When you buy a bottle of whisky it may state the type of cask or barrel that has been used during maturation on the label. This is especially likely on an independent bottling company’s label. But what does the type and size of the cask really tell us? The most basic thing to remember is that the smaller the cask, the more contact the whisky inside has with the wood. It can be very confusing if you are not sure of the terms, so we have compiled a quick guide to the ten main types of cask used within the whisky industry, starting with the largest.
Gorda (capacity 700 litres)
A huge barrel used originally in the American whiskey industry. Made from American oak, they are occasionally used for maturing whisky but mostly for the marrying of different whiskies for blended or vatted whisky production.
Madeira Drum (650 litres)
A short, fat, dumpy barrel with a very wide diameter, made from very thick staves of French oak. As the name suggests, these drums are used in the Madeira wine industry and are occasionally used for finishing some whiskies.
Port Pipe (650 litres)
This is a tall, thin barrel made from thick staves of European oak. It looks like a regular barrel that has been stretched from each end. They are used to mature Port wine and are used in the whisky industry for finishing.
Butt (500 litres)
A tall, narrow cask made from thick staves of European oak and they are widely used throughout the sherry industry in Spain. Butts are the most common type of sherry casks used by the whisky industry.
Puncheon (500 litres)
There are two styles of puncheon cask. The most common is the ‘machine puncheon’, which is short, fat and made from thick staves of American oak. The second is the ‘sherry shape puncheon’, which is more elongated and made with thinner staves of Spanish oak. They are used in the rum and sherry industries respectively and are mostly used to finish whisky.
Barrique (300 litres)
These are the casks that are widely used throughout the wine industry. They differ from many other types of casks or barrels as they are bound with wood strips rather than the regular metal hoops. Used to give whisky a ‘wine cask finish’.
Hogshead (225 litres)
The word hogshead derives from the 15th century English term ‘hogges hede’, which referred to a unit of measurement equivalent to 63 gallons. Now made from American white oak, hogsheads are widely used for maturing bourbon and then sent to Scotland and Ireland. They are one of the most common types of cask used for maturing whisky.
ASB (200 litres)
The ASB (American Standard Barrel) is derived from the hogshead with the capacity rounded down to 200 litres for modern ease of use. Made from American white oak, they are widely used in the bourbon industry and then are very commonly used in Scottish and Irish whisky maturation. If you have a bourbon cask matured whisky, it will almost certainly have been matured in a hogshead or ASB.
Quarter Cask (50 litres)
A cask made to be a quarter of the size of an ASB, while remaining in proportion. Highly reactive with spirits as there is so much contact between the spirit and the wood. Used to give whisky flavour quickly. Also known as a ‘firkin’ by brewers.
Blood tub (40 litres)
A small cask used mostly in brewing beer, but very occasionally used by distilleries to mature special runs of whisky. They have an elongated oval shape that was designed to make them easy to carry on horseback.