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Wine Barrel, Whiskey Barrel... What's the Difference?

Above photo by Daniel Vogel on Unsplash

Until now, pretty much the only thing I knew about wine and whiskey barrels was that they’re both round.

Seriously. That’s it. Not being a whiskey aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, I had little interest in researching the subject until I noticed the recent rise in the barrel furniture following. I soon found the topic of these “spirited” barrels to be quite fascinating and one of which I’ll share some very general information I uncovered. Besides that, it's National Wine Day! Hopefully, this will pique your interest in a way that will encourage you to pursue discovering the plethora of information available on these absolutely beautiful, handmade creations.

Wine Barrel Table
A few common barrel terms:

Bung: stopper used to close a hole in a container

Bung Hole: hole in one of the barrel staves used to fill up and empty the barrels

Cooper: one who makes or repairs wooden casks or tubs

Heads (aka “lids”): the ends of barrels

Hoop: a circular band of metal or wood put around a cask or barrel to bind the staves together.

Stave: any of the narrow strips of wood or narrow iron plates placed edge to edge to form the sides, covering, or lining of a vessel (such as a barrel) or structure

Tannin: Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems.

First, there are a few similarities between wine barrels and whiskey barrels:
  • The wood is air-dried for 2-3 years.
  • Both store large quantities of beverage.
  • Those who hand make barrels are called coopers.
  • Barrels are placed over flames resulting in toasted or charred staves.
  • Barrel furniture made its debut when recycling and up-cycling became a factor in environmental friendliness. 


    Differences between the barrels are easy to see:
    Wine Barrels Whiskey Barrels

    Usually made of different woods: American and French oak, redwood, acacia, chestnut.

    Usually made of oak; American oak is the most widely used for whiskey.

    Barrels are toasted over an open flame or oven; toasting refines wine for proper aging.

    Barrels are charred. This changes the nature of the oak to obtain the best possible synergy between the wood and whiskey; adding smoke is not a primary purpose.

    There are  5 levels of toasting: light to heavy
    (heavier toast = stronger barrel flavors)

    Barrels are charred (generally past toasting to partially burning); the inside is black after being charred about ⅛”.
    Toasting adds flavor ranging from vanilla to coconut to caramel that is gently released from the wood. A charred barrel passes on smoky notes as well as caramel, honey, and many spicy accents.
    The correct temperature and time affect some of the phenols, sugars and other compounds which rise to the surface of the wood. There they interact with the wine during the aging process.

    After years of aging, oak enhances the flavor by adding fruity, spicy and smoky aromas over time.

    Wood tannins and wine tannins interact with one another which result in aiding in the mellowing of the wine.

    Charring acts similar to a filter taking out sulfur compounds and reducing the harshness of the whiskey. Char is what adds the darker, amber color to the whiskey.

    General barrel sizes for wine:
    59, 60, 79 gallons

    General barrel size for whiskey: 
    53 gallons

    I truly hope you found this information to be helpful, interesting and intriguing. Let me know what other areas of interest and topics you’d like to see in our posts by sending a quick email to


     Age appears to be best in four things - old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.       ~Francis Bacon

     Josiah on Barrel


    Additional Wine and Whiskey Barrel Resources: