Cask Exposé: Wood, Wood, Wood!
As Society members and lovers of Scotch whisky, we know "cask" is Scottish for "barrel". Since our inception in the late 1970s over the very first cask from the Glenfarclas distillery, the Society has focused exclusively on single cask, cask
strength whisky. By always bottling our whisky directly from the cask, we strive to showcase the unique elements of each cask - whether it's the sweet notes of honey and caramel, or the more astringent, bitter hints of licorice, the cask plays an utmost important part in the maturation of our whiskies.
Amongst the wealth of information presented on our label, you will always find some details about the cask. This is no accident - we often talk about the cask as the mother of each whisky; without doubt much of the drink's character
and personality can be attributed to these formative years under the wood's direction.
These barrels, just like the liquid they host, are steeped in deep history and tradition. From the coopers and their craft - a craft largely unchanged in the last century - to the origin of the quarter cask - a cask that facilitated smuggling
throughout the Highlands - wood and whisky are deeply linked.
With the great variety that exists amongst casks - from barrel type and size, to first-fill versus refill, to charring and toasting - it's easy to get lost in the details. How should we approach these differences? We've put together a brief glossary to help your navigations, in hopes to better understand the liquid in your bottle.
There are a few questions that you might ask about a cask's past: what kind of liquid did this barrel previously hold? What did this barrel house in its former life? Was it another spirit, such as bourbon, or perhaps a sweet dessert wine, such as sauternes or fortified sherry? Is it a 1st or 2nd fill barrel?
The smaller the cask, the more the spirit interacts with the wood. Smaller barrels are often used nowadays for the finishing touches on a spirit. Perhaps the most common cask used is the American Standard Barrel, usually simply referred to as "the barrel". As American law stipulates that bourbon always be aged in new barrels, many ex-bourbon barrels can be found leading a glorious second life in
Scotland! These barrels can lend their experience with bourbon to Scotch whisky.
Below are the casks in increasing order of size, with their
- Quarter Cask: 45-50 liters (12-13 gallons)
- Barrel (ASB): 190-200 liters (50-53 gallons)
- Hogshead: 225-250 liters (60-66 gallons)
- Butt: 475-500 liters (125-132 gallons)
- Port Pipe: 500-650 liters (132-172 gallons)
- Gorda: 600-700 liters (158-185 gallons)
*According to Scottish laws, casks used in whisky maturation cannot exceed 700 liters.
The variety found within casks used to age Scotch whisky is arguably the most important component in what sets whisky apart from any other aged spirit found around the world. The array of cask styles used is responsible for the vast range of flavours and styles found across single malt whisky. This is why when we say "there's a whisky for everyone," we absolutely mean it!