There are many traditions in the world of whiskey. Some of these traditions have come from techniques that distillers have developed over the years which help them produce a finer whiskey.
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Other traditions are tied to regulations that must be followed to make a whiskey of a certain style.
One common tradition amongst whiskey producers is to use whiskey barrels that hold 53 gallons (200 liters), which is called the US standard barrel.
This article will explain why the US standard barrel has become the most common barrel size amongst whiskey producers.Why do whiskey barrels hold 53 gallons?
There are many legal regulations relating to whiskey production. Tennessee Bourbon whiskey, for example, must be made in Tennessee using a mash that is at least 51% corn, then aged in charred new barrels.
However, when it comes to the size of barrels, there are no regulations in most countries. Interestingly, nearly all distilleries have settled on barrels that hold 53 gallons. Why is it so?
Barrels used to be a crucial part of international commerce. They would be used to carry everything from beer to molasses and grains on ships crossing every ocean on the planet.
Barrels were useful because they were easy to make, watertight, stackable, and could be rolled when placed on their side.
They are still often used to transport spirits today but are less commonly used for other types of cargo.
Before WWII, the standard size of a barrel was 48 gallons. Beverage and food producers found this size easy to handle and roll around the factory floor.
Racks in most distilleries were designed to handle 48 gallon barrels.
When the war arrived, resources became scarce.
Distillery owners had to reduce the amount of timber they were using to produce their whiskey. They changed the shape of the barrel slightly, so it could hold 53 gallons.
This new shape used a small amount of additional timber, but it held an extra 5 gallons — saving valuable resources needed for the war effort.
This new shape also fit racks that were designed for 48 gallon barrels, which meant distilleries wouldn’t have to build new racks.
Distilleries kept using these 53 gallon barrels after the war because they held more liquor, were relatively easy to handle, retained their structural integrity and did not leak.
They also have what many distillers consider to be the optimum liquid to cask surface area ratio for aging whiskey.
Most US standard barrels are made from American white oak or European oak.
Whiskey casks come in many other sizes, including:
Gorda (185 US gallons / 700 liters)
These large casks are usually made from American oak and often used for maturation of whiskey. However, they are not used in to mature Scotch whisky because they are above the maximum permitted cask size.
Madeira Drum (172 gallons / 650 liters)This short, fat cask is made European oak and is often used to age whiskey.
Sherry Butt (126-132 US gallons / 478-500 liters)
Made from European oak, these are long and slender casks. Used sherry butts are often used in the whisky industry to flavor the spirit.
English Tun (259 US gallons / 982 liters)
These massive barrels are exactly 216 imperial gallons, which is twice the size of a butt.
Port Pipe (172 US gallons / 650 liters)
This large cask is made from European oak and often used in the port industry. Scotch whisky producers will sometimes use it to finish their spirit.
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Hogshead (59-66 gallons / 225-250 litres)
Many whiskey distillers will repurpose old bourbon barrels to make large hogshead barrels. These larger casks allow distillers to save space in their aging rooms. It takes 5 normal whiskey barrels to make a single hogshead cask.