Anyone who has tried at least a couple of drams knows that whisky can vary massively in terms of flavour. Even two whiskies from the same distillery, matured for the same length, can taste totally different! This is one of the things that’s so endearing to whisky-lovers; each dram has its own unique profile, the end product of ever-so-minute variations that have a real effect on flavour.
So much goes into making a whisky taste the way it does, but understanding how these flavours come about is a daunting prospect. With this in mind, we wanted to put together our own wee take on the world of whisky casks, a sort of Whisky Casks Explained. Here, we’ll take a deeper look into the world of whisky casks, the maturation process and also share some of the most exciting offerings from distilleries today. In the process, we will hopefully demystify some of the secrets surrounding the whisky maturation process and help you learn a little more about the story behind your favourite dram!
An Age-old Tradition: The Scotch art of Whisky-Making
In this post, we will mainly focus on Scotch Whisky. However, if you want to learn a little more about how bourbon is made, this illustrated process is a great place to start. These days, there are also several pioneers from all over the world experimenting with making traditional malt whisky via bold new techniques. Our friends at Westland are a fine example of how local resources can be utilised to make unique single malt whiskey.
To kick things off, we’ll start at the beginning of the whisky-making process. Prior to maturation, a ‘beverage’ is created from malt and water, undergoing fermentation before being distilled in copper pot stills. Following distillation, the result is a clear spirit with few similarities to any whisky you would recognise. To become whisky as we know it, this spirit must undergo a process of maturation.
Whilst we’re not discounting the effect pot-stills have on a whisky (read more on this here), the maturation process is where things really start to get interesting. There are many different types of casks which vary dramatically in terms of size and wood type. In turn, the type of casks used in maturation is crucial to a whisky’s profile. Here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used casks in Scotch whisky-making.
Popular Casks for Scotch Maturation
Barrel 190–200 litres The Barrel is made from American oak and is first used to mature bourbon whiskey. Bourbon casks cannot be re-used to make more bourbon, but they are very popular for maturing scotch whisky.
Hogshead 225–250 litres: Bigger than Barrels, Hogsheads are also typically made from American oak (even from staves originally from bourbon casks). As well as being slightly larger, these casks may have also previously held other alcohol. Sherry Hogsheads are particularly popular in the Scotch industry.
Butt 475–500 litres: The largest cask used in whisky-making, most Butts begin life in the sherry industry. They are traditionally made from Spanish oak, although a significant amount of Butts are made from American white oak.
Quarter Cask 45–50 litres: The smallest cask on this list, the Quarter Cask has a higher wood-to-liquid ration, meaning maturation occurs much quicker than in larger casks.
Port Wine Cask: Port pipes are used for maturing port wine. In recent years, several whisky-makers have experimented with finishing their products in port wine casks.
Madeira Drum: As the name suggests, Madeira Drums are used for holding Madiera wine. They are made from French oak. Madeira Drums are becoming more common in the finishing process.
Red Wine Casks: No prizes for guessing this one, these casks have been used to store red wine before they make their way to the world of whisky. Again, these casks are primarily used for finishing whiskies that have matured in other cask types previously.
Maturation vs Finishing
‘Finishing’ is when whisky is transferred to a separate cask for the final stage of maturation. The spirit is often moved to smaller casks such as the Quarter Cask or Port Wine Cask. Finishing often has a strong effect on the flavours of the final whisky.
Which cask is best?
This obviously depends on your tastes! We recommend you experiment with different cask types and finishes. At Craft Whisky Club, we make sure our whisky subscriptions feature plenty of variety so that our members can find out which casks work for them. You can learn more about the whiskies in our subscriptions here.
Can I buy a Cask?
Distilleries are increasingly looking to offer casks direct to consumers, which is great news for whisky-fans. Check out the casks on offer from our friends at Raasay Distillery.
In the next post, we’ll take at where you can get your hands on a cask of whisky!