You may not know your hogshead from your puncheon or your hoops from your staves*, but understanding why barrels are so fundamental to whisky makes you a better whisky drinker. We learn all about it in 7 questions with owner-distiller Josh Walker.
If there’s one thing that’ll get a whisky distiller excited, it’s talking about barrels! And there’s good reason for the obsession. They’re essential to making whisky.
In fact, around 70% of what you’re tasting in your dram is from its relationship with the barrel it was matured in.
To get to grips with just how important barrels are to whisky makers and to learn a bit more about the art of distilling, we speak to Josh Walker, owner-distiller at the beautiful Timboon Railway Shed Distillery in Victoria.
1. When you’re thinking about which barrels to use to age your whisky, how much does size play a part?
I think it depends on how far your distillery has been in the game for. Definitely in the early days, getting product to market was a priority, and that then meant using smaller 20-to-100-litre casks.
As we got past that seven-to-nine year mark—and we have now been distilling for 15+ years—we age in mostly 225- and 300-litre barrels. This means a longer maturation time and much better yields per cask.
2. When distillers talk about barrels for ‘finishing’ whisky, what does that mean?
Basically it means that they have filled, for instance, a number of ex-Bourbon casks then chosen to ‘finish it’ in normally a sherry/apera cask to provide another layer of complexity.
It’s very common in Scotland to perform this method as there is an abundance of Bourbon casks and very few sherry casks.
3. When you use an ex-port barrel for your excellent Timboon Port Expression, how much port is actually left in the barrel when you put your new-make in?
Normally less than a litre, if at any at all. Quite often they are dry by the time we open them up for a shave, toast and char.
4. What difference does using American oak vs French oak have on whisky? Do you have a preference?
The difference is substantial. We use American oak for our Port Expression, which provides those extra vanilla, caramel and butterscotch notes.
French oak on the other hand is more known for those spicier notes of cloves etc. We prefer to work with French oak in the cooperage as the barrels are normally a lot better constructed and the grain is easy to work.
As for the final product, my personal preference is French also.
5. Does anyone use anything other than oak for the timber for their barrels?
Yes, Backwoods Distillery from Yackandandah here in Victoria have used a Red Gum cask. I’m lucky enough to have a bottle and it’s bloody good!
6. How many times can you reuse a barrel?
For Timboon, we go to a second fill. We do have some third fills down but more as a trial to see how they fair. So far: mixed results.
We normally move them onto breweries etc after they finish whisky maturation or use them in our rum maturation program as most of the port influence has been drawn from the cask.
7. What’s the biggest challenge for Aussie distillers when it comes to sourcing barrels?
Well, I mean for us it used to be finding someone to re-cooper the barrels to our standards, hence why we installed our own cooperage back in 2019.
We offer the service to other distillers in Victoria and interstate too to help cover the costs of running it. Big distillers will have trouble sourcing top quality fortifieds as there just isn’t enough to suffice them.
As for us, we only need 50 to 70 per year for our own maturation program, so we don’t have to sacrifice quality for quantity.
We’ve also filled a few ex-maple syrup barrels just as a trial. They’re coming along very nicely.
*Hogsheads and puncheons are sizes of barrels.
A hogshead will hold between 225-250 litres and a puncheon 450-500 litres. Staves are the long ‘strips’ of wood that make up the barrel’s sides and the hoops are the metal ‘straps’ that hold it all together.