A barrel is a cask but not all cask are barrels. Many people tend to characterize all wooden cask as barrels, but a ‘barrel’ is actually a particular size and shape of cask. Clarified below.
There are various factors that determine what the “water of life” taste like in our glass. The water, grain, yeast, skill of the master blender, distillation process, use of (or lack of) peat, length of time laying in the cask, temperature, vicinity to the ocean, etc. However, one of the more important, if not the most important is the type of cask that is selected for the aging process. I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 50-80% of the whisky’s overall flavor derives from the cask. The type (and quality) of cask brings forth the many nuances we experience on our palate. I am sure at some point you have read the label on a whisky bottle or box (if not I encourage you to) where it can state “aged in Port Pipes”. Or “Finished in Sherry Cask”. Or “Aged in a Hogshead and Sherry Butts. Hogshead? Butts? Pipes? What does all this mean, and should it matter to me? To answer the latter part of that question...it absolutely matters as understanding what your whisky is aged in (cask) helps you to fine-tune what you may like or not be a fan of. To address the 1st part of that question and the focus of this article we will explore the many cask (probably not all) centering on the size used along with the previous liquid that laid in the cask which gives way to the distinct flavors we experience on our tongue. Let’s go...
Size matters. The smaller the cask the more surface area is imparted onto the liquid resting within which in essence can facilitate the exchange of flavors from the cask and expedite maturation. This does not necessarily mean better...just different. See below for a listing of various cask and volumes (note there are no ISO standard that defines actual volume, (so stated # can vary)) used in scotch production.
|American Standard Barrel/Bourbon Barrel||53|
*Chart adapted from whisky.com
Most casks are not a virgin. Before we jump into the influence of the cask that held a prior liquid...what about a cask that is a virgin? Pretty much the exception in scotch production “Virgin” oak while utilized tends not to be the go-to. However, as time goes by distillers are experimenting more and more and we are witnessing the utilization increase. Full Virgin Oak (Octomore 7.4), Virgin Oak Finished (Deanston Virgin Oak) and Blended with Virgin Oak (Ardbeg Kelpie) are all examples.
The prominent cask currently utilized in scotch aging is the bourbon barrel. As you may know by definition bourbon can only be made in new oak barrels so once used in the US many of these barrels are transported to Scotland. The below severs to provide some direction of what you can expect from your scotch being aged in stated cask. Everyone’s taste buds are unique and some more sensitive than others. “One man’s poison is another man's meat”. Whatever your preference WoW has a hand-blown whisky glass for you.
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|Previous Liquid||Expected Flavors||Whisky Examples|
|Bourbon||Vanilla, sweetness, caramel, creamy||Glenfiddich 19 Year Bourbon Cask Reserve Single Malt|
|Burgundy||Very fruity, lightly sweet||Tullibardine 228 Burgundy Cask Finish|
|Madeira||Spicy light fruit, sweet||The Balvenie Madeira Cask (finished)|
|Port||Spicy, dried fruit, sweet||Dalmore Port Wood Reserve (finished)|
|Oloroso||Deep, dark, nutty, ripe fruits||Aberlour 18 (Bourbon and Sherry)|
|Pedro Ximenez (PX)||Very Sweet, dark fruits, syrup||Lagavulin Distillers Edition (finished)|
|Fino||Light fruits, sweet, light wood||Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask (finished)|
|Manzanilla||Salty, sea flavors, fresh, some fruit||Tobermory 21 Manzanilla Finish|
|Amontillado||Sweet, nutty, fresh, acid||Kavalan Amontillado Cask (finished)|
|Sauternes||Sweet, zest, light fruits||Arran Sauternes Finish|
|Bordeaux||Strong red fruits, grapes||Deanston Bordeaux Red Wine Cask|
|Tokaji||Light fresh fruits (citrus, mango), very sweet||Arran Tokaji Cask Finished|
|Barolo||Dried fruits, tannins, heavy aromas||Hazelburn 9 years old Barolo Cask Matured|
|Rum||Sweet, tropical fruit, vanilla, molasses||Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask (finished)|
|Amarone||Ripe fruit, tannins, raisins||Arran Amarone Cask Finish|
|Marsala||Sweet, complex, spices||Ledaig 19 Marsala Cask Finish|
*Chart adapted from whisky.com