Americans love whiskey. Total revenues for U.S. whiskey of about $3.1 billion dollars in 2016 helped prove it.
But what is whiskey, and how is it made? Where does it get its distinctive flavor? Whiskey, bourbon, and scotch are similar. There are subtle distinctions between them.
The biggest difference between whiskey and scotch is the location they come from. Ingredients also account for some differences.
One thing they all have in common is they’re aged in barrels or casks. And when it comes to whiskey, there are all kinds of whiskey casks.
Wondering what your whiskey was aged in? Read on to learn more about what whiskey cask your whiskey came from!
What is a Whiskey Cask?
When people think about whiskey casks and barrels, they think about aging. The length of time the liquid spends in the cask is important. But the type of wood the cask is made out of is critical.
Different woods impart distinct tastes. There are two major types of wood:
- American white oak (Quercus alba)
- European oak (Quercus robur and petraea)
American white oak imparts mellow vanilla and caramel flavors. This oak is grown in the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. It’s a fast-growing tree making it less expensive than the European oak. This is where bourbon gains its vanilla taste.
European oak lends a spicy, bitter, wood flavor. It grows all over Europe as well as Turkey and Russia. It doesn’t grow as fast as the American Oak. Whiskey aged in European oak is spicier in flavor.
There are other elements of the casks to consider as well, such as size, char, and age.
There are a plethora of sizes when it comes to whiskey casks. And sizes aren’t standard, making them difficult to define. For instance, a normal butt measurement is 122 gallons. But, a butt size barrel or cask is 132 gallons.
For ease, the sizes here are standard cask sizes, not measurements.
American Standard Bourbon Barrel: 53 gallons
Butt: 132 gallons
Quarter Cask: 33 gallons
Standard Hogshead: 63 gallons
Puncheon: 85 gallons
Madeira Drum: 172 gallons
Port Pipe: 132 gallons
Sherry Hogshead: 65 gallons
Cognac: 79 gallons
Bordeaux: 59 gallons
Barrique cask: 59 gallons
Bloodtub: 13 gallons
A cooper is someone who makes or repairs casks. Each cooper makes different cask sizes. Remember the main difference between casks is some are small, some medium, and some large.
Large casks are the Madeira Drum, Puncheon, Port Pipe, and Butt.
The American Standard, Bourbon, Barrique, Hogshead, Cognac and Bordeau casks are medium.
The small casks are the Quater and Bloodtub.
Scotch, whiskey, and bourbon must meet legal definitions.
For instance, Scotch whiskey must come from Scotland. It’s made from malted barley and water. Only whole grains are added. A number of specific processes are followed. One of those is that the maturation time is three years or longer.
Whiskey doesn’t adhere to strict legal standards that Scotch whiskey does. The minimum aging time for bourbon is two years. For plain whiskey, there’s no legal minimum aging time.
Toasting and Charring
The casks and barrels are toasted and charred. Both of these processes use an open flame to burn the wood. There are many levels of charring with each impacting the flavor of the alcohol in a specific way.
Toasting only burns the wood enough to darken it on top. The result is a flat black layer on the top of the wood inside the cask or barrel.
Charring is more aggressive and breaks the surface of the wood. When the wood is burned, the surface is called “alligator skin” due to its rough appearance. Charring and toasting allow the sugars in the wood to impart vanilla and caramel flavors.
The deepest level of char is level #4. Toasting is also done at different levels, but dry heat instead of an open flame is used. Some barrels are toasted and then charred. Other barrels are either toasted or charred.
Each distillery has specifications for the amount of time their casks are toasted and/or charred. The casks used to make Jack Daniel’s whiskey are charred for about 42 seconds.
What’s a Stave?
Staves are simple but important. They’re the wood the barrel is made of. They’re long individual slats. Staves are not uniform in width. It can take as long as 18 months to two years to age the staves for a barrel.
Some staves are aged outside in the elements while other staves are heated.
Due to scarcity issues, some whiskey makers have their own cooperages. Brown-Forman, who makes Jack Daniel’s, makes their own barrels – 3,500 a day!
Is the Cask Used or New?
The U.S. and Spain are the main suppliers of casks.
Casks used to age whiskey and sherry are then used to age Scotch whiskey. The rules for Scotch whiskey allow for reuse of casks to age the spirits. After many uses, the cask imparts fewer flavors into the whiskey.
For whiskey to be bourbon, it’s aged in new American oak barrels that are charred. The new barrels have never been used to age any other type of spirits. This means there’s plenty of demand for new casks.
How Do You Use Your Whiskey?
Whiskey is great for more than sipping. Spirits are perfect for use in baking and cooking. From brownies to BBQ chicken, whiskey ups your game in the kitchen.
When added to recipes and cooked on high heat, most of the alcohol burns off leaving a great taste and no worries about intoxication. Dark liquors work well with darker meats. Lighter liquors work well with lighter meats – easy to remember!
Time for Some Whiskey
A glass of whiskey is great to unwind with, use in cooking, or bake into brownies.
Next time you’re in the liquor store, take a look at the label to see what type of barrels your whiskey was aged in. You’ll know what flavors to expect based on the type of whiskey cask used.
Now that you have an idea of the different types of whiskey casks and barrels, it’s time to get one of your own!