“What do you think is the greatest invention of all-time? The internet?”
“Perhaps, but it’s hard to give top spot to something that’s mostly pictures of people sharing what they ate for lunch. I say the barrel.”
“I’ll tell you why as soon as I finish writing this sentence.”
Not so long ago, the barrel was used by practically everyone to hold practically everything: perishable food (salted meat), gun powder, nails, coins, pickles, you name it. If you wanted to keep something watertight, you put it in a barrel. If you wanted to protect something from the elements, you put it in a barrel. Barrels are easy to roll, and easy to stack. Exploration would’ve been impossible without the barrel. Fresh water barrels kept people hydrated and alive while at sea. Barrels made it possible for countries to trade with one another (and trading sure beats warring). The barrel may no longer be in favour, but it’s still an essential part of the whisky-making process (unless you’re making corn whiskey). Barrels add flavour, remove unwanted compounds, and (for those who don’t chill filter) enhance mouthfeel. There are 3 types of barrels commonly used for maturing whisky today: the American Standard Barrel (ASB), the hogshead, and the butt.
The American Standard Barrel (ASB) is the most common whiskey barrel on the planet. The reason for this is simple. ASBs are used to mature bourbon, and bourbon must be matured in charred new oak containers. An ASB can only be used once to mature bourbon. There’s a lot of information out there as to why the ASB is 53 gallons. Most of it isn’t all that accurate. In the early 1800s, Pennsylvania rye was king. The 42 gallon tierce barrel was the gold standard in Pennsylvania when it came to shipping or storing items that required a water tight seal. It’s not like today where everything is made-to-order. Back then, you used what you had at your disposal. The tierce was dependable and easy to transport. The switch to the 53 gallon ASB of today didn’t occur until the Second World War. Wood, like everything else, was rationed. Going with a 53 gallon barrel meant less barrels had to be used. Anything larger would’ve been difficult to accommodate, and retrofitting wasn’t an option. (Retrofitting requires the use of wood, something they were trying to conserve at the time.)
The hogshead barrel is a bit of a mystery. Prominent philologist (a person who studies language) Walter William Skeat was convinced the name came from ox-head, the Swedish term for barrel. When the Moors conquered the southern part of Spain in the 8th century, they named what’s now the city of Jerez, Sherish. Somewhere down the line, Sherish became sherry, and, somewhere down the line (according to Skeat), ox-head became hogshead. The hogshead was standardized for the first time in the 1400s. To make things simple, everything was half of what came before it. The largest barrel was the tun. Next came the pipe (or butt), which was half the size of the tun. Half the size of the pipe was the hogshead. Hogsheads (250-ish litres) are frequently used in Scotland. Not only do they take up less space, but it’s believed they’re the perfect size for maturing scotch. A hogshead is made by breaking down American Standard Barrels. 5 ASBs = 4 hogsheads.
Scuttlebutt is a naval term. It’s slang for crewmates gossiping next to a water source. To scuttle means to put a hole in something, which, in this case, would be a barrel the size of a butt (500 litres or so). The pre-Covid equivalent to scuttlebutt would be when you and your co-workers chatted next to the office water cooler. The post-Covid equivalent would be nothing, because your company went out of business due to supply chain issues caused by Covid. The earliest reference to butt (as in storage container) I can find dates back to 1080:
Aliquando vir Dei buttem vini repositam apud quamdam suam capellam habuerat
(Very) loosely translated:
Once upon a time the man of God had a barrel of wine stored at one of his chapels
Butts are used to mature sherry. Ex-sherry casks are highly sought-after, especially in Scotland. Initially, butts were made using nearby trees like pine and chestnut. Once trans-Atlantic trade took off, things changed. It didn’t take long for American white oak barrels from the New World to become readily available in Spain. Spaniards loved the influence American white oak had on their wine. Today, it’s the wood of choice for maturing sherry.