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Whisky is a drink loved around the world, whether consumed neat or with a mixer such as Coke. Like with everything though, there is some jargon related to whisky making. Within the world of whisky-making, there’s invariably a lot of talk around the different types of barrels or casks that a whisky is stored in. The reason for this is how the whisky is stored as it ages can significantly affect the final taste.
In fact, the oak casks used for Scotch whisky vs sherry barrels or bourbon barrels are often one of the most vital ways of bringing extra flavour to this spirit. That said though, two distinct terms are often used for these storage means. These are casks and barrels. As such, you may be wondering, cask vs barrel, what’s the difference? If so, don’t worry! All will be explained below.
Table of Contents
- What Is A Whisky Cask?
- What Is A Whisky Barrel?
- Is There Actually A Difference Between A Cask Vs Barrel?
- Answered: Cask Vs Barrel
- Interesting Side Note: Cask vs Barrel Manufacturing
- FAQ – Cask Vs Barrel
What Is A Whisky Cask?
When it comes to defining what a cask is, things can seem initially somewhat confusing. The reason for this is that when being described it is not uncommon for the terms barrel and cask to be used interchangeably. As such, you may fairly come to the conclusion that they are indeed identical.
That said then when defining a cask, it is something that is defined as a way to categorise different types of whisky container. As such, a barrel is more a category of a cask, than its own distinct storage device. To describe a cask though, it is best to do so as a large barrel-shaped container that is used for storing liquid. Typically, it will be made from wooden staves and hoops.
In terms of linguistic heritage though, it isn’t too certain where it comes from. However, it is likely to have originated from the fifteenth-century, Middle-French term, “casque”. It’s unlikely for the term to originate from any earlier though, as for many centuries ceramic pots would have been used to store and age whiskey. In particular, using pottery for whisky storage was popular amongst the Romans before encountering the Celts. Following this, they adopted the practice of using wooden casks instead.
What Is A Whisky Barrel?
As mentioned above, a barrel is often defined as being a specific type of cask. However, what actually is a barrel? Additionally, you may be wondering how they differ from any other similar cylindrical container.
That said though, in relation to whisky, a barrel will have a pretty firm definition. This being a wooden container that is cylindrical in shape and longer than it is wide. Additionally, they will be equal in diameter at each end. Material-wise, these barrels will also be made from wooden staves that are held in place with metal hoops. Inside of this round vessel, there will be a hollow compartment that can be used to store and age whisky.
Linguistically though, there are a few theories regarding where the term barrel comes from. Most commonly though, it is typically assumed to have come from the Anglo-Norman word “Baril”. However, it may even predate this term as images of barrels have been depicted in Ancient Egyptian paintings from as far back as two thousand six hundred years ago. That said though, in more ancient times instead of being used for liquids, barrels would often be used for solids such as corn. As such, as mentioned above, before using barrels, pottery would often be used for liquids instead.
Is There Actually A Difference Between A Cask Vs Barrel?
With the above in mind, you may once again come to the conclusion that a cask and a barrel are the same things. However, they are not quite the same thing with the term “cask” being something of an umbrella term. Meanwhile, the term “barrel” refers to a particular type of cask. In particular, though, there are a wide variety of cask types. Each of which will have a different use, often defined by capacity. These are seen as the following options:
- Barrel: Two hundred litres (200L)
- Hogshead: Two hundred and forty litres (245L)
- Butt: Five hundred litres (500L)
- Puncheon: Five hundred to seven hundred litres (500-700L)
- Quarter Cask: One hundred and twenty-five litres (125L)
- Madera Drum: Six hundred and fifty litres (650L)
- Port Pipe: Six hundred litres (600L)
Here’s a short video talking through some of the common whisky cask sizes and what impact the size can have on flavor. It turns out size does matter when it comes to whisky!
Answered: Cask Vs Barrel
As mentioned above, the difference between casks and barrels can be particularly confusing as terms like wooden barrels and wooden casks are often used interchangeably. Other examples of such are sherry casks vs sherry barrels or oak barrels vs oak casks. However, they are not strictly terms which will mean exactly the same thing. Instead, within the context of storing whisky and indeed other types of alcohol, the term cask is a catch-all term for similar hollow, solid, drum storage vessels used for such a purpose. Meanwhile within the whisky storing context, a barrel is merely just a type of cask. Albeit one that is noticeably larger than many other varieties.
Interesting Side Note: Cask vs Barrel Manufacturing
Whether it’s referred to as a cask or a barrel, the manufacturing of these wooden containers is called cooperage. As with many industries, there’s actually a trade association called the ACIA (Associated Cooperage Industries of America) with the express focus on wooden barrel making.
Their video gives you an idea of the process and what’s involved – very rugged stuff!
FAQ – Cask Vs Barrel
Within the world of whisky storing and ageing it is not uncommon for you to hear the terms cask or barrel be used interchangeably. As such, many people would fairly assume that they’re the same thing. However, this is not the case. In fact, they are completely different terms. Essentially, a cask is a catch-all term for a hollow, solid, drum storage vessel used for the purpose of storing whisky. Meanwhile, a barrel is merely a term for a large variation of the whisky cask.
In the context of storing and ageing whisky, it is not uncommon for you to hear the terms cask or barrel be used interchangeably. However, to ask which is bigger between a cask and a barrel is something of a misnomer as when used correctly the terms are used in different contexts. A cask is something of a catch-all term for any hollow, solid, drum storage vessel used for the purpose of storing whisky. Meanwhile, a barrel is merely a larger variation of the cask. That said though, a smaller type of cask is quarter casks which are sometimes just called casks. Within such a context, the barrel would be the larger of the two.
When talking about storing and ageing whisky it is not uncommon for you to hear the terms cask and barrel bandied about interchangeably. That said though, asking which is smaller between a cask and a barrel is not really a question that makes sense. The reason is that when used correctly the terms cask and barrel are used in different contexts. The word cask is a bit of a catch-all term for any hollow, solid, drum storage vessel that is employed for the purpose of storing whisky. Meanwhile, a barrel is simply a larger type of cask. That being said, a smaller type of cask is quarter casks which are sometimes just called casks. Within such a context, the cask would be considered the smaller of the two.
Unlike with the terms cask or barrel, the phrases single cask and single barrel can be used interchangeably. Just like single malt, these are terms that are evocative of quality within the world of whisky. However single malt and single barrel/cask do not mean the same thing. A single malt whisky refers to a beverage that has been made at a single distillery but blended from different vattings or casks. Meanwhile, a single barrel/cask refers to a whisky that is sourced from a single cask. As such, the latter tends to be stronger in terms of alcohol content.
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