The end of summer brings a quieter vibe to the city of Edinburgh, and a chance to look forward to evenings in by the fire with a warming dram. And what better way to finish the summer season than with an in-depth look at the practice of whisky finishes? Stephen Kavanagh from the Scotch Whisky Experience retail team takes a wee look at some whiskies to try if you fancy a taste of the innovation that’s currently taking place in the world of Scotch…
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish…
…or so it seems with a trend that has become quite popular within the Scotch whisky industry. Innovators are on a constant path to shake things up, and the whisky industry is no exception with many distillers exploring unique and unusual finishes. It may be a common occurrence now, but the concept of secondary maturation or ‘finishing’ is relatively new in the grand scene of things. It is only within the last 30 years with distilleries like The Balvenie and Glenmorangie, who began experimenting and adding diversity into standard practice.
As with any young concept, there are still elements of the process that are unknown. The one that creates most divide within the industry is what makes the most impact, the ‘oak’ or the ‘indrink’? The ‘oak’ (the cask from the original maturation process) is integral for adding flavour and colour to the whisky. Many distillers believe its role is as vital the second time around, referring to the oak as a constant to which the liquid interacts with, giving it flavour.
The other side is those in favour of the ‘indrink’ process. ‘Indrink’ is the name given by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute to describe the process of the liquid being absorbed into the cask during maturation. For example, after two years of maturation up to 12% of the liquid within a 500-litre cask can be absorbed into the wood. So technically while nothing can be added to whisky by law, this ‘indrink’ will eventually blend into the whisky. Until further research is done the debate on which creates the bigger impact will continue to divide distillers.
Balance has always been crucial, and the choice of the second cask is as vital a process as the original. The previous contents must complement the whisky’s deep-rooted flavour. An active port pipe cask will completely overwhelm a light-bodied whisky, whereas a less potent chardonnay wine cask’s influence on a heavily peated Islay whisky would be lost. So it is all about balance. This is also why many distillers favour ‘wine finishes’ for their whisky, as they are often light, full of flavour and not overpowering.
Working in the Scotch Whisky Experience we often get asked the question, what could I get that’s unusual, what’s unique? Well the interesting thing about using wine casks for finishing Scotch whisky is that not all vineyards produce the same wine year in and year out. This means that finished releases tend to be annual or limited.
Below you’ll find a selection of Scotch whiskies that have been finished in wine casks to get you started:
Project XX is the second in a limited experimental series released by Glenfiddich. Master blender Brian Kinsman invited 20 whisky experts from around the world to the Glenfiddich warehouse where they chose from thousands of casks. The final 20 casks varied from sherry, virgin oak and even port pipe finishes to make a unique and innovative whisky. Rich gold in colour, this array of casks produce a whisky that is sweet and spicy, with a hint of marzipan.
The Edradour Barolo wine finish is not only an unusual finish, it is also quite limited with only 894 bottles produced. The three casks used for this bottling were held in November 2000 and bottled in February 2017, spending a total of 42 months in the wine casks. Barolo wine itself is a dry and rich wine, ideal for accompanying rich savoury food. With this 16 year old Edradour expression, you’ll get vanilla and rich raspberry, cherry and plum on the nose. With the initial tasting you immediately notice the dryness associated with the wine, along with the dark fruits. After a few moments on the palate the fruits become richer and are joined with hint of vanilla that the Edradour spirit is renowned for. This is a whisky not to pass by for collectors.
A recent release from Speyside distillery BenRiach, known for its inventive maturations, this whisky has been drawn from four casks – bourbon barrels, virgin oak barrels, red wine casks and Pedro Ximinez sherry casks. With an age statement of 21 years, this whisky plays expertly with the classic flavours that come from these cask finishes – vanilla and cinnamon, with red fruits, honey and barley sugar. It is quite a contrasting pairing, but definitely a very welcome one on the palate.
And for a few Scotch whiskies that are much rarer and harder to find (but which are definitely on the ‘must-try’ list!):
Glenfiddich – Winter Storm
Finished in unusual French oak icewine casks, it is sweet and rich with a slightly dry, crisp finish. This is very much a whisky for those looking for something out of the ordinary.
Edradour – Sauternes Cask-matured
Aged for around nine years this beautifully golden whisky leaves honey and raisins on the palate that falls seamlessly into the finish. It is also worth nothing Sauternes wine is extremely hard to produce, adding to the limitedness of a whisky lucky enough to be finished in a cask.
Glen Moray – Cider Cask finish
This surprising whisky is the collaboration of Master Distiller Graham Coull and Thistly Cross Whisky Cider. This malt is a little harder to get your hands on with the Glen Moray keeping it for a bottle-your-own at the distillery. On the nose there is fresh pears, with a hint of cider vinegar and honey. To taste, cooking apples with a strong sherbet fizz that leaves a long tangy apple flavour to finish.
So whether you’re new to whisky, or just looking to broaden your flavour palate, the development of ‘finishing or second maturation’ has allowed innovative distillers to venture into new and unfamiliar profiles. Ultimately nudging us, the whisky lovers, to expand our idea of the spirit.”