Friday 7 December 2007

Butts, hogsheads, pipes and puncheons

Before the European Union forced the bottling of drinks in their country of origin, the wine merchants of the British Isles imported sherry, port, rum and other commodities by the cask.

Once the contents were sold the merchants often bought the fresh output of the whiskey distilleries, refilled the casks and left the spirit to mature in their own bonded warehouses.

Such refilled casks are still crucial to the aging process. These days, however, they are imported almost dry while the liquid they once contained makes its way separately in glass bottles.

There were many types of cask with wonderful names that depended on their size, contents and where they had come from.

We still see these names on whiskey labels today: "aged in a single sherry hogshead", "finished in port pipes", and so on.

Definitions are a little awkward because these are very old measures and come from a time when the volume of a gallon varied depending on the liquid being measured. In 1824, when England finally standardised the gallon (to be known as the "imperial" gallon), they made it different to the US gallon.

We can be reasonably correct in saying the following, however. A "butt" and a "pipe" hold the same quantity, either of which contains twice the amount in a "hogshead".

A "puncheon" (also called a "firkin") holds about a third more than a hogshead.

Another type that one hears about in whiskey circles is the "quarter cask". They are not typically used, due to the cost of using small, expensively crafted casks. But distilleries do experiment with them, including, apparently, Cooley. I believe the cask being quartered is the butt. So a quarter cask is half a hogshead. I'm open to correction.

Does cask size matter? It does. The smaller the cask, the more rapidly the whiskey ages because proportionately more liquid is in contact with the wood.

For fun, here are a few definitions from The Dictionary of Trade, Commerce and Navigation, published in London in 1844. Along with the terms mentioned above, I have included a few more to indicate that the variety in wooden casks was greater than even that indicated on whiskey labels.

I also added "back" and "tun". These terms for large wooden vessels have also survived in the whiskey industry, though not in the context of maturation. We will cover them later.

The gallons are imperial (1 imperial gal = 1.2 US gals).

A liquid measure originating at Amsterdam containing 10.25 gallons English. The anker is the cask used by smugglers hence we hear of an anker of brandy or more familiarly tub of brandy; half this measure is called with us a pin.


A cask of a very large size, as of 3, 4, or 500 gallons. The makers of such backs are called back makers and not coopers. Backs have been made so large as to hold 12,000 barrels. Such are used principally in breweries and distilleries to hold spirits, beer or water.


A wooden vessel made by the cooper of staves bound together by hoops and closed at both ends. Also a measure of capacity for liquids. A Barrel of Beer is equal to 36 gallons.


A vessel or measure for wine, beer, etc. containing two hogsheads and varying in quantity according to the kind of wine.


A measure of capacity containing 52.5 imperial gallons or 63 old wine gallons and 54 old beer gallons. A hogshead is also a nominal quantity and varies in exact amount according to the contents. The word hogshead in this more extended sense referring rather to the vessel than to the liquid within it. Thus the hogsheads in which different kinds of wine are imported differ very materially in capacity.


A liquid measure chiefly used for wine and spirits and varying much in quantity according to the kind of wine which it contains. The standard pipe is equal to 2 hogsheads or 108 gallons but few casks are found of this exact capacity. The term pipe, and its equivalent, butt, no less than its half, the hogshead, being now considered as specifying a particular kind of cask rather than any determinate quantity. Thus, the pipe of port is equal to 115 imperial gallons; pipe of Lisbon 117 gallons; pipe of Cape or Madeira 92 gallons; pipe of Teneriffe 100 gallons; butt of sherry 108 gallons; hogshead of claret 46 gallons. Purchasers are always charged the actual quantity the vessel contains.


A liquid measure of capacity equal in general to 84 gallons but varying slightly with different liquors. The largest sized cask in which rum is imported is called a rum puncheon whatever be its size.


A measure indicating 42 gallons or a cask of about that capacity. The tierce is used for oil and still more for the packing of salted beef or pork for ship's use.


A liquid measure = 252 gallons.