fills in the cask
Bourbon needs to be stored in a new oak cask. When you age your whiskey in this barrel, your spirit will be heavily influenced by the wood, and the whiskey is left for less time to prevent the influence of heavy wood on your spirit. In Scotland, the cask is used for several years even though you cannot refill it more than 3 times.
The storing of the cask
During the maturation stage, the spirit’s flavors blend with natural compounds to give the whiskey its distinct flavor and aroma. Factors like air quality, temperature, and humidity will play a significant role in the final product. The high temperature will open up the oak’s pores and allow the liquid to interact with the wood more. Direct sunlight and high temperature will speed up the maturation time.
At the End…
Distilleries have mastered the art of playing around with different cask types and sizes to get the perfect layers of flavors. You can use a range of the same casks or other types of cask types to make your signature spirit. Many people might believe that more extended maturation means better quality whiskey, but that’s not the case. You need to understand all the factors that contribute to making good whiskey like the above.
If you’re longing for the best quality and wide variety of used barrels, Rocky Mountain Barrel Company offers you various barrels from across the world. We now work with over 700 customers ranging from large breweries across America to small consumers in countries such as Australia, China, and New Zealand. Get in touch today!
Read our latest article on the increasing demand for bourbon barrels.