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Whisky Casks: The Hogshead

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After barrels, hogsheads are the second-most common type of cask used in maturing Scotch whisky. A hogshead, or ‘hoggie’, is a unique type of reconstructed cask with extra staves and new ends. Considered the most popular aging mechanism, it allows for more whisky to be stored in the same amount of warehouse space, though with less wood contact than the common American Standard Barrel.

What Is A Hogshead?

A Hogshead is an approximately 250 liter oak barrel used for the maturation of Scotch whisky. It’s common for coopers to break down five ex-bourbon barrels into staves and reassemble them with new ends to make a hogshead, or hoggie. It is made from oak, which imparts flavors of vanilla, coconut, and spice to the whisky as it ages. Hogshead casks are often used to age single malt whisky, as they are large enough to hold the product of a single distillation run. In addition to their size and the type of wood they are made from, hogshead casks are also distinguished by their shape. They are typically longer and narrower than other types of whisky barrels, which can help to concentrate the flavors of the whisky as it ages.

Why Bourbon Barrels

Former bourbon barrels are extremely popular for the maturation of whisky, because American distilleries are only allowed to use them once for storage by law. In addition to being readily availabile and reasonably priced, their taste properties are also prized providing notes of vanilla, toffee and caramel, in addition to the tannic carbonous flavourings.

Most of the ex-bourbon barrels are not shipped in one piece from the USA to Scotland - the costs would be too high, because the barrels are empty, bulky and take up a lot of space. For cost reasons, they are usually disassembled into their individual parts and sent on their way packed in sea containers. They could be reassembled as is, or be rebuilt to be slightly larger.

While the American Standard Barrel (ASB) usually has a volume of around 200 liters the Hogshead barrel is rebuilt to a volume of between 225 to 250 liters allowing a few liters more whisky to mature in the barrel without affecting the stability of the cask. In most cases assembled from ex-bourbon barrels, while Sherry casks can be used to make Hogsheads this is in practice quite rare.

How are hogshead barrels made?

Making a hogshead cask from bourbon barrels is a multi-step process that involves selecting the barrels, preparing the barrels for use, and then constructing the hogshead cask. First, the barrels are selected based on the desired characteristics of the finished product. The barrels used for making hogshead casks are typically ex-bourbon barrels, which have been previously used to age bourbon whiskey. These barrels are chosen for their distinctive flavor and aroma, which will be imparted to the finished product. Next, the barrels are prepared for use by removing the tops and bottoms, and then cutting the barrels into the desired shape and size. This typically involves using a saw to cut the barrels into long staves, which will be used to construct the hogshead cask. Once the barrels have been prepared, the staves are assembled into the hogshead cask. This typically involves securing the staves together using wooden or metal hoops, and then sealing the cask with reeds or similar sealant.

As the the ex-bourbon barrels are shipped as flat packed staves from the USA to Scotland they must be rebuilt by a Scottish cooperage such as the tourable Speyside Cooperage. At this time, some additional staves are added to the barrels, so that the ASB barrel with a volume of around 200 liters becomes a hogshead barrel with a volume of 225 to 250 liters. The Speyside Cooperage has been making and repairing oak casks since 1947 in more or less the same fashion that coopers have for the past 5,000 years. The largest independent cooperage in the U.K., Speyside, also has branches in Ohio and Kentucky, and often trades casks with other business.

Types of wood used to make Hogsheads

While a hogshead is almost always made using former American Standard Barrells it is possible to build a Hoggie out of American oak (Quercus alba), European Oak (Quercus robar) or Spanish Oak (Quercus falcata). American Oak is prozed for multiple reasons, in part the price and availability but also because it has much denser and contains more vanillin.

One of the main differences between American and European oak is their chemical composition. American oak has a higher concentration of vanillin, a compound that contributes to the characteristic vanilla flavors often found in whisky. European oak, on the other hand, has a higher concentration of compounds called lactones, which give whisky its characteristic coconut and fruity flavors. Another difference between the two types of oak is their density. American oak is typically denser than European oak, which means that the whisky will have have a lower angels share during the maturation process. American oak typically imparts more robust and assertive flavors in the final whisky. European oak, on the other hand, tends to impart more subtle and nuanced flavors. Overall, the choice of American or European oak for whisky cask production depends on the desired flavor profile for the final product. American oak is often used for whisky with bold and assertive flavors, while European oak is typically used for whiskies with more delicate and nuanced flavors.

What Is The Origin Of The Word Hogshead?

Gregory’s Chronicle of London (1460) makes reference to a ‘hoggys hedys of wyne’. while in 1483, Likewise a statute from the court of Richard III specified that a ‘hogshead’ referred to a wine cask containing 63 ‘wine-gallons’ [52.5 Imperial gallons or, in metric terms, 243 litres]. The exact origin is alas, like the origin of whisky itself unfortunately lost to the ages.

The word Hogshead is most likely derived from the unit of measurement Oxhoft, which was a common volume measure for wine and beer at the time. Another possibility is found in the Gaelic tocsaid, itself the word for a cask derived from tog meaning ‘to brew.

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