Another month and another chance to show my dedication to the cause that is Whisky Squad. We were in The Gunmakers as usual but my head was partly elsewhere – it was IPA day. I’m a big fan of beer and IPA day sprang up quite quickly and quietly, thus clashing with Whisky Squad – nothing should happen on the first Thursday of the month apart from The Squad, this I decree. Anyway, I focused on the whisky and missed out on the rather epic looking IPA Day dinner at the Dean Swift, although I will be making a pilgrimage there to sample their wares soon enough.
Right, whisky. This months theme was the not-particularly-opaque ‘Grain and Grape’, focusing on the use of old wine casks in whisky production. As usual Mr Rook, The Whisky Guy, led us through the whiskies, with the guiding influence of Jason and Andy from the darkened end of the table. The history of using wine casks to mature whisky is about as old as aged whisky production itself. Bourbon started appearing in the USA in late 1700s and their barrels didn’t make it over to the UK until a while later, so the casks used by the early Scottish distillers would have been whatever else they could have got their hands on – barrels originally used to transport brandy, port, sherry and wine. Barrels were expensive and thus it made a lot of sense to reuse them. This led to stories of whiskies matured in fish and nail barrels (it wasn’t only liquids that casks were used to store) but in general it meant that once booze had been emptied out of the cask someone would buy it for reuse, in Scotland this was often for whisky maturation.
Speyside is not only a whisky production hub due to the water, ease of hiding from the taxman and pretty hills, but also due to the areas proximity to the mouth of the Spey and the port of Lossiemouth. It was once a local trade hub, providing sea-access for the market town of Elgin, although it has declined in recent years as road and rail links have taken over from the sea as the main transport links in Scotland. One of the commodities that would have flowed through the port is booze and the casks would have ended up empty in Elgin after their contents had been sold, giving the many local distilleries a hub not only to trade their whisky but also to pick up much needed maturation wood.
These days the use of non-bourbon casks has dropped across the industry for both reasons of flavour and also economics – the US laws requiring bourbon to be filled into new casks mean that there is a ready and cheap supply of barrels flowing from the west of the Atlantic. The economic reasons are especially notable when it comes to the cheaper end of whisky production, with bourbon casks coming in at $50-$70 each (although that number varies every time I’ve heard it mentioned) and wine casks often hitting $200+. Wine casks are often also different sizes to bourbon barrels, often being much bigger (port pipes and sherry butts getting up around 300-400 litres), which can also mean that they influence the whisky more slowly due to a lower wood/spirit ratio, although that is merely one factor in the speed of maturation.
Along with the drop in using wine casks for the full length of maturation there has been a rise in the use of casks to ‘finish’ whisky, with the spirit being transferred from their original cask (often a bourbon barrel) into a different casks for a secondary (and in some cases tertiary) maturation before bottling. These extra periods have no legal requirements, with my idea of using a sherry barrel as funnel probably constituting a sherry cask finish, but generally will last from months to a small number of years, enough time for the cask to have some influence on the whisky. While this does have economic reasons it does also have the flavour related bonus of not allowing the often strong flavours imparted by wine casks to overpower the flavour of the whisky, adding another dimension. There are a number of detractors within whisky fandom, with the standard complaint being that if the whisky is good in the first place then finishing it isn’t necessary. While I’m certain that there are many substandard whiskies that have had their rough edges hidden by finishing (although the received wisdom is that finishing a bad whisky isn’t going to make a great whisky) it is just another tool in the distiller’s box to create the flavours they want from their various products. Anyways, onto the tasting.
We were tasting blind as usual and the first whisky had a nose of vanilla, spiced apple, apricot and pastry, with Mr Matchett starting off his run of predictably surreal but worryingly accurate tasting notes with ‘Imperial Leather’. To taste it started syrupy, with hints of orange blossom wine, and had a body of blanched almonds with tannic edges (a touch of nut skin?). It lingered on the finish with a delicate sweet and perfumed woodiness. Water brought out more spice in the flavour and some sweet grape, giving us an idea of what sort of cask this had sat in. The paper came off to reveal that our suspicions on the finish were correct – it was Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or, finished in Chateau d’Yquem casks. D’Yquem is a one of the world’s most sought after sweet wines, the only Sauternes to be given a rating of Premier Cru Supérieur. It is, like Glenmorangie, owned by booze and handbag company LVMH which makes it the obvious cask choice for many of the experiments conducted by their master distiller Bill Lumsden, one of the pioneers of finishing whisky. This was one of their first commercial wine finishes and has changed a little over the years, now carrying an age statement of 12 years where before it was NAS and generally thought to be 11-13 years old. It’s a great example of what wine finishes can add to a whisky – it’s sweet and delicate with a nice balance between the bourbon influence and the wine finish.
Number two was one that I brought along – we had a sample bottle turn up on my desk at work a few weeks back and it sat unloved until it went into my bag for the evening. On the nose it had damp hay, smokey cheese rind, buttered corn, cream and floral syrup – a combination christened as ‘Jorvik Viking centre‘ by the room. But in a good way… To taste it was sweet, with grape juice, light fruity liqueur and rose Turkish delight. It finished quite pungently with celery and pepper, backed up by a sweet white chocolate. Interesting and not what I expected at all – it was revealed to be Glen Moray 10 year old Chardonnay cask. It’s not entirely released yet and we’re not entirely sure if that’s what they’re calling it as there seems to be no information about it other than what was scribbled on the label of my sample bottle – it’s 10 years old, bottled at 40% and was matured solely in Chardonnay casks. This is not the first time that Glen Moray have produced a Chardonnay matured whisky, as they used to be owned by Glenmorangie and were often used as the location of Bill Lumsden’s experiments, but this is the first that they have produced since their 2008 sale to La Martinquaise. I’ve tried a number of their previous attempts through the SMWS (also owned by LVMH) and have found them to be overly savoury and meaty, not something I generally look for in a whisky. This one, however, is rather tasty although the 40% bottling strength does feel a little low. Hopefully it will actually appear on the market shortly – they’ve had a launch party, but I’ve heard nothing more…
Number 3 was our first pink whisky of the night, a category of whisky that both Jason and I have been examining with the idea of one day doing a tasting consisting of purely pink drink, but have as yet not found enough decent ones to fill a roster. This one had a nose of ‘Turkish delight jelly tots’ (from my notes), sour fruit, and a faint mustiness. To taste it was sweet (again) with rose petals, sweet strawberry and grapes. It finished with a nice mix of sour wood, nuts and more rose petals. The cover was removed to show that it was Arran Amarone, one of their now standard wine finished whiskies in their range. Amarone is a high strength red wine made from partially dried grapes, giving it a big raisiny flavour while still remaining dry (I need to try some – the descriptions from the internet intrigue me).
Next was one that jumped out the glass with struck match sulphur and ‘cow shit methane’. A meaty nose that didn’t entirely appeal to everyone. To taste it had cherry, vanilla, butter and cinnamon, finishing with calvados, more cherries and almonds – a hint of Cherry Bakewell. The cover came off to reveal that this was Benriach 17 year old Burgundy Wood Finish. Benriach have been known in recent times for doing slightly mad things with maturation and finishing, so this is, strangely, a slightly more sensible variant. Other than the ridiculously sulphury nose (and I’m a sulphur fan), which did burn off a bit as the whisky sat in the glass, it was quite nice, with a lot of the wine flavours coming through.
Number 5 was presented with Darren letting the cat out of the bag a bit early, by letting us know that the bottle on the table wasn’t the actual whisky bottle, as the real bottle was quite distinctive. Combined with the wine finishing theme that sort of gave away which distillery it was from… On the nose it had toffee, sour raspberry and cream. To taste it had astringent wood, tannins and sugared strawberries, with a finish of very jam, chocolate and light smoke. The real bottle was brought out and I was slightly shocked – it was Bruichladdich Black Art 19 year old, 2nd edition. It was shocking as last time I tried it I didn’t like it at all, but this time I was significantly more favourable. Bruichladdich are a little bit obsessed with the wine finishing, coining the term ‘ACEd’ (Additional Cask Enhanment-d) and sticking their whisky in almost any kind of cask that master distiller Jim McEwan can find. I’m not even sure what sort of casks have been used to finish this one…
The last whisky on the table for the night had a nose of coal smoke, brine, fresh lime juice, samphire and general ‘sea on the rocks’-ness. To taste it had big wood smoke to start, with underlying grape, syrupy sides and menthol, finishing with a strange but tasty combination of smoky cheese and sweet winey wood. Adding water was a good plan, with more sweetness appearing and it getting more buttery and oily in the mouth. The grand reveal showed it to be Longrow Gaja Barolo, a bottling from Springbank (Longrow being their smokier variant) and the latest edition of the whisky that made me realise that Longrow was a brand I should keep an eye on. This is aged for 5.5 years in bourbon casks before being switched to casks that formerly held Barolo (a traditionally heavy Italian red wine) for a further 1.5 years. I’d not tried this one for a few years and it reminded me how much I like Longrow in general – I’m writing this in Edinburgh (where I’m on holiday for a week) and I’ve already made a trip round the corner to Cadenhead’s (the shop owned by Springbank) for some of their living-cask Springbank (quite Longrow-like at the moment – sherry and smoke) and will be returning for some Longrow before I leave.
The next Whisky Squad is already sold out, although depending on the venue there may be some more spaces appearing (keep an eye on the website), and will feature Grant’s global ambassador Ludo Ducrocq and an interesting take on their whiskies. More than that I cannot say (mainly as I’m not sure what’s going on…).
Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or
Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£45
Glen Moray 10 year old Chardonnay Cask
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%. Price unknown…
Arran Amarone Finish
Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 50%. ~£45
Benriach 17 year old Burgundy Finish
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£45
Bruichladdich Black Art 2nd Edition
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 51.1%. Discontinued
Longrow Gaja Barolo
Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 55.8%. Discontinued
Charly beat me to the conveted spot of ‘first post about this month’s whisky squad’ and has a write-up over on her blog.