French Oak vs. American Oak Barrels

One of the most entertaining parts of the Macallan Distillery tour was the section on the art of coopering, or barrel-making. I always implicitly knew that the barrel played a significant role in the taste of whisky but until the tour I never had a name for the art, coopering, nor any basic understanding of what led to what.

One of the biggest factors, besides the maturity time, has to do with the type of wood the barrels are made of. The wood itself is almost always oak, though at times spiritmakers have experimented with other hardwoods. With oak, you have two options – French Oak and American Oak. In many years past, the differences between the two were more pronounced as French Oak, with its tighter grains, imparted its flavor more slowly. However, as American coopering started adopting some of the French coopering practices (splitting staves along the grain and air-dry seasoning for 24 months), the differences have diminished over time.

Having sampled Macallan’s new make whisky (what goes into each barrel), I can definitely say that the aging process in the barrels really gives scotch its depth of flavor.

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)

Speyside Cooperage Slideshow

[Slide 6 of the Slideshow]

Time has an incredible slideshow looking at the art of coopering at the Speyside Cooperage. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a cooperage is where whisky casks are made and the art of coopering is the craft itself. On a recent trip to Scotland, my wife and I tried to visit the Speyside Cooperage but arrived after it closed so this slideshow is the next best thing. 🙂

If you fancy another Time article, here’s a good one titled Whisky Business worth a look as well.