Monday, December 22, 2008

Why's a bourbon barrel 53 gallons?

That's what Tom "Yours For Good Fermentables" Cizauskas asked me last week. Is there a legal standard for the size of a bourbon barrel, or are they all right around 53 gallons (little more, little less because each barrel is hand-assembled from staves of varying size) because of some ancient measurement?

I didn't know, so I told him I'd try to find out. I asked Larry Kass, the director of communications at Heaven Hill. Larry asked the folks at Independent Stave, and also asked the guy I should have gone directly to: Mike Veach, the closest thing bourbon has to an over-arching 'corporate memory.' Mike's an avid researcher, and a tireless advocate of funding for a bourbon archive and historical center. Here's his answer, sent through Larry:
As far as the barrels are concerned, this is what I have always heard: The barrels used to be a standard 48 gallons and that is the size the warehouse ricks was designed for storing. During the Second World War wood became scarce for cooperage and the decision was to increase the gallon size of the barrels to save wood and space in the warehouses - and to save cost as well but that was not the main point at the time.
The size of 53 gallons was the largest that they could make to fit in the standard ricks without making the structure of the barrel weak causing leaks. Now this information came from an article that was based upon second hand sources, but it does seem the most logical explanation. I was told by some warehouse workers that they thought if they made it larger, it would also be too hard to handle while rolling. They said the old 48 gallon barrels were much easier to handle, so the increased size made the barrels more difficult to roll. That could also have played a part in the size of 53 gallons.

So there you go. Makes sense. Thanks to Mike, to Larry, and to Tom for asking an interesting question.


Matt said...

Begs the question, why is a beer barrel 31 gallons (or 36 UK gallons)? Never thought about it...

Anonymous said...

Or, for that matter,why are beer bottles 12 ozs? And whisk(e)y bottles are a fifth of what exactly? Enquiring minds want to know! Can of worms here, or possibly, an interesting article or three.

Anonymous said...

What a great topic! There are those American distilleries (my recurring Dillinger of Ruffsdale, PA among them) that never used ricks, but instead chose to stack barrels on barrels: that is, they rolled a line of barrels into the warehouse, placed something equivalent to 4X4s on top of the first row, then rolled another line of barrels atop those, then more 4X4s, and a final third row of barrels. (See the cover of this issue of Malt Advocate for a great photo of warehouse number 13 at BenRiach that does the same, still today). The warehouse floors, much like the Scotch, were shorter than today. That's how many old-line U.S. distilleries did it, and the size of the cooperage wouldn't have affected this configuration as much as a rick system, but the differences remained nonetheless.

Many thanks to Mike for his insight into this subject!

Anonymous said...

"And whisk(e)y bottles are a fifth of what exactly?"

They used to be 1/5 of a gallon. They are now metric measures. Google says 750 ml = 0.198129039 US gallons, which is very close to 1/5.

Why 1/5 of a gallon was chosen is beyond me.

Lew Bryson said...

I suspect that it's a fifth of a gallon instead of a quart because liquor companies could sell five "bottles" at that size instead of four. Even today, we have 750s and liter bottles...why? Weird.


Zythophile suggests" "The US gallon is based on the old British "wine gallon" of 231 cubic inches, against the Imperial gallon, which is 277 cubic inches.

Wine came in pipes of 126 wine gallons, equal to 105 Imperial gallons, and a hogshead of wine was thus 63 wine gallons - halve that again, and round it down, and you end up with the US barrel, 31 (US or "wine") gallons."

More at:

SidneyBroadshead said...

When British merchants shipped wine and liquor in bottles, they were taxed by the gallon but were sold by the half-dozen or dozen to a case. To equal a dozen to the gallon they used a measurement called the Reputed Pint (1/12 of a Wine Gallon rather than 1/8) and a half-dozen to a gallon was a Reputed Quart (1/6 of a Wine Gallon rather than 1/4). The bottles were the same size and shape for beer, despite it being based on a different standard gallon, because the bottles were usually reused.

A Reputed Wine Pint was 10.66 oz. [315 ml]. A Reputed Wine Quart was 21.33 oz. [630 ml]. The Later Imperial measurement system introduced in 1824 had its fluid gallon based on the Beer Gallon. An Imperial Reputed Pint was 13.33 Imperial oz. [378 mL] and an Imperial Reputed Quart was 26.66 oz. [756 ml].

There was often confusion between a Reputed Quart, Reputed Imperial Quart, and standard Imperial Quart. Merchants had to advertise and post which measurement system they used to avid being accused of fraud. Eventually the British Empire abandoned Reputed measures altogether and went with standard Imperial in the early 20th century.

Since the British Empire was the largest global market, the United States used equivalent measurements. A Tenth of a US fluid gallon was 12.8 US fl oz or 13.33 Imperial oz. [378 ml]. A Fifth of a US fluid gallon was equal to 25.6 US fl oz or 26.64 Imperial oz. [757 ml]. The liquor industry referred to a Tenth as a "Commercial Pint" and a Fifth as a "Commercial Quart" up until metrication.

SidneyBroadshead said...

A standard metric whiskey barrel is 200 liters. 200 liters is a little bit less than 53 US gallons [200.627 liters].