A few days ago, I wrote here about the use of smaller barrels for aging spirits such as whiskey. Tuthilltown Spirits, in Gardiner, N.Y, is one of the pioneers of the micro-distillery movement. They initially created their Hudson Baby Bourbon and other aged products in three gallon barrels and are now using twelve gallon casks, essentially the quarter casks Finger Lakes uses as well.
Among the handful of small distillers who are serious about whiskey-making, it looks like some consensus is emerging around barrels in the ten to fifteen-gallon range. There are a lot of factors to consider, including how you are going to wrangle them from place to place.
It's hard to explain exactly why this looks like the ideal size, there are many factors to consider. One of the intangibles is the basic organization of your barrel inventory and how you are going to use it to create products. I'm talking about people who are going into production, at any scale, not people who are just filling a barrel or two to see what happens. Remember that you lose volume over time through absorption and evaporation, maybe up to 10 percent in the first year. If you start with ten to fifteen-gallons, you're still going to have something to sell after months or years of evaporation and sampling, but the unit size is small enough to be manageable.
Back to Tuthilltown, they came up with an interesting idea when they created their whiskeys. U.S. regulations say a bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels, but it doesn't say for how long. Is three months long enough? The feds approved it, but is long enough for legal purposes the same as long enough for drinking purposes?
I haven't tasted all of Tuthilltown's whiskeys but I have tasted their Hudson Baby Bourbon. Does it taste like bourbon whiskey that has aged in a barrel for five or six years? Of course not. Is it a product worth tasting? Absolutely! Yes, it's more like white dog than mature spirit, but there's nothing wrong with that. Jumping into the micro-distillery pool is all about opening yourself up to new tastes and new ideas. (Yes, guys, I'm learning.)
You can read more about Tuthilltown here. (The site is SmartMoney.com, their Small Business sub-site.)