Scotch Barrel Sizes: Firkin, Kilderkin, Hogshead, Butt & Tun

Macallan Barrels

One of the best parts of the Macallan tour was the special barrel/art of coopering section they had above the warehouse. In it, they explained the difference between American oak and French oak, barrel construction, and other aspects of coopering.

Did you know that a barrel has a standard volume of 36 Imperial gallons? (43 US gallons)

I didn’t, I figured barrel was a general term for a container of that general size and shape. Well, to make things more interesting, there are actually many varying sizes of “barrels,” some of which have very funny names (all gallons are Imperial gallons):

  • Firkin – 9 gallons
  • Kilderkin – 18 gallons
  • Barrel – 36 gallons
  • Hogshead – 54 gallons
  • Butt – 108 gallons
  • Tun – 216 gallons

Firkin – It’s an old English term derived from a Middle Dutch word vierdekijn, which means fourth. It’s appropriate because a firkin is a fourth of a barrel in volume.

Kilderkin – Again an old English term derived from Dutch but it doesn’t mean half, it just means small cask, but it is a half barrel.

Hogshead – I wasn’t able to find the origin of the term but it was standardized as 54 gallons by an act of Parliament in 1423.

Butt – This size in wine is called a pipe, so when The Balvenie Portwood Finish 21 states it was finished in Port pipes, it means barrels of this size.

Tun – It sounds like ton because it shares the same origin though the latter refers only to mass/weight.

Finally, what’s the difference between Imperial gallons and US gallons? The US measurement comes from the English measurements of the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until 1824 that the English derived the Imperial system, which was after American independence. An Imperial gallon works out to be a little over 1.2 US gallons (technically, ~1.20094992550 US gallons).

It’s always interesting to learn a little bit of trivia!

(Photo: schlaeger)

6 thoughts on “Scotch Barrel Sizes: Firkin, Kilderkin, Hogshead, Butt & Tun

  1. Just came across your site, searching for info on “hogshead.” There’s a pretty detailed Wikipedia entry. You mentioned you couldn’t find the origins of the word, so here:
    “The etymology of hogshead is uncertain. According to English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835-1912), the origin is to be found in the name for a cask or liquid measure appearing in various forms in several Teutonic languages, in Dutch oxhooft (modern okshoofd), Danish oxehoved, Old Swedish oxhufvod, etc. The word should therefore be “oxhead”, “hogshead” being a mere corruption. It has been suggested that the name arose from the branding of such a measure with the head of an ox.[2]”

    and the Wiki:

    I need to catch up on your scotch reviews. I like the Islay scotches, and Jura, and pretty much most of the peaty ones; not the sweet ones, like the Macallan (?sp); and not the blends but the single malts. Single casks are fun as gifts, but the distinctions are lost on me. I spent a week on Islay, and had a great time exploring. Arbeg, Lagavulin, Bunnabhain, Bowmore, sorry if I have blurry memories of others. Good site, thanks.

    • This is great, thank you for sharing this!

      I understand the appeal of single casks, logically, but I really can’t tell either. I like all of them, I find that what I drink depends a little on my mood sometimes. I really enjoy all the different expressions of Bowmore and I bought into all their clever names like Enigma, Mariner, etc. I have yet to visit but I’d love to. When I went several years ago we visited a few of the Speysides since they were easier to get to from Edinburgh but it was a blast.

      I have a Bunnahabhain Darach Ur sitting in my case from a previous visit to the UK and I really need to do a tasting note on it. It just looks so epic that I almost feel bad opening it! 🙂

  2. Can anyone help please. I know the volumes but, what are the approximate dimensions of a butt, a tun and a puncheon? Height and diameter?

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