A brief history of casks, Part 1


The history of casks begins in the 5th century BCE when the Greek historian Herodotus talks of casks of palm-wine being shipped to Babylonia. It seems likely that the cask significantly predates this and was first developed in the early Iron Age, around 800 to 900 BCE, perhaps even earlier. Certainly the art of bending wood via heat-application had been used in boat-making for millenia and the existence of straightsided, open wooden buckets, employing the craft of the cooper, is documented in Egypt as early as 2690 BCE.

It is not possible to say exactly who invented the cask because wooden artefacts do not survive well in the archeological record. The Celtic tribes of central and western Europe are potential candidates as they were skilled in metallurgy and woodcraft, and had acquired a love of wine making from the Greeks and Romans to the south. The Vikings have also been suggested, fond as they were of iron tools and surrounded by forests. It could even have been the brainchild of the ever-inventive Romans themselves. Certainly our word ‘cooper’ derives from the Latin ‘cupa’, meaning cask.

Bas-relief with barge transporting barrels, Museo Galileo, RomeWhatever its provenance, this tapered container, made of curved wooden staves, sealed at either end with wooden plugs and wrapped in hoops of protective wood (and later iron), would revolutionise the world of alcohol. Prior to the arrival of the cask, wine had been transported in clay jugs called ‘amphorae’, sealed with pine resin. These were brittle and could easily break, even when wrapped in straw. The staves of a wooden cask were highly shock-absorbent and their rotund structure allowed even casks of several hundred pounds to be maneuvered by one stevedore.

Casks not only increased the likelihood of wine reaching its destination safely, but also had the unexpected benefit of bestowing added flavour to it – and this flavour varied depending on the type of wood used, thus opening up a new dimension of possibilities to the wine makers. We know that such experimentation must have taken place because the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century BCE, counsels that wine must not be stored in yew barrels lest it turn poisonous.

It was not just the choice of wood but the size and shape of the casks that varied. The Greek geographer, Strabo, also writing in the first century CE, noted that the Gauls, who the historian Diodorus of Sicily describes as “exceedingly addicted to the use of wine”, would buy vast quantities of it from the Romans and store it in wooden casks as large as houses. By this time wooden casks were widely replacing their clay counterparts and cooperage was an established profession – one in which our own Jim McEwan, started his journey in the whisky industry over fifty years ago.

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