Painted Heads

The end of "head" of a fresh cask which we are filling for the first time with whisky will often carry the moniker of the chateau, or bodega, or even the name and address of the Bourbon distillery from whence it came. After we have used it for spirit maturation and emptied it to create a vatting for bottling, or in order to recask the contents, the warehouse team have an efficient system of colour coding so as to manage its reuse - white heads for 2nd fill, green heads for 3rd. A cask that is on its third filling is useful as a neutral holding vessel, for example when storing vatted malt prior to bottling, as the wood will exert much less influence on the liquid within.

But we know that during maturation, there is chemical exchange between the whisky and the wood and the air outside the wood [see more about the science of whisky maturation >>]. What is the extent of this and is using paint completely safe?

Lawrence our Quality Controller comments, "Depending on the age and use of the cask, the liquid progressively soaks through the depth of the stave and it is not uncommon to see it almost halfway through the stave on older casks.  The “soaking through” process is extremely slow due to the grain orientation of the wood (for wood enthusiasts- staves are quarter sawn meaning the medullary rays - shown as lines in the cross-section photo below - are mostly parallel with the stave face, making them non-porous). Indeed, if the staves showed soaking of whisky further than say halfway through, the cask is nearing the end of its life and would probably start to leak way before there was any danger of contact/soaking with the paint surface.

Cask heads are much thicker than staves; an average of 50% thicker. He continues, "Any paint used for cask ends would only affect a few mm at the surface (see picture below) and it is fairly inert once dried.  In any case, the wood effectively isolates the paint from the whisky within.   Hope this helps…"

Incidentally, Lawrence has been known to salvage discarded casks for creative projects, and adds, "Removing the paint is usually the hardest task..! I generally find a few strokes with an old rasp plane gets it off quite well, then I finish up to a neat surface with a fine set No.4 plane." 

close up cross-sections of cask stave and cask head

Thanks to Lawrence for the photos: L a cross section showing the medullary rays running laterally through the stave; R the split cask head showing the veneer of flaking paint and no signs of deeper incursion.

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