Modern wooden barrels for wine-making are either made of French common oak (Quercus robur) and white oak (Quercus petraea) or from American white oak (Quercus alba) and have typically these standard sizes: "Bordeaux type" 225 litres (59 US gal; 49 imp gal), "Burgundy type" 228 litres (60 US gal; 50 imp gal) and "Cognac type" 300 litres (79 US gal; 66 imp gal). Modern barrels and casks can also be made of aluminum, stainless steel, and different types of plastic, such as HDPE.
Someone who makes barrels is called a "barrel maker" or cooper. Barrels are only one type of cooperage. Other types include, but are not limited to: buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, kegs, kilderkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and breakers.
Barrels have a variety of uses, including storage of liquids such as water and oil, fermenting wine, arrack, and sake, and maturing beverages such as wine, cognac, armagnac, sherry, port, whisky, and beer. The term can also refer to roughly cylindrical containers made of modern materials like plastic.
An "aging barrel" is used to age wine; distilled spirits such as whisky, brandy, or rum; beer; tabasco sauce; or (in smaller sizes) traditional balsamic vinegar. When a wine or spirit ages in a barrel, small amounts of oxygen are introduced as the barrel lets some air in (compare to microoxygenation where oxygen is deliberately added). Oxygen enters a barrel when water or alcohol is lost due to evaporation, a portion known as the "angels' share". In an environment with 100% relative humidity, very little water evaporates and so most of the loss is alcohol, a useful trick if one has a wine with very high proof. Most beverages are topped up from other barrels to prevent significant oxidation, although others such as vin jaune and sherry are not.
Beverages aged in wooden barrels take on some of the compounds in the barrel, such as vanillin and wood tannins. The presence of these compounds depends on many factors, including the place of origin, how the staves were cut and dried, and the degree of "toast" applied during manufacture. After roughly three years, most of a barrel's flavor compounds have been leached out and it is well on its way to becoming "neutral". Barrels used for aging are typically made of French or American oak, but chestnut and redwood are also used. Some Asian beverages (e.g., Japanese sake) use Japanese cedar, which imparts an unusual, minty-piney flavor. In Peru and Chile, a grape distillate named pisco is either aged in oak or in earthenware.