The evolution of the whisky cask

The evolution of the whisky cask

The global whisky industry traces its genesis to the vanquished world of the Celts, whose enduring legacy is the cask, and in the twilight years of their cultural dissipation were the artificers of whisky

Production | 27 Jan 2023 | Issue 188 | By Chris Middleton

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The history of the cask reaches back into the ancient woodlands of north-western Europe and to the enigmatic Celts more than 3,000 years ago. Europe’s forests furnished the first staves to fashion these wooden containers. These vessels were skilfully constructed, ensuring the staves fitted tightly, then bound by hooped branches to securely hold liquid such as beer and mead, the favoured libations of the Celts. Old Celtic words for beer are familiar to modern brewers: ‘cervesia’ and ‘bior’. This pan-European family were more than partial to alcoholic beverages, striving to achieve excessive levels of inebriation. Where the Romans had the genteel Bacchus as the god of wine and intoxication, the Celts worshipped the god of the woodlands and beer, Secellos, who ominously carried a mallet and small cask. After Julius Caesar’s sobering conquests of Europe, a thriving wine, oil and garum trade developed where the discovery and exploitation of the unpretentious cask would make New World travel and global trade possible.

Credit: Trajan"s Column

Creation of the cask and its place in modern linguistics

Casks were one of humankind’s most robust and versatile containers until the advent of steel drums and moulded plastics in the 20th century. A sustainable and natural resource, they are durable and easy to store and transport. A worker can move a cask with minimal friction and effort, spinning it on its bilge line and rolling it into and out of storage. Nothing can surpass oak containers in flavour maturation for wine and spirits.

There would be no modern whisky without wooden (oak) containers. The Gallic tribes of the Western European Celts first fabricated wooden containers from birch, yew, alder, ash, fir and oak, binding the staves with hoops of willow or hazel branches. Sumerians employed hollowed-out date palm trunks in antiquity to store beer and wine. Herodotus reported in 500BC that Armenians were floating palm trunks containing wine down the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Before the advent of casks, the preferred method to transport liquid products was in earthenware amphora. When the Romans discovered casks, the standard amphora was the Dressel type-1, holding about 26 litres, weighing about 50 kilos and practical for porters to carry for stowage on boats and wagons. By 300AD, tight casks replaced amphora as more easily transportable, volumetrically efficient and durable. They also could improve the flavour of the wine.

A woodcutting depicting workmen filling wooden casks. Credit: Wellcome Collection

The tun was the typical capacity for hundreds of years and became the lingua franca for a large cask. The word is of Celtic origin from ‘tonda’, meaning skin or surface. As Celts originally stored liquids in animal skins, they fashioned wooden-like skins as sturdy containers when they invented coopered casks. By the eighth century, ‘tonda’ was Latinised to ‘tunna’ and later abbreviated to tun. The Romans also called these Gallic wooden containers ‘cupa’, hence the etymology of the cooper. Alternative definitions for a wooden cask were ‘dolcum’ and ‘butis’, later abbreviated to butt. Numerous other vernacular terms for the tun came into circulation, such as ‘tunue’ (Saxon), ‘tonnel’ (Old French), and ‘tunno’ (German). The word cask is a relatively modern term from 16th-century France and Spain, anglicised in the 18th century from ‘casque’, a conical helmet, meaning a shell or protective container. Cask became the generic term for a tight wooden container in Commonwealth countries. Scotland used the French ‘baraill’ or barrel as a generic term, from the Celtic ‘baril’, even after unification in 1707. This expression immigrated to America and became the colonial lexicon for casks.

In France, by 1665, the barrel or barrique equated to 250 litres; today, it is 300 litres in Cognac, 228 litres in Burgundy and 225 litres in Bordeaux, similar to the American standard barrel at 200 litres.

All roads to Rome, all casks from Europe

The Celts had a sophisticated and technically advanced society when Rome invaded Gaul and Germania in 58BC. Following Roman colonisation, wagon and boat builders modified stowage to accommodate the demand for large-format tuns. Gallic flat-bottomed boats called bateau navigated Europe’s shallow rivers and lake shoals as Europe’s waterways were the roads and highways of the Celts.

As continental trade became widespread, local Celtic tribes constructed unique vessels to carry cask cargoes on the Rhine, Rhône, Danube and tributary rivers. Roman long-distance vessels were also modified to stow large casks, such as corbita merchant ships and the dolia amphora ships. Centuries later, the Portuguese flat-bottomed barco rabelo was designed to carry up to 25 tonnes of port casks down the Douro River. In France, the Charente River’s gabarres boats carried Cognac and wine to the port of La Rochelle, while marnois boats plied the Marne River and the Gallo-Roman chalands on the Loire River into the 20th century.

The method of cask stowage on boats was called bilge and cantline stacking: placing casks on top of one another, lying side by side with the bung hole facing up. To secure heavy cargo, the method of dunnage lay loose wood planks and wedges (quoins) at the bottom of the ship’s haul, up to three deep, to fit the vessel’s tonnage, with further soft packing inserted to cushion the casks. More than three deep, the weight of full casks pressing down risked splitting or damaging the staves. The Scotch industry later borrowed the term dunnage to describe this cask storage method in agricultural sheds and low-rise warehouses.

Cask capacities and terminology throughout Europe varied according to the place’s customs, agents and producers, and local authorities’ constantly shifting regulatory tableaus. Many jurisdictions sought to harmonise similar capacities for commerce compliance as trade expanded. By 1766, there were more than 100 measures for grain in different Western European ports, regions and countries. For liquor, regional variations and terms echoed in Iberian customer orders for port wine pipes in 1795, classified as large at 332 gallons (for whale oil), small wine at 223 gallons, long-coopered at 118, and common at 98 gallons. Lisbon wine was 140 gallons, Madeira 110, and sherry 120. Casks also varied by goods contained, such as fish species, grain type, oil source, and class of liquor. From the first millennium, some standardisation on size began to be enforced in many European states to prevent fraud, accommodate stowage by ship and carriage, and simplify customs duty and trade transactions. The Vintners Guide in 1771 standardised shipping of sherry butts for foreign trade at 550 litres. Regulating international trade and the British Empire’s hegemony by the 18th century encouraged collaboration on common sizes and terminology.

Traditional cask-carrying boats on the River Douro, Portugal.

Over the centuries, governments and producers modified legal capacities for different classifications of goods. In Britain, liquor – such as ale, beer, wine, and later types of spirits – was controlled by various authorities (courts, guilds, governments) and jurisdictions (City of London, England, Scotland, Ireland). England under King Alfred created the Anglo-Saxon Winchester measure throughout the realm in 871, modified to the French-influenced Anglo-Norman version after 1066. The wine hogshead (another Celtic term, ‘togsaid’) entered officialdom after the Magna Carta set the assize at 60 gallons, a century later, to around 50 gallons. Henry IV, in 1408, ordered members of the Fraternity of Coopers to present their marked casks to the Chamber of London to ensure quality of manufacture and correct size. In 1423 the ‘hoggeshede’ became 63 gallons, revised in 1497 under King Henry VII, and again in 1510, to the ‘hoggeshead’ at 54 gallons. March 1707 saw Queen Anne change the wine gallon capacity to 231 cubic inches, from Queen Elizabeth’s 271 cubic inches in 1601. In June 1824, the new imperial weights and measures made the hogshead 52.5 gallons. In metric Scotland today, a hogshead can range from the standard 52.5 imperial gallons (239 litres) to the dump hogshead with extra ex-bourbon staves at 56 gallons (255 litres), and even the wine hogshead of 65 gallons (295 litres).

By the turn of the 19th century, whisky distilleries and wholesalers were reusing disgorged wine and brandy casks shipped from Europe, especially the pipe, butt, puncheon and hogshead. Other regional capacities used for whisky storage were the Madeira drum (650 litres) and the Spanish gorda (700 litres) – the latter being the maximum cask capacity permissible for maturation after the Scotch Whisky Act 1988.

Tun, tonnage and tonne terms

The water of life, in Latin aqua vitae, or Gaelic uisge beatha (anglicised to whisky), the tun and ton also have the same etymological root, only varying in orthography. The ‘ton’ first appeared in the 1199 English statute by King John under ‘tonellum vini’, setting the price for a tun of wine. In 1423, the ‘tun’ officially became 252 old gallons equating to 2,240 pounds avoirdupois, the Anglo-Norman for ‘goods of weight’. The tun equates to the long old ton at 1,016 kilograms and the modern metric tonne at 1,000 kilograms. Hence, tonnage, the global standard for shipping, originally meant the customs duty on a tun of wine. By 1718, it represented the internal capacity, or the volume of a vessel’s cargo, shaping the economic history of trade. In other countries, the term tun referred to very large casks, such as Germany’s extraordinary 1751 Heidelberg tun, capable of holding 221,726 litres of wine. In Britain, whisky distillers adopted the mash tun from brewers. After breweries began upscaling production in the Middle Ages, a mash tun described large tubs or keeves for mashing cereal.

A book illustration of a 16th-century German cooper. Credit: Nuernberger Hausbuecher

Anachronisms and the modern whisky barrel

American colonies followed the British system; however, individual colonies passed variations in weights and measures reflecting parochial customs and local fungibles such as trade in native corn. When Britain moved to the new imperial system in June 1824, America retained the Queen Anne system, which remains today. In the second half of the 18th century, American whisky casks, called barrels, used smaller capacities for stowage and cartage on back-country roads and riverways. The average capacity grew from a 32-gallon ale barrel to a 42-gallon whisky barrel. After drilling oil in Pennsylvania in 1857, the oil was transported in 42-gallon barrels (English tierce), the standard capacity for the local whisky industry. Barrels were abandoned as inefficient by the late 1870s, but the 42 US gallon unit is still used as the global measurement by the oil industry.

In the late 19th century, US barrels averaged 46 gallons, accommodating the new rickhouse racking system, modes of transport, trade transactions and maturation norms. With no regulations on legal capacities, distilleries sourced barrels by cooperage modality and unit cost. After Prohibition, the barrel continued to range from 42 to 48 gallons.

The US government’s Interstate Commerce Commission established manufacturing efficiencies during the Second World War, mandating the 50 US gallon as the standard barrel capacity in June 1943 by setting the common stave length unit of 34 inches. Cooperages later made up to three gallons’ allowance for headspace to assist distilleries with maturation. US federal law defines whisky as stored in ‘oak containers’, not barrels, nor do regulations set minimum or maximum capacities. In May 1944, the first ex-bourbon barrel staves began shipping to Scotland from Maslow’s Brooklyn cooperage. Two decades later, more than a million shooked or loose staves landed in Scotland. Today, ex-bourbon wood represents more than 90 per cent of first-fill casks. Many are recoopered into Scottish hogsheads by adding staves to suit the subtleties of softer barley-based new make and Scotland’s cooler maturation conditions.

In bonded warehouses worldwide, nearly 60 million oak casks lie in storage, maturing the whisky of the future. The oak, above all species, serves as the ideal wood that produces the most desirable flavour additives for whisky. The Celts held the noble oak trees as sacred, calling them ‘daru’ or ‘perq’, the etymological root to oak in the Linnaean specie nomenclature, Quercus. The descendants of the beer-drinking Celts were the first to distil beer into proto-whisky in the 13th century, followed by their Anglo-Celtic and Gaelic cousins in the British Isles. It is fitting that this amorphous culture which invented the cask, and started whisky distilling, remains deeply implanted in our whisky language and on our palates.
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