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An Introduction to Whiskey Barrels

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

The first historical account for using a wooden barrel to store and ship alcohol comes from 5th century BC historian Herodotos. Documenting the build and structure of Armenian boats he discusses the cargo saying, “they then fill it with reeds and send it floating down the river with a cargo; and it is for the most part palm wood casks of wine that they carry down.” However, the Celts or Northern Europe are recognized as the inventors of the wooden barrel in the first millennium BC. The modern barrel is simply a honing and perfecting of an invention from over 2000 years ago made prolific by the Romans expansion through Europe and adaptation of Celtic culture and technology. Barrel aging of spirits is likely the result of simply using wooden barrels for the transportation of liquid and noticing a difference in flavor compounds over time (source needed). While time in barrel contributes heavily to the the final final characteristics in the flavor of whiskey, so too will the cask itself. Factors such a number of fills, type of wood, and barrel size will influence the final flavors heavily. Cask sizing has been standardized over the last two millennia and are codified in table A-1. Cask names, however, do more than indicate size. In many instanced a cask name gives an indication to what liquid is the typical first-fill for that carry and/or the wood used in the production of the cask.

  • The English Tun: twice the size of a butt and 6 brewery barrels, 259 gallons.

  • Gorda: made from American oak and Used for marrying/vatting whiskeys together, 185 gallons.

  • Madeira Drum: made from very thick staves of European oak, and is short and fat. Used in the madeira wine industry, 172 gallons.

  • Port Pipe: made from thick staves of European oak, and is long and narrow. Used in port wine industry, 172 gallons.

  • Machine Puncheon: made from American oak (Quercus alba), and is short and fat. Used mostly in the rum industry, 132 gallons.

  • Sherry Puncheon: made from thinner staves of Spanish oak, 132 gallons.

  • Sherry butt: made from thick European oak staves, and is tall and slender. Mostly produced for use in finishing whisky and are not generally used in the sherry industry to make good sherry, 129-132 gallons.

  • Barrique (for Cognac): used in the wine and cognac industries, looks like a butt-shaped hogshead, 79 gallons.

  • Barrique (for Bordeaux): used in the wine industry, favored by bordeaux producers. looks like a butt-shaped hogshead, 59 gallons.

  • Hogshead: made from repurposed bourbon barrels. The bourbon barrel is taken apart and rebuilt with extra staves, 59-66 gallons.

  • American Standard Barrel (ASB): most commonly and are the most common whisky barrel in use today, 53 gallons.

  • British brewery barrel (43 gallons) Standard British brewery barrel size. Equals 288 pints, 43 gallons.

  • Tierce (35 gallons) Half a puncheon, 1/3 of a butt, 1/6 of a tun. Most closely related to the oil industry

  • Kilderkin (22 gallons) Half a British brewery barrel

  • Rundlet (15 gallons) 1/7 of a butt, 1/14 of a tun

  • Quarter cask (13 gallons) One quarter the size and proportion of an ASB. Helps age the spirit faster.

  • Blood Tub (11 gallons) Made long and oval shaped to be carried on horseback more easily.

  • Firkin (11 gallons) Quarter size British Brewery barrel. Holds 72 pints.

  • Pin (5 gallons) Usually used by home beer brewers but can be used by small microdistilleries. Holds 36 pints.


Herodotus: Books I-II. Herodotus. Translated by Godley, Alfred Denis. 1921, W. Heinemann. Book 1, 194.

Wood, Whiskey and Wine: A History of Barrels. Work, Henry H., 2014, Reaktion Books.

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