Last Updated on March 14, 2023 by Lydia Martin
Whiskeys have a long tradition with production dating back to as early as the 1400s and an even longer list of requirements for production.
Something else you’ve probably noticed is that most distilleries use 53 gallons whiskey barrels. So is this part of the requirements, too? We’ll let you know in a second.
What Is A Whiskey Barrel?
A whiskey barrel is a hollow cylindrical container that is used to hold whiskey for the maturation period. It is traditionally made from wooden staves and bound by metal hoops, but some modern casks are made from aluminum, stainless steel, and even different types of plastic. Standard whiskey barrels hold 53 US gallons.
Some older barrels from the 19th century were bound by wooden hoops instead but eventually upgraded to metal when they realized that metal was more durable and took up less space.
Nowadays, wooden casks are used for holding and maturing liquor, but back then, these containers held meat, fish, honey, grains, paint, and even gunpowder and were a crucial part of international commerce as they ferried across oceans.
Why Whiskey Barrels Hold 53 Gallons
There are no regulations when it comes to the cask sizes for maturation. Most casks in distilleries have the standard size of 53 US gallons. In Britain, the unit imperial gallon is used.
Wooden casks that were in circulation before World War Two held only 48 US gallons, but when the war happened, resources became extremely scarce. Distilleries had to be creative and think of a solution so that the barrels could hold more volume yet cut back on the lumber.
The distillers came up with adding a small amount of timber to each cask to make it hold an additional five gallons for the war effort. This small change in cask sizes also did not require them to upgrade their racks in the rickhouses (which would’ve required plenty of lumber), as the distillery racks still comfortably held the bigger casks.
The distillers also noted that 53 gallons cask sizes did not pose a problem in structural integrity and provided the optimum liquid to cask surface ratio to effectively age whiskey. Even after the war, distillers never went back to using 48-gallon bourbon casks.
Various Cask Sizes
U.S. Gallons: 53
The American standard bourbon barrels are the foundation of the whiskey industry since American whiskey must be aged in charred new barrels for flavor. The surplus of used American white oak barrels is utilized in whiskey and also other food and spirits.
U.S. Gallons: 185
Gorda is one of the biggest bourbon barrels and is almost extinct. These large casks are more than triple the size of the American standard, and the thick American oak staves are very difficult to char.
U.S. Gallons: 172
The short and squat madeira drum is hardly used for whiskey maturation but as a spirit finishing cask. It’s made with French oak.
U.S. Gallons: 126 to 132
Liters: 478 to 500
The sherry butt, made from European oak, is taller than the American standard and is one of the most popular wine barrels used for aging sherry.
U.S. Gallons: 259
The English tun is the largest in barrels and is almost twice the size of a sherry butt unit.
U.S. Gallons: 172
Port pipe whiskey casks are usually seen in the port wine industry. Its shape is long and narrow and is made from European oak.
U.S. Gallons: 59 to 66
Liters: 225 to 250
Hogsheads are the second most popular whiskey barrels and are commonly used for maturing the spirit scotch. They are made from repurposed American standards. The term “hogshead” is derived from the 15th century English term “hogges hede,” which literally translates to 63 gallons.
Why Manufacturers Used 48 Gallons Before WWII
Our ancestors have been using barrels since the 1700s since they were easy to produce. Barrels were watertight, meaning there wasn’t any risk of leakage and light enough to be rolled and stacked one on top of the other.
Before World War Two, 48 gallons was the standard size. Employees in food and beverage factories found this cask size easy to roll and handle when it needed to be transported.
How much do whiskey barrels weigh?
An empty whiskey barrel weighs 90 to 110 pounds, which is about 40 to 50 kilograms.
How many bottles are in a whiskey barrel?
The standard 53-gallon size is expected to produce around 100 to 200 750ml bottles of whiskey.
How much does a barrel of whiskey cost?
You can buy entire barrels of whiskey that the distillery will store and mature just for you. Prices will vary depending on the cask used and the whiskey itself. Here is a list of whiskey sold by the barrel. 
It’s interesting to know how ingenious our ancestors were when the situation called for it. Who would’ve thought that by adding just a bit of timber for more volume, they would be able to upgrade the whiskey barrels to a highly usable state of 53 gallons that are still favored today?
Lydia Martin hails from Redmond, Washington, where you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars and distilleries that offer a great mix of local drinks. She used to work as a bar manager in Paris and is a self-taught mixologist whose passion for crafting unique cocktails led her to create Liquor Laboratory. Lydia can whip up a mean Margarita in seconds! Contact at [email protected] or learn more about us here.