How Big Should a Barrel Be?

A lot of interesting discussion ensued after I posted a summary of the TTB’s new proposed regulations for spirits.  Of all the proposed changes, the most controversial seemed to be the definition of oak barrels. 

Under current regulations, whiskey is not actually required to be aged in barrels. It only has to be “stored in oak containers.” The regulations don’t regulate the size or shape of those containers. The only specification is that for bourbon, rye, wheat and malt whiskeys, they have to be “charred new oak containers.”  So you could age your whiskey in anything from a tiny oak cube to a giant oak sphere and it would still be whiskey. 


The new proposed regs change “oak container” to “oak barrel” which is defined as: “A cylindrical oak drum of approximately 50 gallons used to age bulk spirits.”  No one was much concerned with the requirement that the barrels be cylindrical, but there was a lot of consternation about the 50 gallon requirement. 

This regulation seems squarely aimed at craft distillers. In big American distilleries, 53 gallon barrels are fairly standard for aging whiskey, but since the onset of the craft whiskey movement about ten years ago, small barrels have become popular for their perceived faster aging.  The technique is not without controversy – see Chuck Cowdery’s book Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey - but should the use of small barrels be prohibited for anything called whiskey?  

Whiskey writer Heather Greene noted that the barrel size restriction could prohibit distillers from blending batches of whiskeys from different sized barrels.  Some, including cocktail writer David Wondrich, have suggested that, as an alternative to an outright ban, whiskeys aged in smaller barrels could disclose that fact on the label. 

Another issue that was raised is what is meant by “approximately” 50 gallons?  Presumably that would include the 53 gallon barrels, but what about a 40 or 60 gallon barrel?  And aside from the issue of small barrels, it’s worth noting that Scotch is often matured in much larger barrels. The Scotch Whisky regulations allow casks up to 700 liters (about 185 gallons). 

The TTB apparently understood that this proposal might be controversial and specifically requested comments on "whether smaller barrels or non-cylindrical shaped barrels should be acceptable for storing distilled spirits where the standard of identity requires storage in oak barrels.”  So if you feel strongly about this issue, you can let the TTB know.