Let’s talk about using SMALL BARRELS to age whisky: Does size matter?

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Casks that are used to mature whisky come in all kinds of sizes – you’ve got 500 litre sherry butts and port pipes, 320 litre puncheons, 250 litre hogsheads, 195 litre bourbon barrels and 80 litre quarter casks, among others. Whisky is usually aged in large casks, and used bourbon barrels are very popular. 

Fill a small barrel with whisky, and there is a greater ratio of wood to whisky than there would be in larger barrels. The more maturing whisky touches the wood surface of oak barrels, the more quickly it can react with the wood and extract its flavours.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, as the name obviously suggests, is made from whisky that has spent some time aging in quarter casks (after being transferred from standard ex-bourbon barrels). According to Laphroaig, using the smaller casks creates a ‘soft and velvety edge’ in the whisky.

Used correctly, quarter casks can help create great whisky. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is proof of that!

But, can a cask or barrel be too small to age whisky and just make whisky taste “woody” rather than “mature”?

The American bourbon distillery Buffalo Trace experimented with small barrels some years ago, filling 5, 10 and 15 gallon barrels with the same mash bill ‘around the same time, and aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years’. The results, Buffalo Trace reported, ‘were less than stellar’. In its media release, Buffalo Trace wrote:

“Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor…. “As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons.”

I remember chatting with a distiller from Tasmania who experimented with using small barrels to age his whisky, and he felt that the whisky did not end up tasting quite right… to him.  

I’ve tasted about a dozen spirits that have aged in small 10 litre and 20 litre barrels. Most didn’t hit the spot. In some, there was a superficial veil of splintery wood cloaking what seemed like young harsh booze.

I liked two of them, though.

One was brandy aged in a medium charred 20 litre virgin Hungarian oak cask for three years, and what I got from it was a flavour profile filled with vanilla, peppery spices, balsamic and cocoa; blind tasting it alongside a VS Cognac, the brandy aged in the 20 litre barrel was noticeably less fruity but more pungent with wood aromatics dominating.  

The other was whiskey, made from malted barley, and aged in a heavily charred 20 litre virgin American oak barrel for 3 years – that very dark, almost opaque, liquid filled the room with burnt caramel, honey, nougat, vanilla and toasted coconut. The flavour profile of the whisky was dominated by the American oak influence, but it was an easy-drinking gem that had a ballsy smack of oak and a backbone of fiery uncomplicated malt.  

Those two gems didn’t quite taste the same as “normal” whisk(e)y or brandy aged in larger barrels, but they were a little wacky, unconventional and went down the hatch without much complaints.

The Timboon distillery in Victoria (Australia) recently filled small 20 litre barrels with whisky, planning to age the whisky until 2020. Then, I’m told, they’ll bottle whisky directly from those small barrels. The barrels are heavily charred and once held port wine.

I spoke with Josh Walker, the owner of Timboon, to get his insights into aging whisky in small barrels.

What flavour profile is Timboon trying to achieve by using these 20 litre barrels (as compared with, say, a 500 litre port pipe or 200 litre barrel) to mature its Australian whisky? Josh says Timboon is looking to get a similar flavour profile to what the larger barrels would give, but ‘with oaky over tones of butterscotch and vanilla from the American Oak’.

‘[I]t can and will “over wood” if you let it go too long’, Josh shares. The risk that small barrels may end up producing whisky that tastes too woody is something Josh concedes, but he says he keeps a close eye on his stash of aging spirit to make sure it doesn’t get overly woody. 

With refreshing honesty, Josh thinks that those he terms “traditionalists” ‘may be right’ when they argue that a whisky matured in small barrels may lack the depth of character that whisky can get when it ages in normal sized barrels.

But, any whisky which is aged in “normal” sized barrels can potentially end up being criticized by the self-ordained whisky gurus of the world as lacking in “depth” or being “over wooded”. One of my favourite whiskies, which is a very popular malt, has been described as “over wooded”. I love its big heavy sherry bomb character. If that is “over wooded”, I like it. Then again, I’ve tasted other single malts that struck me as too woody and splintery, whilst other people love that same malt.

Perhaps the lesson in all this is that, however whisky is made, maybe we shouldn’t knock it until we try it? Taste, after all, is subjective. 

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