My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.
I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.
While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.
Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.
I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky Live – Compass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree.
First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.
It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.