Mar 312021

From the largest barrels (probably better called vats, at the left side)…..


Although most of us are aware of the fact that rum, like many other spirits, is aged in barrels, it’s not always clear how large (or small) those barrels actually are, why they are called what they are, or what their original functions were. We just hear “barrels”, visualize a cylindrical container made of of wooden staves held in place by three bands, and think American oak, Limousin, French, amburana, or what have you, and move on. Occasionally we would read something like “refill barrel” or “hogshead” and if we have any more in depth queries, a trip to wikipedia or a specific site 1 can usually clear that right up.

But I think I’m going to go a little deeper today, and examine each type of barrel in its turn, not restrict it to just rums and try and give you some more info. As with many subjects, what on the surface looks to be a fairly straightforward subject is actually rife with all the usual complexities and complications humans seem to love bringing to anything they create. 

Note: barrels are used to hold and/or more than one spirit during their lifetimes, so it will not be strange to find barrels used by makers of whiskies, wines, oils or what have you in this list.

Roman transport of wine jars and barrels

General and historical2

Ever since the first quantity of anything – whether solid or liquid – had to be carried or stored, mankind has invented a container for the purpose (and then a means to measure it).  Primitive man used woven reeds, tree bark, then waterproof containers made of the skins or intestines of animals, then fired mud or clay. 

In the early history of fermented spirits (wine), the clay amphora was the vessel used to store and transport them. Herodotus noted that ancient Mesopotamians used barrels made of palm wood for transport of wine – however, the difficulty of working with palm led to alternatives being explored, and eventually barrels constructed of staves and hoops not dissimilar to those in use today were made (since at least 2600 BC in Egypt – for measuring corn) and have been a feature of western culture for more than two millennia. Barrels made of oak came into widespread use during the time of the Roman Empire and have remained staples of the industry ever since, not just because of their convenience as storage media but because of their impact on the taste of the spirit it stored (which for centuries was wine). 

In China and the far east (including Indonesia), wines and other alcoholic spirits were often stored in earthenware or terracotta (clay) amphorae, but these were fragile and gradually replaced by wooden casks after the arrival of the European colonial powers – though not always of oak…teak was one wood widely used in Indonesia, for example.

Over the last seventy years the development of shipping containers, stainless steel vats and steel/plastic drums has rendered the wooden barrel or cask obsolete as a container for transport.  However, the oak barrel’s use as an ageing medium for spirits remains completely unaffected. 

The shape of a barrel is defined by two simple physical properties: the bulging middle allows them to be more easily rolled and turned whether full or empty; and the rounded construction transfers pressure well, allowing them to be stacked in a way square edged construction would not. Also, white oak is the preferred medium for spirits barrels, both because it is not as piney or resin-y as other woods (it is relatively neutral, not bitter), it is also more waterproof after treatment and transfers flavours like vanillin better, especially when charred. There’s loads more technical data around this subject – I’m just scratching the surface, really – but for now, this will suffice.

Units of measure 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Barrels are a very old form of container, and the further back we go, the more we diverge from the metric system: then we run into imperial and localized units of measure, differences between nations (e.g. US or UK), or the purpose of what the barrel is meant to contain, which impacts measurements down to modern times. Every culture had its measurements bases and units, often related to physical norms, such as measurements of the human body, the carrying or hauling capacity of man or animal, or the relationship of volume and weight.  Unsurprisingly, standardization was a constant problem and volumetric containers like barrels were no exception.

For example, a US dry barrel may be considered 115.6 liters, but also 7,056 cubic inches or 3.28 US bushels, or “exactly” 26.25 US dry-gallons (and we won’t even go into the interior and exterior measurements, lengths or thicknesses of staves, diameter of head, distance between heads, size of bulge and on and on). To add to the confusion, barrels of cornmeal, sugar, cement, flour, butter or salt are defined by weight (and different ones for each, mind you) not volume. 

Fluid barrels are also different because they vary according to the particular liquid being measured…and where that’s happening (again, mostly US and UK).  They can variously be measured in US gallons or imperial, be defined whether it’s containing beer, oil, or other liquids, or with reference to other supposedly “standard” sizes, like “half a hogshead” or a “euro-keg.”

For the sake of this essay I’m going to mostly stick with the western barrels and not all  other containers of measure that have existed throughout history in other cultures and times. Also, I’ll refer to all measurements in liters (with notes on US/UK/other sizes), and reflect fluid barrels, not dry weight or other purposes. Lastly, barrels specific to goods like gunpowder, flour, pork or corn are excluded.

Wine foudres

Tun (~ 950-1000 liters, Old English 252 wine gallons, two “pipes”)

Of all the wooden containers grouped under the blanket term of barrels and used in the spirits industry, the tun is one of the largest, being considered in modern times to be around one thousand liters, depending on what is being measured (though it should be observed that there are larger wooden vessels used in other spirits, noted below). It is also an extremely old word, dating back to the Old Norse and Middle Irish word tunna which denoted any cask or a barrel, and may have derived from the Old Irish tonn which meant skin, or wineskin. It was therefore a word with relationships to both volume and weight (though aspects of even older words with connotations of enclosing also exist). It was a measure of liquid volume.

The tun itself was a large vessel for storing and shipping primarily wine, honey and oil, and for measuring large volumes of beer or ale – I’m not entirely sure if it was discontinued for rum and whiskey industries, but nowadays it is considered an antiquated term for a large barrel and has faded from the common speech. It use survives in the names of containers known as the lauter tun and the mash tun, both used in the beer brewing industry

The volume-holding definition of a tun has never been strictly standardized. Nowadays, in the US customary system, the tun is defined as 252 US fluid gallons (about 954 litres), and in the imperial system, it is 210 imperial gallons (about 955 litres). The French have a similar Brobdingnagian cask called a Bordeaux tonneau, which holds 900 liters, or 1200 wine bottles, though its size can vary down to 500 liters (see picture).

The fluid volume of a tun was somewhat settled on, when, during the early 1500s, efforts were made in England to standardize weights and measures and volumes which were often so localized as to be useless – in 1507 a tun was 240 gallons of oil or wine, but could also be 208, 240 or 256 gallons (the latter seems to have been the most common). Finally, during Henry VIII’s reign (1509-1547) a tun was fixed as the equivalent of 252 wine gallons (~954 liters), or two pipes, a number which facilitated easy division by smaller integers and which had a mass of approximately one long ton. Later, when wine gallons were redefined in 1707 as 231 cubic inches, and the imperial system was adopted in 1824, both this (210 imperial gallons) and the US system (252 US or “Queen Anne” gallons) still worked out to 954 liters. Note that in the beer industry the tun was sometimes said to have 1150 liters based on 252 imperial gallons and there are references elsewhere that say the thing holds 982 liters…so it’s not as if there is a final number to speak of here.

The sherry industry has no such standardized barrel, but their tonel (the name can’t be a coincidence) is 800-2000 liters in capacity and therefore shares DNA with the huge foudres and muids of the French wine industry, both of which also exceed 1000 liters and can go as large as 5000 liters. Note also the use of the non-barrel-shaped Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC), which are modern, re-useable, multi-use container used for mass handling and shipping of liquids, semi-solids, and solids. 

Gorda (700 liters, 185 US gallons, 154 Imperial gallons)

This huge barrel has fallen out of favour in the Scotch whisky industry, since its capacity is close to the maximum permitted barrel size of 700 liters.  It is closely identified with American whiskey which continues to utilize it on a limited basis, usually for blending purposes.

Nowadays it is not common — being nearly three times the size of an American Standard Barrel, it’s simply too large (the name itself is Spanish for “fat”), and this creates problems for short term ageing (less surface area contact with the liquid). Also, it is difficult to char properly with existing equipment, problematic to move easily, and even more difficult rack in a warehouse given their weight when filled. That said, the large capacity makes it useful for producing blended, vatted whiskies.

Again, the sherry industry has a cask shorter and fatter than the 600 liter bota gorda (fat cask), called a bocoy.  This is usually around 700 liters capacity, and is therefore similar to the 700-800 liter tonelete, a small tonel.

Leaguer (~680 liters / 150 imperial gallons (varies))

A leaguer is another large cask, but seems to have less connection to the British spirits industry and more of the storage of water on board sailing ships and Dutch measurement systems from the 1700s. An archaic word, it has faded from common usage and can only be found in a few nautical references, many of which contradict each other. 

For example, wikipedia has no direct entry for it but mentions that a 33-foot launch from 1804 (a launch was the largest boat carried by a warship or merchantman in the age of sail) could carry 14 leaguers of 680 liters each; Nelson’s body was supposedly preserved in a leaguer (filled with brandy, not rum); the wordnik page calls it (erroneously, in my view) a tun, and states it as being 159 gallons without attribution, though this might come from the OED (shorter edition); the Society of Nautical Research has various sources in the conversation that define it as 250 gallons, 159 gallons or 190 wine gallons of water. Note that a leaguer was generally agreed by all modern sources to be outside of the subdivided tun-butt-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel system.

That said, its origin is from the old Dutch word legger, part of the now-obsolete 17th century Dutch and South African measurement of capacity for wine and spirits which was finally abandoned in 1922. In this system, fluid measurements were related to the standard kanne (a can) of 11/32 Dutch gallons (1.329 liters), which was defined in Amsterdam. 388 kannes or 152 Dutch gallons were equal to 1 legger (~576 liters, roughly analogous to a butt, referred to below). Further subdivisions of a legger were as follows:

Legger → half legger → pipe → half-pipe → ahm (or aum) → half aum → anker → half anker → flask → kanne. 

These varied sizes of barrels were used most often in Dutch shipping for their fluid or dry stores. However, given that no current barrel or system of volume uses the word, this section is included for completeness only; to avoid further confusion and for the sake of brevity, here’s the reference you can look up if you want more.

Pipe barrel – note the narrower profile [Photo (c)]

Port Pipe (650 liters / 171.7 US gallons / 143 Imperial gallons) 

Compared to their chubby and squat Madeira cousins, Port Pipes more resemble giant American Standard Barrels (ASBs). The word pipe in this instance refers not the smoker’s implement but to the Portuguese word pipa, meaning “cask”, such as were once used to mature port; it’s something of a coincidence, perhaps, that the shape is slightly more cylindrical, longer (or taller) and narrower than a standard barrel. The size varies with some sources noting them as 540 liters capacity, while others mentioning 650 liters.

As the name implies, they are used to mature Port wines. They are then quite often sold on and utilized as “second use” barrels in whisky distilleries, and more recently, in an occasional rum making establishment. More recently, American craft distillers have taken a liking to them in helping expand American whiskey’s flavors, along side Madeira, Malaga and Marsala barrels (see below)

Madeira Drum (up to 650 liters / 171.7 Imperial gallons / 143 US gallons) 

Squat Madeira casks, called drums, are made using very thick European / French oak staves and are shaped rather wider, and shorter than other barrels. In the whiskey industry they are most often used as a finishing cask, and less frequently for primary maturation. Note however that madeira casks (of any kind) are sometimes much less than the 650 liters noted in the title and can range from 225 liters to 300 liters, or even 500 liters according to another source.

Demi-Muid (600 liters / 132 Imperial gallons / 158.5 US gallons)

These large-capacity oak barrels are typically used in the Rhône Valley in France in the wine industry, but have no application or use in spirits as far as I am aware. Weighing in at 124 kg (264 lbs) they are about four feet (117cm) high, with eight metal hoops.  Most wineries prefer to use the more manageable puncheons, but demi-muids are still made. The sherry equivalent is a bota gorda, also 600 liters.

The full size muid is a barrel-type with a volume of 1,300 liters, most common in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area, while the smaller demi-muid (half size version) is common in Champagne and Languedoc-Roussillon. A muid is sometimes equated to a poinçon (puncheon) or is one of the possible types of barrique barrels (see below). 

…to the smaller and more common variations. Heights are as close to scale as I could make them


In medieval French and Italian, the botte (Spanish had the word bota) was considered to be half of a tun, or 1,008 pints and referred to the same barrel as a pipe (above).  They may have been equivalent at one time, but modern usage of the terms makes the distinction in between the larger capacity pipe and the slightly less voluminous butt, which is more or less standardized at 500 liters (though not consistently so)

Sherry Butt (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

These tall casks are built with thicker staves, and are the most common type of cask in the sherry industry, and also the most common finishing cask in the whiskey industry. The demand for Sherry butts in the Scotch industry in particular is so great that a whole Sherry butt industry has grown up to support it, seasoning the casks with a Sherry style wine that is usually distilled into brandy rather than bottled as the real product. It is sometimes called a bota de extraccion / embarque which translates as “export butt.” Similar to the bota bodeguera with a capacity of 567 liters

Malaga Butt (500 liters)

The Malaga butt is from Spain as is clear from the name; with this barrel some noticeable lengthening similar to a Marsala cask starts to take place culminating in the port pipe (see above). It’s a relatively tall and narrow cask from Europe, utilizing thicker than normal ok staves. It is commonly used in the sherry industry in Spain and again, also within the whisky industry as a finishing barrel.

Illustration (c)

Marsala Cask (500 liters / 132 gallons / 110 imperial gallons)

As the name states this comes from the Marsala region of the island of Sicily where they are used to store and age dry or sweet fortified wine of that name. Fortified Marsala was, and is, made using a process called in perpetuum, similar to the solera system used to produce sherry and some rums. The Marsala casks can and are used for the whisky finishing process (not so much primary maturation) and due to the sweet dark type of wine, whiskies that mature in these casks are usually somewhat darker than normal. (Additional info on Sicilian wines is presented in this interesting article).


A puncheon rum was originally a high-proof, heavy-type rum said to have been first produced in Trinidad, at Caroni, in 1627, but that was probably only because of the barrel it was stored in: the term itself is far older, dating back to early medieval times (~13th century) when it denoted either an instrument to make a hole or a mark (like a punch in gold or silver jewelry) or to the old French ponchon or poinçon– a barrel of a certain volume and value, marked with a stamp. It was therefore occasionally referred to as a “punch barrel” to mean it had been calibrated by punching marks into it after an inspection. 

UK/US puncheons 

Historically the puncheon was a British unit for beer, wines and spirits, and an American one for the capacity of a barrel of that name holding wine.  However, it has been subject to some variations. In the UK it has been at one time or another 318-546 liters (70-120 imperial gallons) while the Americans defined it as 318 liters (84 US gallons and 4/3 of a Hogshead (see below)). The RumLab’s infographic that notes it as 450 liters exactly, is therefore somewhat imprecise. Note that a puncheon was also referred to as a tertian or tercian (see below) because at one time it was in fact ⅓ of a tun, at around 330 liters. Nowadays they have a rather greater capacity than that, ranging from 500-700 liters depending on what it is used to mature – sherry puncheons are supposedly larger than those used for rums.

Machine Puncheon (500 liters / 132 US gallons / 110 Imperial gallons)

This is a short and fat cask made with thick staves of American oak and according to various sources is the one used most by the rum industry.  It shares a similar capacity with the Sherry Shape Puncheon (also 500 liters), but that one has a different shape – thinner and longer staves are used here, making it more akin to a pipe.

A 500L tonneau and a 250L barrique

Barrique (Cognac) (300 liters / 79 US gallons / 66 Imperial gallons)

The word barrique is a very old one and although long in use in English, itself comes from even older words in Gaul (baril), vulgar latin (barrica) and old French / Occitan (barrica) all of which relate to wooden casks used for storage.

Barriques are relatively small casks used most often to age or store wines, cognac and grappa, and are often toasted to enhance flavour profiles.  They come in two types, and this is the larger version, used mostly in the wine and cognac industry and then subsequently in the whisky world as second-hand casks for finishing purposes. It is slightly more elongated than a butt and close to a hogshead in capacity and in place of metal hoops binding the staves together, is distinguished by the traditional use of wooden ones. As far as I am aware, few rum makers use them given their access to alternatives.

Note also that a cognac cask, as this is sometimes referred to, can have a capacity of 350 liters. It depends on the cooperage, the size desired by the maison, and to some extent local tradition.

HDPE Drums (250 liters / 55 Imperial gallons / 65 US gallons)

Almost exclusively for transport and storage of bulk spirits and oils, the high density polyethylene containers are considered inert and food safe, and are therefore useful to ship large quantities of neutral spirit around the world for blenders or third party bottlers to turn into gins, vodkas or other (even cheaper) drinks.  They have no place in the traditions of maturation which makes sense since they do not interact with the liquid inside.

Hogshead (225-250 liters /  59-66 US gallons / 49-54 Imperial gallons)

Surely there is no more evocative name for a barrel than this one, yet the etymology is uncertain. The words “hogge’s” and “hed” are demonstrably what they mean today, but the connection with the cask and a pig’s head remains unclear – some say it’s a resemblance thing. It dates back from the Germanic languages in the late medieval period (~14th century) and referred to a measure of capacity equivalent to 240 liters (63 wine gallons, 52½ imperial gallons, or specifically half a pipe, half a butt or a quarter of a tun) – it was standardized by an Act of Parliament in 1423, though it continued to vary geographically elsewhere, as well as depending on the liquid inside. Now a unit of liquid measurement, originally it could refer to any appropriately sized container holding tobacco, beer, wine, ale, cider, sugar, molasses, sardines, oil, herring, or even eels. Within the spirits industry the 225-liter hogshead made of white American oak is primarily used for maturing bourbon before being sent elsewhere to be used in the rum and scotch whisky industries.

It is the practice in the whisky industry to break down five ex-bourbon “standard” barrels (ASB, see below) into staves and to reassemble them with new ends to make four larger 250 liter casks called “hoggies” as the larger casks are more efficient to store volumes of spirits in warehouses. 

Also, in the sherry industry, there is a 250 liter barrel called a media bota, which is half the size of the regular bota.


225L wine barrel, or barrique

Barrique (Bordeaux) (225 liters / 59 US gallons / 49 Imperial gallons)

A second type of barrique exists, used predominantly in the wine industry, specifically Bordeaux in France, where the measurement of 225 liters was fixed by law in 1866. Before that, the size varied according to the region and could be anything between 136 and 400 liters. It is slightly smaller than the 300-liter cognac version, but retains the traditional wooden hoops, and the secondary use as a whisky finishing barrel. There are also Burgundy barriques, which are closely sized at 228 liters.

The size and popularity of these Bordeaux-sized barrels supposedly derived from their ease of use: one man could roll a barrique around, and only two people were needed to load one. Note that the word barrique is simply French for “cask.” It is further subdivided into a feuillette of just about half this size (110 liters) and a quarteau half again as small and sometimes called a “quarter-barrique” (55 liters).

American Standard Barrel, 200L

American Standard Barrel (200 liters / 53 US gallons / 44 Imperial gallons / ⅕ tun )

No matter how many other sizes of barrel there are, the most common current barrel in use is the American one, whose size is denoted as the “American Standard Barrel” or “Bourbon barrel” and is sometimes noted as being just a smaller hogshead, without the cool name. The reason behind its ubiquity is the US law that requires most American whiskeys to be aged in new oak barrels – consequently, after a single use they are useless there, which creates a massive surplus. The barrels are exported – often by breaking them down into staves and then reassembling them into hogsheads elsewhere – for reuse in maturing other spirit types including rum, tequila, tabasco pepper sauce, and of course Scotch and Irish whiskies. This makes the ASB the most commonly used barrel in the world. Unsurprisingly, American distillers think these casks provide the optimum surface-area ratio for maturing spirits.

Note that its origin in America means it is not directly related or numerically tied to the imperial system of the English wine cask sizings of tun-pipe-puncheon-hogshead-tierce-barrel-rundlet.  The origins of both are, however, undoubtedly the same and just adjusted for customary local usage. There are references to the capacity being 50-53 US gallons (180-200 liters) but most places I checked and people I spoke to maintain that 200 liters / 53 US gallons is the standard.

Tierce (158-160 liters / 35 Imperial gallons / 42 US gallons)

The word itself is of antique Roman (latin) and old French origin, and means “the third” or “a third”. The tierce was ½ of a puncheon, ⅓ of a butt or pipe, and ⅙ of a tun – when the now-archaic imperial system was instituted in the 15th century the tun was redefined to make it easily divisible by other integers and smaller barrel sizes. Its primary purpose was for wine transport, rum maturation and the storage of salted goods like fish or pork. It is almost exactly the same as a British Brewery Barrel (160 liters but also denoted as 288 pints or 43 gallons) or the Beer Barrel (140 liters, 35 imperial gallons, 42 US gallons) which in turn was used mostly in the storage of beer, ale or lager. This subsystem of liquid measurement had its own peculiarities of barrel sizes and names, like the kilderkin and the firkin (see below)

Most entries on the tierce refer to its relationship to the oil barrel. The oil boom in Pennsylvania in the 1860s created a shortage of containers (let alone standardized ones), so any barrel of whatever shape or size was used, including the 40 US gallon whiskey barrels and the 42 US gallon tierces, the former of which was far more common, and available. In 1866, to counter ever-increasing buyer distrust about measures, oil producers came together and settled on the whisky barrel as the standard barrel of measure and added an allowance of two extra gallons “in favour of the buyer”. This made a standard oil barrel 42 US gallons, the same capacity as the tierce from the time of Richard III of England.

Octave (unclear – 125 liters or 50 liters)

The Whisky Exchange’s blog made reference to an Octave barrel, naming it a quarter the size of a butt, or around 125 liters, which was considered small enough to allow for faster maturation but large enough to permit that maturation to be slower and take longer. Clearly the name refers to it being ⅛ of a tun. That said, the page on cask sizes states that the octave was ⅛ of a butt, or 50 liters but since the very same article also notes that a butt is 500 liters or so, then their math isn’t quite right since one eight of that amount is actually 62.5 liters.  WhiskyIntelligence also mentions that it’s 50 liters, ⅛ of a “standard cask” except that there is no standard cask of 400 liters, so again, something of a puzzle. AD Rattray’s “Octave Project” also refers to it as 50 liters (no further qualifications). Let’s agree that it’s one eighth of something, whether a tun or a butt.

Wine Barrel (~120 liters / 26 Imperial gallons / 31.5 US gallons)

Not utilized in the spirits industry as far as I am aware, this barrel remains in use by wine makers and is the equivalent of ½ a wine hogshead or ⅛ of a tun.  It therefore shares both the general size and the relative obscurity of an octave. This particular type of barrel is likely the same as the small French wine cask called a feuillette (110 liters).  I have no doubt that the wine industry has similar subgradings and fractions of large containers being called other names as the barrel size decreases, but that is peculiar to wine and not the primary focus here, so I’ll simply note it, and pass on.

Kilderkin (81.83 liters / 18 Imperial gallons / 21.62 US gallons)

A kilderkin is half a british Brewery Barrel and conforms to British brewery measuring systems (not those of wine which then became those of distilled spirits). It is mentioned here for completeness, but is not in use for the spirits industry in any consistent or meaningful way.  Note that over time there were several differing measurements for this medium sized barrel – initially it was 16 ale or beer gallons (73.94 liters) but was redefined in 1688 to 17 gallons, and again in 1803 to its current size of 18 imperial gallons of ale or beer.

The various ratios are: 1 Beer (or British Brewery) barrel = 2 kilderkins = 4 firkins.  For the geek squad, note that the word is from the Middle English and this in turn from the Middle Dutch words kinderkin a variant of kindekijn (small cask), and a diminutive of kintal (i.e., “little kintal”) which is a corruption of the Latin word quintale. It has old French and even Arabic roots, stretching back through Byzantine Greek and into the Latin word centenarium (hard “c”) which referred to a hundred pounds, later a hundredweight. It is possible that a barrel of such capacity filled with wine, ale or beer weighed this much, but I was unable to prove that and so the reason why it was named a quintale remains unknown.

Photo (c)

Rundlet (68-70 liters / 15 Imperial gallons / 18.1 US gallons)

Part of the wine measurement system also used by distilleries, a rundlet is 1/7 of a butt and 1/14 of a tun, which makes those parent barrels’ odd sizings and capacities – chosen for easy subdivision – make rather more sense. A rundlet is another one of those archaic barrel sizes once common in Britain, and was originally defined as about 18 wine gallons and then in 1824 (the date of adoption of the imperial system) settled on 15 imperial gallons

Traditionally for the transport of wine, the cask size has now fallen into disuse and has more interest from a historical perspective than anything else. The word comes from old Middle English and Anglo-Norman words “rondelet” and “rondel” (with connotations of a round shape, no doubt.)

The name has passed into the company of equally archaic and seldom-used colloquialism like “quent” and means any small barrel of no certain dimensions which may contain anywhere from 3 to 20 gallons.

Quarter Cask (50 liters / 11 Imperial gallons / 13 US gallons)

A quarter cask is exactly what its name says it is, a cask one quarter of the size of another one – in this case, the American Standard barrel – and made in exact proportion.  Its attraction, of course, is in providing a much greater surface area to liquid ratio, thereby making the maturation process more rapid.  However, it is mostly used by smaller brewers and distillers or even those practising from home. It’s sometimes confused with a firkin (see below) but the two barrels are quite distinct types and sizes – the quarter cask one has its origin in the US spirits business, while the firkin (and kilderkin) both come from European beer and ale brewing traditions. Both, however, are a quarter the size of their “parent” barrel.

Firkin (41 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

As noted , the firkin has its origin in the brewing industry, though differing shapes of it were also used for dry goods storage (sugar, flour, peas, etc): it is ½ the size of a kilderkin, and a ¼ of British Brewery Barrel (sometimes called ale or beer barrels), and is occasionally but  misleadingly referred to as a quarter cask because it is a quarter the size of the standard brewing barrel of 160 liters.  Here I make a clear distinction between the firkin and the American quarter cask because of its different size and origin. The firkin’s use in spirits predates the micro-distillery and DIY brewing boom in the US, and has been used for a long time by Scottish distilleries to speed up cask-spirit interaction, as well as to sell more affordable quantities of spirits to private buyers (as was noted in the origin story of the SMWS, for example). 

But as stated, its origin was with brewing and storage of ale and beer and to this day a firkin of 9 imperial gallons, or 72 pints is used to deliver cask conditioned beer to publicans (pubs), though the volume of consumable beer within it is usually less.  It is not always shaped like a barrel, but sometimes like a bucket, which makes sense given its use for storage and transport by an individual.

As to the origin of the word: it comes from the same source as the kilderkin, namely Middle Dutch vierdekijn, meaning “little Fourth.”

Blood Barrel / Blood Tub (40 liters / 9 Imperial gallons / 11 US gallons)

A small barrel used in beer making, but also for moving spirits on horses or mules.  It therefore has no ageing usage, just for transport and small scale sales to private individuals, such as in private casks.  They sport a somewhat more elongated oval shape to facilitate carriage and fastening. The exact reason it’s called a “blood” barrel is unknown – it may be because it was used to capture blood from slaughtered animals for use in sausages or some such (my surmise).

Pin (20 liters / 4.5 Imperial gallons /  5.4 US gallons)

Used by home brewers or by microbrewers, this small container is ½ of a firkin (see above). There is no point to ageing anything in a cask so small and reactive where it made of wood, so it’s mostly a storage medium, and plastic variations of this size – known as “polypins” are popular for homebrewing and small deliveries, as well as in beer festivals.

There are also minipins of around 10 liters which are used to serve ale in people’s homes in the UK.  Half the size of a pin, they are usually filled by decanting from any larger container like a pin or a firkin.

Barracoon / barrack (4 liters / 0.9 Imperial gallons / 1 US gallon)

At the very bottom end of the scale is the barracoon, which is perhaps more decorative than functional and displays a peculiar insensitivity for word useage, since the word itself actually means a pen or cage used to keep slaves awaiting shipment during the slave trade.  I can find no reference to this tiny cask in a dictionary, or in online encyclopedias. Diffords mentions it without any narrative whatsoever, and ASW Distillery out of Georgia in the US gives it a quick mention without context. Neither describe what it could be used for, though it seems clear that it could only be for some kind of personal use, since it is far too small for any kind of serious commercial application.

15.3 gallon Stainless Steel Keg


Kegs are a kind of small barrel insofar as the shape is the same, and like barrels, have their own subculture and nomenclature.  The term is not in common usage for the rum (or spirits) industry, but everyone is familiar with it from quaffing suds.

Traditionally, a keg made of wood was simply a small barrel of indeterminate size – it was used to transport solid goods like nails or gunpowder or corn, or liquids like oil and wine.  Its use therefore tended more towards the private than the commercial. Nowadays a keg is often made of metal (stainless steel), very much associated with beer, and has a stated purpose of keeping a carbonated beverage under pressure to keep it from going flat.

That said, it remains curiously non-standardized: where the capacity might be the same, the linear measurements might differ, and vice versa. However, in the USA a full sized keg is seen as a half barrel, or 15.5 US gallons, a quarter-barrel of 7.75 gallons or some subdivision thereof. The key to this is that it doesn’t refer to any of the barrels I have listed above (like the ASB), but a US beer barrel, which is listed as 31 US gallons (about 117 liters).  

Of course, beer kegs can come in any kind of size and the accepted convention that they are smaller than a barrel is about all that can be said for them. They can range from 5 liters (1.32 US gallons) for a mini-keg or “Bubba”, to 19 liters (5 US gallons) for a “Corny keg” or “Home Brew” then in ever increasing volumes to a half barrel, a pony keg, an import keg (also known as a “standard European” keg of 50 liters) and then finally the Full Keg of 15.5 US gallons as noted in the paragraph above. Of course there are other variations and sizes and names, but these are the common ones.

A subset of this is the so-called Euro-keg of a commonly accepted capacity of 50 liters.  There are smaller subdivisions of this size in Germany (which with a complete Teutonic lack of imagination names them DIN 6647-1 and DIN 6647-2 for example) and the UK denominates its keg size as 11 imperial gallons, which happily works out to 50.007 liters.  But in an interesting aside, in some places within Germany where a pour is half a liter, a keg’s capacity is measured in beers, not liters, so that’s pretty cool.


A vat is any large volume barrel, and is a general catch-all term, not one that is rigorously defined in any official system of weights and measures.  It therefore is in the same league as the French foudre and muid, or a tub or a tank, also large-volume containers without clear volumetric definitions. Because of the size, such vessels are at the other end of the scale from kegs or pins. 

It is also a very old word, dating back to the Proto-indo-European prefix “pod-” (or vessel) – a word itself at the root of pot. It developed into proto-Germanic “fata” (again, for a vessel or container) and a similar meaning in the Old English “fæt”, though I think it’s similarity to water and wasser suggests a water storage vessel as well.  From there it moved into Medieval English and was gradually turned into “fat” meaning a vessel or tank and was used to describe large container used for tanning hides and wine making, with cognates all over the northern European world. 

These days, due to its lack of definition and lots of other alternatives, the word is very general in nature. Its use in spirits is retained in calling tanks “vats” especially when producing “vatted whiskies” or naming blended rums like Vat 19.

Intermediate Bulk Containers (wikipedia)

Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)(1040 or 1250 liters / 228 or  275 Imperial gallons / 275 or 330 US gallons)

Not used for ageing, they are akin to the HDPE drums mentioned briefly above. They are multi-purpose industrial-grade, intermediately-sized and mostly cube-shaped shipping containers, easy to stack or store; and used for the transport and storage of liquids, semi-solids and solids. Their popularity stems from a combination of storage efficiency (they fit into less space than equivalent volume barrels), utility and flexibility since they can be of many shapes and sizes, and of metal, plastic or a composite and are often manufactured to exacting (Government- or industry-mandated) standards permitting transport of hazardous materials.

IBCs come in two varieties, rigid and flexible. Rigid ones are made of plastic, composite, carbon steel or stainless steel, while flexible IBC can be made from fiberboard, wood, aluminium, plastic, and often are seen as heavy sacks. Oak does not fit into their makeup anywhere.

Unsurprisingly rum (and other spirits) are not normally stored in these containers, since they are inert and have no impact on the profile. They are not part of any systems of weights and measures outside the logistics industry. Nor do they have any tradition in the back-history of rum, the distilleries,  plantations, or the shipping trade – they are, in point of fact, a modern innovation like the standardized shipping container and are used in modern transport mechanisms.  So, for bulk transport and/or storage of alcohol, whether on site or in a vessel, they have their uses and I include them here for completeness.


An article like this leads down many obscure rabbit holes that are at tangents to the main purpose.  I collect them because I’m a trivia nut and because some of them are just so damned interesting.

  • Someone who makes barrels is called a “barrel maker” or cooper. However, coopers make many different kinds of enclosed containers, including not just the familiar terms above (hogsheads, firkins, kegs, kilderkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts and pins) but buckets, vats, tubs, butter churns, troughs and breakers.
  • The term barrel to refer to the shooting tube of a cannon (and later, a gun) is directly related to the barrels discussed above.  Early metallurgical technology was not sufficiently advanced to contain the explosive force of gunpowder combustion without the tube down which the cannonball would go, warping or exploding. This tube, or pipe, which was sometimes made from staves of metal, needed to be periodically braced with hoops along its length for structural reinforcement – this produced an appearance somewhat reminiscent of storage barrels being stacked together, hence in English it adopted the term of barrel.
  • I said above that a leaguer is an archaic term for a water barrel on board ship in the Age of Sail, though references to such barrels holding wine also exist.  One of the most peculiar is a page from the 1907 “Clive’s South African Arithmetic for Standard IV” which had a question requiring the student to convert a half-leaguer to pints.


I have excluded non standardized storage media like tanks, casks (oddly, this is not a defined unit or container of measure or storage, though of course everyone knows what one is), reservoirs, containers, pots, flasks, tubs, drums, or cans.  There’s a fair bit of information about these things, but they have limited applicability to spirits generally and rum specifically.


Mar 302021

The site is completely functional and you can read and access everything through the menus above – but navigation via the links, categories, tags and so on, is currently non-functional and being repaired. That’s a lot of work and will take several weeks, even a month or two. When this sign disappears, it will all be fixed.  Sorry about the inconvenience.

NB: All FB “likes” are gone.  If you liked a post before and happen across it again, do me a favour and like it again.  It does nothing except flip a counter here and won’t redirect you anywhere – but it does tell me something about the popularity of a post.  Thanks!


Mar 132013

Ahh, rum.  The wonderful distilled product of cane.  I feel the same way about it as the poor deluded souls from the Peat Clan feel about their Islays.  Partly, of course, that comes from my background – almost half my life was spent in the Caribbean – and while my first recorded drunk was done with local vodka (don’t ask), it is to the rums that my primary allegiance was given, and where it remains.

Rums as a general rule originate from the Caribbean, but there are others from as far afield as Canada UK, USA, Australia, Fiji, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Mauritius, among many others.  The precursors to rum are supposed to date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a “very good wine of sugar” that was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.

Whatever the case for the ancients, the first distillation of rum took place on the sugar plantations of the West Indies in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests that rum first originated on the island of Barbados; and although my experience is that the Bajans like to take credit for doing everything first (these are, after all, the modest folk who sent a telgram to King George saying “Your Majesty, you may join the war: Barbados is on your side,” at the onset of WW2), it’s likely that in this case their claim is probably true. A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”. Sounds like many a rum I’ve had (some from Barbados, ha ha) when not having a pot to piss in in my youth.

Back in 2009 when I started writing, the only non-West Indian rum I have sampled is the Bundaberg from Australia: being in Calgary, even with a stellar shop like Willow Park around the corner, does little to improve the level of selection, since the demographics of Western Canada clearly favour the single malts (much to the Last Hippie’s satisfaction). It always frustrates me to see the shelves groaning under the weight of the multitudinous peats, and closed, securely fastened glass cabinets with the >$500 whiskeys reposing snugly within, while, in some raggedy-ass, dusty, out-of-the-way corner, the rums languish, sadly unrepresented by any truly wide-ranging (or premium) choice.  It was for this reason that I pounced on the great English Harbour 25 that day, because, as I explained to Keenan, it’s so rare to see any rum of real aged quality in Calgary that one must risk the wife’s wrath when one does see an above-average sample come on sale. (In passing I’ll note that my wife accepted that expensive purchase with no more than a raised eyebrow and a sigh, though I believe she laughed herself silly to listen to the Bear and I sip it with such delicate lip-smacking, fastiduous sniffing, and ecstatic cluckings and gurglings and murmurs of delight, all the while dabbing tears from the corners of our eyes.)

The selections I see in the various stores I now frequent, have been limited to the staples of single-digit Bacardi, Appleton, Captain Morgan, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, Havana Club and Lambs with a few others thrown in from time to time.  Occasionally I see the English Harbour, Pyrat’s or Screech, but it’s the big guns, the older vintages, that are so sadly lacking here (as well as the experts who can discourse for hours on the nose, mouthfeel and finish, and identify every fruit within by its first name). I won’t go so far as to say we never see the good stuff here in the sticks: we just never see the good stuff all the time.  One can always find a Glenfiddich 21 year old or a Johnny Walker Blue Label in a glass case somewhere, but good luck finding Appleton 30 year old, the DDL 21, the English Harbour 25 or that mythical XM 50 (which, for the life of me I cannot recall where I heard about, but for some reason I’m absolutely certain exists in spite of two decades fruitless search for either a bottle or a mention on Google).

Be that as it may, Liquorature – and its successor, the Lone Caner site –  has made the whole business of acquiring and tasting rum a lot more systematic than was previously the case. Being the only banana-man in the joint helps in that I really do like rums more than that obscure Scottish drink…maybe it’s the sweetness, or maybe it’s just the obstinate desire to be different. Whatever the case, it’s a diverting and harmless pastime, allows me to score points of the Last Hippie (or him off me), brings enjoyment and fun to the party, and permits me to indulge my writing.  The fact that I also taste some of the best rums in the world while attacking some poor sod’s choice of book (and then get to pen an essay on the subject) is merely a bonus.

Hope you like the reviews. I enjoyed writing them as much as I did researching them (>hic<)


Mar 132013

So what exactly are pot stills or columnar stills, batch vs continuous stills, steam distillation, freezing distillation or fractional distillation in the production of rum (or that other scottish drink)?  And which one leads to better rum? I mean, I’ve made mention of “used the original pot stills” in my Pusser’s review, and in “Classifying rums” I noted that useage of pot- versus columnar-stills is to some extent geographic in nature and affects the output.  And there’s something traditional and evocative about the terms.  But what are they?

All stills (the word derives from old middle english ‘distilling’) are descendants of the ancient alembics, which were simple devices to capture vapours and  condense them. The word alembic comes from the Arabic, and the supreme richness of the irony that a people opposed to alcohol inventing the first stills is one of those things that makes history worth reading, to me. Those who remember their high school chemistry (or like me, simply like blowing up chem labs with weird concoctions), will recall that alcohols vapourize at a lower temperature than water — all stills are based on this fundamental property . (They also freeze at a lower temperature, which is why freeze distillation can be used in colder climes to produce alcohol by skimming off the unfrozen alcohol settling on the frozen water beneath it).

A pot still is a simple closed container containing the ‘wash’ or ‘wine’ or ‘mash’, to which heat is applied. Most are metal – copper supposedly gives the best results because of chemical interactions that enhance taste and also removes sulphur compounds – but I’ve heard of glass, clay and even wooden ones being used. Vapours arising at the top of the ‘pot’ as the boiling point is approached are drawn off via a tube or coil, which is run through a colder liquid, thereby condensing the alcohol rich mixture.  This mixture is about 25-30% alcohol by volume, and all alembics or moonshine stills usually stop here. However, more sophisticated pot stills take this primary result – the so-called ‘low wines’ – and run it into a secondary pot still for a second run, which produces a colourless ~70% ABV resultant. Moonshiners add ‘thumper kegs’ or ‘doublers’ to their stills to get precisely this effect. This is then drained off into casks or barrels for the final maturation period, and the ageing here produces the brown colours associated with rums or the scottish tipple.

A pot still is a good example of batch distillation: the pot is charged with one batch at a time, and when it is done, another one is introduced. It was and remains, therefore, comparatively energy inefficient and time consuming: but its prime disadvantages were its expense and the fact that each batch would taste different, and so quality see-sawed widely.

Several doublers can be added in series, each draining off the high proof alcohol mixture into the next thumper keg, boiling that, creaming off the higher proof vapours and sending that into the next keg in line, and so on. This is, however, very energy inefficient, and it was discovered that putting pots one above the other is more practical, faster and resulted in higher volumes, and a constantly circulating wash that could be recharged without pause. This is the basic principle of a columnar still, in a continuous distillation cycle.

File:Column still.svgA columnar still is a more complex series of vertically arranged pot stills, where, instead of real pots, there are varying levels filled with packing or ‘bubble plates’ in one of  two columns. The wash (sometimes known as ‘distiller’s beer’) is injected into this column, called an analyzer (A) and falls, while hot steam is introduced at the bottom (2), and rises. The rising hot vapour, low in alcohol, starts to condense as it rises to the cooler upper layers; since the temperature of each of the higher layers is successively lower then the one beneath it, the  vapour in equilibrium with the falling liquid is successively richer in alcohol (this has to do with partial vapour pressures and is more mathematically complex than I need to discuss: but the physics is sound).The highly enriched vapour is then taken off and drained (4) into the rectifier (B). The more volatile alcohol vapours rise to the top and are drawn off and condensed.  The remaining impurities and ‘lower’ alcohols condense by using the cooler wash itself (1) to liquify it.  The impurities are removed by filters and other reagents, and the  resultant joins the wash at stage 5, and is recycled into the analyzer.Because the vapours may have several different kinds of alcohols at (7), each with its own condensation point, the condensing vapours can be drawn off at any level in the rectifier, each giving a different fraction of alcohol (I have simplified the process for ease of expression), or strength: this is why the process is also called fractional distillation, andexactly the same process is used in petroleum refining to produce differing kinds of products from a single feedstock source (there is of course catalytic cracking as well, but doesn’t apply to likker and so I decline to go further in that direction).

This is the great advantage over pot-stills, because while a typical pot still can get a mixture that is 40-50% alcohol on a first or second pass, the columnar still can have a vapour alcohol content of close to 96% with less energy input. As well, feedstock (the wash) can be introduced continuously since enriched vapour is drawn off automatically on a constant basis. Columnar stills benefited because they offered speed, immense capacity, greater economies of scale, significantly lower unit rate costs and more consistent quality…but they did cost more, and so required a greater capital outlay of the kind only businesses could muster.

All of this is fine and dandy, I can hear the rummies and scotch-lovers grumble, but which one produces the better end product?  After all, pot-stills have a long and noble tradition and are still used (Pusser’s, for example). Quality control and chemistry have improved to the point where pot stills can make consistently high-tension hooch that isn’t noticeably different from one batch to the next.

Most light rums are produced from continuous stills, and are highly purified and blended, perhaps even aged for a few months, or charcoal filtered, in order to produce a smoother palate.  Heavier, darker rums are traditionally made in industrial-sized pot stills, which are less efficient and have carry-overs from congeners (additives both intended and not, such as caramel, esters, phenols or a “peat taste”). But there’s no hard and fast rule, as far as I can tell.

Most Caribbean islands and the South American mainland use columnar stills, with Guyana, Martinque and Barbados utilizing both kinds. Bundie is distilled in Australia using column stills, as are all Asian rums made in Thailand and the Phillipines.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say I have no preference.  The distillation method, to me, is less important than that of the ageing the end product undergoes, and the additives put in.  The older rums have been the best I’ve had so far, with honourable mention going to that famous working class tipple, the EH5. The purpose of this article has not been to rank one method against the other, but simply to explain what they mean, and while some detail has been omitted in the interest of clarity, I hope that’s what I’ve managed to achieve here.


Mar 132013

It seems simple to say that an 80-proof rum is actually just 40% alcohol by volume based on a straightforward mathematical operation, but strictly speaking, it is not true. Actually, using the historical British method in force until 1980, a 40% ABV drink is 70 proof

It has long been a problem to decide exactly how strong a given drink was (or is).  From the ancient times, Archimedes’s principle was used to determine specific gravities (i.e., density) by use of hydrometers, but I can trace no records that show the consistent, state-mandated application of the principle to establishing the alcohol content of spirits.  In any event, for most of history, brewing and distilling were primarily cottage industries in an overwhelmingly agricultural world, and while rudimentary regulations existed regarding quality control, it was not until the era of industrial mass production around the 18th century and the usual attendant evil of taxation, that consistency and proof of strength became something to be sought after.

The word proof as applied to alcoholic beverages takes its name from the exercise undergone by any rum during the Royal Navy days of yore, as well as – subsequently – the tests a spirit had to go through to rate its strength for taxation purposes. In short, a proof spirit was the most diluted (weak) form of that spirit which would still support the combustion of gunpowder.  Not surprisingly, the Royal Navy was intimately involved in this: in order to show that the rum stocks on board were unadulterated, gunpowder was doused with the spirit and set alight. If it ignited, then it was proof, or over proof; if it did not, the liquor was deemed to have too much water and was underpoof.  It was discovered that a ratio of 7:4 of alcohol to water was just enough to support combustion.  This was deemed “100 degrees proof”. Naturally, this was more of a rule of thumb than anything else, since quality or type of gunpowder was never taken into account.

(The story may also be anecdotal, since a master gunner would need to know the best kind and amount of gunpowder, depending on burn rates, to use on which sized cannon – to prevent explosion prior to expelling the cannonball – and having gunpowder doused in alcohols of varying strengths gave him quick measures of burn rates; also, fuses soaked in alcohol and gunpowder were common the prevent them being doused by seawater during battles, and gunpowder and/or rum was often added to drinking water as a preservative…but I digress).

In order to address mankind’s innate love of complexity, clearer and more complicated definitions of strength emerged. First, a legal standard was promulgated in the early 18th century, stating that a “proof spirit” was half rainwater and half spirit proven by the gunpowder method (this would roughly approximate to today’s ABV measurement); a gallon of proof spirit like this, with a density of 0.923 was deemed to weigh 7lbs 12ozs at 10.5°C (51°F).

By the third decade of the 17th century, tax was being levied on drinks depending on the alcohol content, and a Clarke’s Hydrometer was developed, adopted and stayed in use until 1817. Clarke’s hydrometer was quoted in the 1762 law (and again in 1802)  defining a standard gallon of spirits: six parts spirits and one part water by weight, and weighing 7 pounds, 13 ounces at 50°F. It depended on its proper functioning by being bobbed in the liquid, and being calibrated against liquids of known densities, like water or pure ethyl alcohol.

The problem with all such hydrometers to that time was that they worked properly if there was a constant, reliable temperature, and there was only alcohol and water in the mixture…which of course was not always the case. Tax evaders constantly added other ingredients – molasses, spices, sweeteners and so on – which increased the density of the liquid without affecting its alcoholic properties (alcohol is less dense than water, the principle on which all such hydrometers function).

Finally, in 1817, the more accurate Sikes’s thermometer became the legal method for determining proof: it was established that using this instrument (pretty much just a refined version of Clarke’s) that “proven spirits” were at least 57.1% alcohol by volume and 49.28% alcohol by weight – the next century and a half of British proof measures (and therefore much of the rest of the world) were based on this number. It was still, however, primarily established by weights, not volumes – these were calculated indirectly. Too, the British Navy did its own ongoing measurements of the gunpowder test (which retained a peculiar longevity) and discovered that the ideal strength for gunpowder to ignite was actually 95.5 degrees of English proof – this equated to 54.5% ABV and therefore if one sees any navy rum at either 57.1% or 54.5% (like the Navy Neaters for example, issued at 95.5 degrees) then it’s okay and there’s no mistake.

Europe settled on the Gay-Lussac system developed by the famous chemist. He invented an “centesimal alcoholometer” which is a hydrometer calibrated to 100 percentage by volume divisions, and also provided the theoretical background for its use in an 1824 paper. The system became law in France in 1884 and was adopted by the EU in 1973, and is volumetric in nature.

However, time marches on, as do measures, and the term of proof as defined by Great Britain is no longer in use.  All spirits are now measured for strength in terms of % alcohol by volume, and while this is not quite  half the old proofing formula, it’s close enough for Government work, apparently. The United States regulations on alcohol state that the proof of an alcoholic beverage is twice its alcohol content expressed as percentage by volume at 60°F. So an 80-proof whisky is 40% alcohol. The Europeans used the Gay-Lussac method, and this is now expressed in degrees, not percentages (the numbers come out the same).

These days, even hydrometers are archaic relics of a less exacting past. Modern measurements of proof rely on pycnometry, hydrostatic balances and (now) electronic densimetry, though all still rely on aspects of Gay-Lussac’s principle.  Other more labour intensive and exacting methods fell by the wayside while new ones are constantly being bandied about (like infrared analysis). At end, they all measure the amount of ethyl alcohol in a given sample.  And all of that is still expressed in simple terms: proof.

In summary then: in the 1950s, say, a given whisky or rum could be quoted as being 80 proof if measured in the US, 40° proof if in Europe or 70 proof in the UK (and still others based on mass, in some US states). But global standards are now based on simple alcohol-by-volume measures of proof and companies regularly place ABV % on the bottles (sometimes also the proof using older terminology). The methods of assessment have gotten more complex even as the terms remain the same as those from three hundred years ago.  It’s like the width of all modern railroad tracks conforming to the width of Roman roads which themselves were based on the width of wagon tracks dictated by the span of two oxen hitched up side-by-side…

It really is enough to drive a man to drink.

Mar 312012

I really don’t like the rums listed here.

It’s appreciated that if there ever was a list to piss people off, this is it. Maltsters will snicker into their sporrans to see one of their pet peeves taken down a few notches. Rum pundits will in turns be offended or delighted, depending on their viewpoint and their own predilections for rums. Others will nod (I hope). We do ten best lists, or top ten lists or “best of whatever” lists – not often that you see a list of the bottom feeders (although I’m definitely not the first).

The genesis of this list is actually not in any kind of rabid and face-melting dislike – more in my snarkiness at being taken for a ride with overpriced crap, or with crap period. Some of these should come with advisories.

It’s kind of anticipated that the (actually rather short) list presented here will raise some eyebrows, please a few, and incur the wrath of others, and that’s okay. As I’ve mentioned before, a review of any kind involves – as it must – an element of personal opinion and subjectivity. This is mine. You can take it as seriously as you like, or laugh at it. Hopefully a bit of both

1. Pyrat’s – both the XO and the Cask 23. Not deserving to be called rums, these drinks are more like liqueurs. The orange nose and forceful taste overwhelms all others. The greatest disappointment must be the Cask 23, supposedly originating from DDL’s high ester still, but at end is just a well dressed tart with sweaty armpits, costing way over her true value. That’ll teach me to buy something just ‘cause it’s in a glass case.

Nose: Orange. Lots of orange. We’re talking Florida on steroids here.

Taste: Orange with an orange hint and tangerine citrus cricket bat to the face

Fade: Short and bitchy for the XO; smoother and longer for the Cask 23. Hints of orange

Assessment: just a shade too much citrus in there

Why I dislike it: overpriced, overhyped, and I really hate the orange. Telling me it comes from a high ester still with unique flavour profile doesn’t help me, unfortunately…it still tastes like…ummm…an orange.

2. Doorlys XO. Didn’t get this the first time, and after three more tries, I still don’t. Weak, pussilanimous wuss of a rum. It’s so low key that its piano seems to lack keys altogether. No yohohos, cutlasses or pistols here – at best you might say it’s the effete cabin boy in Captain Morgan’s galley, and to this day, I’ve never heard Clint’s comment bettered – this thing is the Prince Myshkyn of rums. For those who like delicate bouquets and subtle whiffs it may be the cat’s meow – me, I like my rums to be rums, and this ain’t it.

Nose: Huh? Oh yeah…some alcohol and sugar water

Taste: Faint caramel; after straining for half an hour, I might sense a seam of molasses in the bedrock of nothing-in-particular

Finish: Short, pointless, dreary

Assessment: Waste of my money. Too delicate and weak for a real rum. Any kind of mixer would be like a Buxton mosquito landing on a Bajan mosquito net…which is to say, too bad for the net.

Why I dislike it: simply too weak at everything. It doesn’t even work as a mixer, because anything you add to Doorly’s shreds it utterly. If I wanted anything this gentle or subtle, I’d take a glass of water and chuck a drop of Bacardi 151 into it.

3. Bundaberg. Even Aussies seem to frothingly despise the rum from Queensland. My friend Keenan said he’d rather eat curried dingo sh*t that try it again, and while I’m not quite that in hate with this raw, pestilential hooch, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m glad I didn’t have to shell out for it, but he did. As I understand it, it’s still sitting on his shelf three years later…he may be waiting to paint his house and use it for a thinner, or feed to me on my next visit.

Nose: Curried dingo. Just kidding. Alcohol reek, rotting grapes, peeling cardboard

Taste: Horrible. A reek of cloying fly-infested sugar water left to stand in the outback for a day

Finish: sharp, crabby, disapproving – like my mother-in-law’s face after a two night pub crawl

Assessment: A rum only a mother could love.

Why I dislike it: taste is just too far in the outback for me


The Kraken Black Spiced Rum

4. Kraken. Oh my God, what is it about this inky overproof that makes people go into transports of ecstasy over it? The excessive vanilla and flavourings, the sweetness, what passes for texture? The 46%? I’m at a loss to understand it. This is as commercial a rum as it’s possible to make from a base of alcohol to which additives are poured with the reckless abandon of a leaping base jumper. It’s neither fish nor fowl – you can’t really class it as a sipper since it’s too raw, and it’s too adulterated to be a mixer of any kind, so why even bother?

Nose: vanilla. That’s it

Taste: more vanilla, some liquorice, with a molasses background struggling vainly to emerge before being eviscerated by the spice

Finish: dark and strong and raw. This rum does not like you.

Assessment: mix if you must, enjoy over ice if you can. I’m avoiding it

Why I dislike it: cheap, hollow rum sold at a premium it doesn’t earn or deserve. It’s simply spiced itself out of existence without regard for true quality.

5. Momento. For a company that makes the much better Potter’s which has no pretensions to being anything but a cocktail base and a pub mixer (and a good one at that), this golden rum just doesn’t work for me. Bar rums are easy to make: this one achieves a kind of dizzying grandeur of badness even though it is rather cheap – and that may be its sole redeeming feature aside from the nifty bottle.

Nose: herbal, grassy, light fruits

Taste: Light, slightly dry, undistinguished. Not smooth.

Finish: short sharp jab to the schnozz.

Assessment: it’s too light to mix well, and therefore shares my main reasons for generally avoiding agricoles, which Momento seems to want to emulate (poorly) with this product.

Why I dislike it: just fails on all levels and even as a mixer I can’t really say it does anything for me. I tried it with just coke (how can anyone or anything mess up a simple Cuba Libre?) and even that didn’t work.

6. Ron Barcelo Anejo. Ron Barcelo makes some nice products – this, to me, isn’t one of them, and I can trace it right back to the 37.5% strength, which simply does not impart or share flavour that even a smidgen extra proof would. Sure it’s only $25 or so. But so what?

Nose: Faint caramel, bananas and a barely perceptible hint of coffee

Taste: Thin at best with molasses and some citrus that wasn’t sure it wanted to be there. It ended up bailing just as I managed to identify it.

Finish: Short, weak and seemed to be ashamed to be there at all: vanished like a fart in a hurricane.

Assessment: If you’re going to make a rum, for God’s sake make one. Don’t dumb it down or dilute it to catatonia: what on earth is the point of 37.5%?

Why I dislike it: I can’t get drunk fast enough, it does nothing for me neat, it can’t be properly mixed, it’s insulting to call it a chick rum, and it just doesn’t duel with your palate the way anything stronger would, should, and does.

7. XM Five year old. “‘Arry, ‘it ‘e ‘pon ‘e ‘ead wit’ a ‘ammer!!” I can hear my old time bush squaddies roar to a particularly large compadre we all shared (called “Biggers”) so he can donk me for my impertinence. Sorry guys, but it’s true. Drink this – neat or in a mix – and then switch to Bacardi or Appleton V/X or others. You feel the difference.

Nose: As scrawny and savage as an alley cat that found no mice. Sharp, searing nose of orange peel and maybe some burnt sugar

Taste: Vanilla, caramel, some kind of fruit jam (but not the kind your mommy made with such love, let me assure you)

Finish: The cat still doesn’t like you, and them claws is sharp on the back end.

Assessment: Cheap backdam hooch made for the bush is all it is. If you don’t care what you get drunk on, maybe this one will do you just fine. I know whereof I speak on this one, trust me.

Why I dislike it: It smacks of laziness and good-enough that offends me for some reason. We must move beyond such crap and demand that Banks DIH make better. If DDL can, why can’t they?

8. Whaler’s. This is a variation of the Kraken above, and when I say that the Kraken is marginally better, it edges out this one because the Whaler’s is just a liquid ethanol to which the mad scientists at their lab drunkenly added spices with the abandon of the Emeril on crack, without even the decency to pump up the volume with some oomph to maybe 45% or so.

Nose; Vanilla, as powerful as if it wanted to mug you with a brick-hard tub of Hagen-Dasz.

Taste: Raw, searing, oversweet, thin, vanilla-stoked, butterscotch-infused liquid vaguely tasting like it should be a rum, but wasn’t sure.

Finish: Short and harsh…I think I swallowed a dried stick of vanilla and it scraped my throat to shreds.  My tonsils demanded a condom if I was to have more.

Assessment: This is a hollow rum, the first I’ve ever tried. “Rare, Reserve Dark Rum” the label describes it. Are you kidding me?

Why I dislike it: it seems crassly commercial to just buy some rum stock, run it through an industrial facility to add spices in an effort to beat out Captain Morgan, and sell it as some kind of classy product on that basis, with minimal ageing of any kind.


So there you have it. My list of eight peeves. Each reviewer, I think, has his own list of rotguts which he either felt he paid too much for, or which was advertised as something it was not, or was simply bad. Here are the ones I feel a dark burning resentment about. You may disagree, and that’s perfectly cool. I’m sure you have your own list of private dislikes.

A last word (and I feel it important that I say this, so bear with me)

I term myself a reviewer on the strength of tasting a whole lot of rums and writing about them in the best prose I can – some justification can be found in that my hard earned dollars are going into this exercise and that being the case, why shouldn’t I? My purpose is – in between other aspects of my life that take precedence – to entertain, educate, amuse, share my passion and perhaps put some facts out there in the public domain that others may use. (The fact that the ‘Caner site doesn’t garner a whole host of daily hits suggests not many people really care, but them’s the breaks).

Thomas Hardy said, in the field of literature, that “Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.” Same for reviews. And just because it is easy (and fun) to skewer a company’s rum does not invalidate their achievement in putting a product out there at all. Their money, time, effort and entrepreneurship are on the stand, every day, being judged. So it doesn’t matter how well I describe what I tasted, or how snarkily – what matters is that there are physical products out there that someone made, the making of which employs people, gives others some enjoyment, and affords writers like me the license to write our own bags.

Liking the rums or not, that achievement should be recognized. I may dislike the products listed here. This does not mean they are not worth more than my words designating them so.


Nov 012010

(First posted on Liquorature November 2010; edited October 2014)

What makes a Bacardi 1873 superior to, or a dog when compared against, a Santa Teresa 1796? On what basis do I compare my loving, cheerfully nostalgic review of the Clarke’s Court overproof “bush” variation with the disdainfulful yark-my-guts-out review of the Bundie? What exactly is the rating of the Bacardi 151, which, when you read it, is remarkably short on facts and long on humour. If I were to make a top five list of any kind – top-enders, dark rums, spiced rums, premiums etc – is there a consistent methodology backing up my assertions, or is it all just my opinion on which ones deserve to be in such a list?

After almost two years of drinking rum after rum and getting serious about writing about them in the last ten months since the Liquorature website went up, questions like these have pretty much forced me into revisiting the whole business of assigning a numerical rating to my favourite drink. To some extent, my methodology at the inception derived from a decades-long perusal of movie reviews; Roger Ebert’s four star system and his even more simplified (and troublesome) thumbs are almost standards in themselves, but in practice they are useless except at opposite ends of the spectrum.

After all, what distinguishes a subjectively assessed 2.5 star review from a 3 star? You know you’re getting quality with four stars and crap with one…it’s in the middle the problems crop up. Now contrast that against the New York Times or New Republic stance of not assigning a rating at all – in their opinion the writing and experience of the writer is what counts, the feeling and thinking of the critic as he watched the movie – and under such conditions, rankings and ratings aren’t required.

Then there was my issue with the way The Hippie rated his whiskies: sharp eyed constant readers (all three of them, ha ha) will note that of his first fifty whisky reviews he skewed heavily to assigning 90% or greater rankings to almost all of them. He defended this by noting that he knew what he was getting and so picked stellar examples of the craft to review, but when you think about it, if all reviews are uniformly positive, you dilute your relative ratings system and reduce their utility to a reader. You need to leaven all the positives with some negatives or neutrals to sustain a perceived objectivity and permit a baseline of sorts (to his credit, Curt has started reviewing some dogs of late).

Added to all this is the iconoclastic stance I have towards everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon and attempting to recreate Jim Murray’s numerical system in that invaluable resource, his Whisky Bible. Now, not everyone can imitate, let alone approach the brilliance of his pithy one liners (I’m a decent writer, but I tend towards the verbose, and I’m in awe of of his short, sharp and scintillating literary gems), but surely alternative approaches can be taken? Surely it’s not always and only about numbers at the end of the day?

And there is the crux of it. Numbers on individual drinks mean nothing. An individual review stands or falls on its own merits: on the skill of the writer in recreating what he smelled and tasted and thought, and his ability to not only bring you along, but explain his point of view on whether he cared for the product or not; and irrespective of whether you agree, you at least take the point.

It’s in their aggregate that ratings come into their own: in their ability to stratify whiskies, rums, vodkas et al into groupings that a prospective buyer can choose from according to certain bands of rough similarity. It was this last point that has led me to abandon my strict adherence to my NYT policy of simply describing my experience (yes I try to write well, engagingly and to add some information as well, but you’re reading my rum review to understand whether it’s worth your cash or confirms your own experience, not to indulge me). Because at the end, what a reader is asking for is an understanding of how one rum stacks up against another, and if faced with a choice of two equally priced and presented rums, which one should he pick.

The mood, tone and style of my writing disguises the underlying essentials of a rum (the facts), while elevating what some see as nonessentials: my sense of humour, my delight in writing, and occasional irrelevancies (I can hear Maltmonster mutter “Occasional?” into his Bowmore). More than one reader has mentioned that my reviews are simply too long, and while my usual response is a resigned shrug – I do this for love, for free and for me, and if someone feels that way, they are welcome to advise me which words to cut, or click through to more convival (and shorter) review sites – I must concede it is a weakness when trying assemble a more objective measure of indivdual elements of quality in a rum.

Having said all the above, I’ve reluctantly decided to change my approach. Not to shorten anything, but to add two things: one, a short summary somewhere in the review, probably at the top or bottom, that encapsulates everything I want to say in a sentence or two. And an attempt to quantify my observations. Try as I might, I simply cannot escape the long shadow of the standard nomenclature: Appearance/ presentation, Nose, Taste/Palate, Finish and Intangibles. These will be placed at the bottom of each review, in red, with the points I gave, and what the weight of each is, adding up to an even hundred for ease of calculation.

A few things have to be said right out front:

“Appearance” is a thorny aspect to rate: many reviewers ignore it entirely, contending that the taste is what it’s all about. I believe that this is absolutely so for barroom bottles and the general mass of rums, but less so for premiums, where the price absolutely includes presentation knick-knacks like cool boxes, fancy corks and bottle etching, and therefore the overall aesthetic must be considered.  If it pains you to see a rating for this, just adjust my score for it by deducting it from the totals and dividing by 90 – when I did this I realized that it had little impact on the scoring, and so have kept on.

“Intangibles” counts down from a full rating, unlike all other sections where I start from zero and work up – in other words, I take away what I don’t like; it’s that extra something that simply can’t be easily quantified, but which elevates the entire experience of the drink (JM refers to this as balance, which is the way the elements relate to each other harmoniously, or not – as good a term as any, I suppose). So Clemente Tres Vieux gets a few measly points there, while Clarke’s Court gets a better rating (lost in other categories), as do the Zaya 12 and the EH-5. On the other hand, Clemente, EH10 and DDL 21 will get brownie points in Appearance/ Presentation, while Appleton 30 gets marked down for the cheap tin, and Clarke’s gets a big fat duck egg.

Arguably the biggest points of contention  will be Nose, Palate/Taste and Finish, and here’s where the largest element of subjectivity comes into play – I won’t pretend that what I experience will mirror your own memories of the drink, but it will faithfully reflect what I had. And as always, I’ll describe, in my review, the steps and thinking that went into the final ranking I gave: you may not agree with me, which is perfectly fine…but you’ll understand why I gave it the marks I did.

Perhaps I needed to crack more than fifty rums before I came to this pass: before, it was a hobby, a sort of tickling interest of mine. These short little essays (well…relatively short) became a labour of love for me, an exercise in creative style and clarity of expression. Now, it’s obviously gone beyond that.  And as this occurs and more reviews go up and the years lengthen, scoring really does become more important.

I dread going back over so many rums to assign and re-assign the summary and numbers (and to endure the smirks of my friends with the inevitable I-told-you-sos), but there are sound reasons for doing so. I guess I had to do enough of these reviews to understand that, and feel committed enough to finally make that plunge.

Update (2014):

The so-called “standard” scale starts from 50 and goes to 100.  Most whisky and wine scores reflect this system (and so did The Rum Howler and other early rum sites) and using it, top of the line spirits usually score in the nineties.

 Update March 2015

All scores have now been pored to the 50-100 scale, with appearance marks stripped out, and a mathematical formula assigned to adjust the scores proportionately.