What’s a Hogshead For Whisky Aging?

| January 24, 2022

These days, most Scotch is matured in ex-bourbon casks. They’re inexpensive, readily available, and give Scotch whisky a deliciously dry, spicy character. But Scottish distillers aren’t just yanking the bungs out of freshly dumped bourbon barrels and filling them with new make malt. First, many of them transform those barrels into hogsheads, a larger cask size that reduces the ratio of wood surface area to spirit, enabling the longer maturation times and understated oak character that Scotch distillers want.

Barrels are one of the most amazingly designed objects in the world. Made almost entirely from renewable materials, they contain no nails, no adhesives, no glue, and no staples. Only the metal bands on the exterior hold them together. They’re easy for a single person to move, and maximally efficient to store. They have tons of different purposes, can be reused for decades, and can even be rejuvenated by scraping and re-charring the interior, transforming a neutral vessel that’s lost its virtue into a fresh, flavorful container ready to turn new-make spirit into delicious whiskey.

Whisky aging at a Scottish distillery (image via Scotch Whisky Association)

And if that wasn’t enough, they’re modular, too. With a few quick whacks, a cooper can quickly disassemble a barrel down to its component parts so it can be flat packed, shipped around the world, and then reassembled according to the new owner’s needs. Eat your heart out, Ikea.

That’s exactly what happens to bourbon barrels when they make the trek from North America to Scotland for their encore careers. Before they’re sent off, the barrels are disassembled in the United States, broken down into staves, hoops, and heads so cooperages can pack more of them into a single shipping container.

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Across the Atlantic, Scottish coopers unpack the barrel components and reassemble them. But instead of simply putting the pieces back together again, Humpty-Dumpty style, they add more staves to create a cask a bit larger in diameter. Hogsheads hold around 60 gallons, slightly larger than the standard 53-gallon American bourbon barrel. Their larger size reduces the ratio of wood to spirit, resulting in more gentle extraction and a slower maturation time than would take place in a smaller bourbon barrel. It’s like the opposite of the craft distillery trick of aging whiskey in tiny casks.

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Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...