When to use smaller barrels


When it comes to ingredients, whiskey is a fairly simple and straightforward liquid. You can’t use anything other than grain, water, and yeast to produce it. But as soon as it hits the barrel—where it will develop the majority of its flavour— things start to get complicated. There are so many variables at play at this point, from the type of wood used (American Oak, European Oak, ex-bourbon cask, ex-port cask, ex-sherry cask are all popular options), to the prevailing climate of the area in which it ages, and even where it sits in the warehouse; all of these play a major role in shaping the final product inside. 

What are the standard barrels?

Here we’re going to focus on one of the most controversial of these variables: barrel size. Specifically, we’re going to let you know why we incorporate smaller barrels into our maturation process, and how it helps nurture the complexities in our award-winning whiskey. The vast majority of bourbon, rye, scotch and Irish Whiskey all age in casks of around 200 litres in size, though port pipes and sherry butts are much larger—ranging up to 500 litres for the latter. 

These larger vessels are standard for a reason. They offer an ideal ratio of surface area to volume for a slowly maturing spirit. That is, the amount of whiskey in contact with the inside of the barrel—the precise point where flavour extraction from the wood occurs—is at a level that favours patient ageing. Because with certain types of distillate, particularly those that are high in corn, it’s not just about what the wood is putting in, it’s about what the wood is taking out—namely some of those fusel alcohols that can cause a fire sensation on the palate. 

Finishing Barrels

After primary maturation has concluded, many of the most exciting whiskeys on the planet today are exposed to a secondary process known as ‘finishing.’ And it’s in this stage that the introduction of smaller vessels can be critical to success. In the Scotch industry, many master blenders rely on ‘quarter casks’ (about a quarter the size of a 500 litre sherry butt) to deliver more interaction with wood than a standard cask, but still allow for prolonged time in the warehouse. 

When you go smaller than that with your casks, you can supercharge flavour development during the finishing process, but you also run the risk of infusing too much wood flavour into the liquid. You avoid that latter outcome through an intimate knowledge of how any particular ageing vessel works and through meticulous monitoring throughout the ageing—we’re talking barrel sampling up to several times a day in the warehouse. And that’s how The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. is able to introduce Octaves (50 litre casks providing robust interaction between wood and spirit) as well as Blood-tubs (the smallest and most tricky cask of them all) with expert effect.

The Skill of a Chef

Think of an intense spice such as saffron, turmeric, saffron. These flavour additives can easily ruin a dish when applied haphazardly. In the hands of a world class chef, however, they inform and inspire Michelin-calibre cuisine. It’s no coincidence that The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. founder and Master Blender Jay Bradley was a world class chef before entering the whiskey business. He knows how to work with flavour on a precise level. It’s not an easy process, and it comes at a steep price (beyond that of just a tipsy taster). Yet it is unquestionably worth the investment when you taste the end result. 

An award-winning result

The proof is in the judging. At the World Whiskies Awards in March 2022, The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. was named the world’s Best Irish Single Malt for its inaugural release, The Devil’s Keep. It’s incredibly rare recognition for a newcomer in the business and testament to the talented maturation team that’s crafting those magical liquids. This is just the beginning though. As is so often the case with whiskey, we’re getting better with age.