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Fib of the Week #14: "Whisky is an aged spirit which matures in wooden barrels"

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, we’ve been so busy, and honestly without scouring the whisky-media for “just bad” articles, we were starting to run out of them.

But today, #FibFridays return - with things ramping up with the upcoming launch, we can’t guarantee this feature will be as regular as it was, but we will certainly keep them coming.

And now, for your Fib of the Week – ‘Whisky is an aged spirit which matures in wooden barrels.’

This week’s fib is inspired by us working on the back labels for our first releases, in time for bottling in the next couple of weeks, and doing a little re-racking on the side.

It also has the benefit of being partially true, so kind of fun.

If you have ever been on a warehouse tour while at a distillery, you probably know where we’re going with this, because this little nugget is a favourite of warehousemen and tour guides alike.

You’ll probably want to argue that yes, legally (Scotch) whisky must be matured in oak. And yes, we all understand the barrel to be that tubular, somewhat conical vessel, customarily made of staves held together usually by metal bands called hoops. Indeed, a quick Google gives the definition of the barrel as ‘a cylindrical container bulging out in the middle, traditionally made of wooden staves with metal hoops round them’.

On this, you might think that all whisky matures in a barrel. And technically, on one reading, you might be right.

But ah-ha… We all know whisky takes it’s wood… Seriously.

Very, very seriously. Very seriously, indeed.

In whisky, we prefer to talk about the cask, not the barrel, and hence single cask rather than single barrel (although that is a thing in bourbon, reasons for which you will understand momentarily).

But, as the industry knows, and the warehouseman will delight in telling you in the line-up - I have a range of casks here, but only one of them is a barrel.

In the modern market, of course, consumers generally focus more on what has been in a barrel previously, or whether it is American or European oak, rather than cask size.

Of course, that is very important.

But that isn’t the be all and end all. Now, we expect you’ll be aware that the vast majority of whisky, at least 80%, matures in ex-bourbon.

What you may or may not realise, is this is where things get very… Specific.

Bourbon legally has to mature in oak barrels of a certain size that have never been used before.

Blame the great depression when bourbon wanted protection and benefits and could only do so by proposing a bill to Congress that would also create the jobs.

Hence this measure to keep coopers in work and also promote logging at the same time.

The spirits industry is pretty canny, worldwide, when it’s trying to find a way to either protect or promote itself.

These barrels, however, to a standard size, are now known as the American Standard Barrel, or a ASB in the industry (~190-200l, if you’re curious).

These are the only thing you will find in a warehouse that whisky producers technically consider a barrel.

And honestly a lot of our other casks are produced from them; the name of the vessel only really tells you it’s volume, not what’s been in it before (we had a fun confusion from Iain when Aedan was writing the back labels, when on the proofread Iain discovered that not all, in fact very few, hogsheads are sherried).

A bloodtub, ~25l, an octave, ~50l, a firkin, ~50-70l, the quarter cask, ~125l, most often all of these will be broken down and remade from former ASBs, although some might be made afresh.

The glorious hogshead, certainly one of the most common casks used in whisky, is also a re-coopered barrel, always - to fit more in a container, we skinflint Scots just break up and hammer together one and a bit ASBs, to get a cask approximately 250l in volume.

This may then use the wood as is, which is most common, sometimes re-charred or toasted to expose the active parts of the wood, or it may very occasionally be seasoned with something else for a time, e.g. sherry.

And the important thing with barrel size for whisky production is that: different volumes = different dimensions, and different dimensions = different spirit to wood ratio.

So faster or more subtle maturation.

The only barrels you have a good (but not certain) of idea what has been in it before (and we are going to call them barrels, because frankly saying ‘cask’ too much is just getting a wee bit repetitive now - besides, it’s not wrong), those are specialist barrels.

Port pipes, for example, are usually tall and relatively thin if you see them - almost universally, they will have actually held port, because that is what they were designed for.

These are usually a similar size to the 500l sherry butt (fatter, slightly squatter - does anyone feel a sudden urge to sing MC Hammer right about now?).

Unlike the butt, the port pipe can vary from anywhere from 350l all the way up to around double that.

We also take it that it goes without saying that a sherry butt will almost always have held sherry - as far as we know, no cheeky distiller has ever decided to do it, but it also might be good to remember that a butt is just a size of cask.

Without that magic word ‘sherry’ on the label, it could have held anything, even herring.

Even then, the cask may only have been seasoned with cheap and low quality sherry, but that’s another story.

Then of course it’s good to remember as well the French wine barrique, fairly standard across the whole wine industry by now at 225l, and also the originally French tonneau.

Popular in Bordeaux, they are now starting to catch on in northern Italy.

And the industry being the industry, of course this may sound like a tonne cask, so presumably 1000l originally - yet Italian wine-makers often consider them to be anything from 350-700l, defined by its long thin shape (not entirely different from the port pipe).

While of course the Bordeaux producers will swear blind by tradition that the barrel should really be 900l and equate to 4 barriques.

But that’s the glories of wine for you - easiest to just think of it as translating the word ‘barrel’ and usually being large.

Finally, in case you’re wondering as well, both rum and tequila casks that are creeping their way into whisky come from aged examples of each of those spirits, usually aged along the same wood regiment as whisky, e.g. mainly bourbon because it has been cheap in the past, some sherry, some port, and occasionally something even more interesting still.

At Fib Whisky, we are suckers in particular for wine casks, but love experimenting with absolutely everything.

Our first range, coming very soon, will only display single casks as we have received them - no re-racking or futtering on our part.

But watch this space for very exciting news, not only about our launch, but also on our finishing experiments in the months to come.

And the takeaway from all this, in famous, simple words, for whisky at rest: all barrels are casks, but not all casks are barrels.

Strange, I know.

Slàinte! 🥃


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