SCOTCH WHISKY MAKERS CREATED A NEW NICHE WITH OLD WINE BARRELS
The powerful effects of oak may be a controversial topic in the international wine world, but for single malt Scotch whisky makers, the flavors and aromas that oak casks add are essential ingredients in the complex sensory mix.
Numerous factors influence the final qualities of a single malt whisky: the amount of peat in the malting, the types of barley and yeast, the size and style of the stills, the location of the distillery; all contribute to a malt’s unique character.
Regional differences have been broadly emphasized in the past by distillers, but as a marketing tool, the story has already been told. From the powerful, peaty Islays to the mellow and rich Speysides, whisky fans already have grasped, and savvy servers learned, the differences.
Scotch drinkers have also welcomed the many age expressions (10, 12, 15, 18 and 21 year olds being the most common) of malts that have multiplied in the market, showing that the relatively small but robust market can be broadened. It may help to explain why malts keep growing up more than 8 percent in 2002 while most other brown spirits are flat or down.
But some argue that it’s the wood in which the spirit is matured that has the strongest influence on the finished product. What happens in the barrel is a series of chemical reactions, with the whisky’s colors, aromas and flavors changing along the way.
It’s not just the innate properties of the wood that matter; increasingly, whisky makers are fiddling with the make-up of their barrel stock, culling selections aged in non-traditional barrels or adding mature spirit to barrels used to age dry sherry, Bordeaux or other wines, and trotting out brand extensions that provide subtle alterations of a brand’s flavor profile. It was only a matter of time before wood took a bigger role on the stage.
UNITED NATIONS OF WOOD
Scotch law makes it illegal to sell any whisky that hasn’t been aged in oak for three years. Where that oak comes from matters. The tradition of using sherry casks developed in the days when England’s taste for the sweet wine meant used barrels were cheap and plentiful; today, companies like Macallan pay to have barrels aged in sherry for their use. As US law allows American oak barrels to be used only once in the making of bourbon, those, too, became widely used in Scotch aging.
Used bourbon and sherry casks have been the wood of choice for as long as distillers have been storing Scots whisky in casks, but the primary source for these new extensions are oak casks already used to age wine, mostly, and now whisky fans are presented regularly with new choices.
The latest trend may be a bit more difficult for servers and sellers to absorb than age extensions, since the general evolution of malts through the aging process from light and dry to intense and rich is widely understood. Yet the same dynamic turning the raw spirit into something flavorful and enticing to malt lovers is at work with the use of casks from different sources.
Balvenie presents a typical case. Solidly entrenched as the fourth best-selling single malt in the US, the Speyside distillery’s best known offering is Balvenie Founder’s Reserve, aged primarily in American oak with a small percentage of sherry oak as well. A customer spotting two Balvenie bottles on the back bar might be curious about the difference between Founder’s Reserve and The Balvenie Doublewood. (The latter is matured in American bourbon casks, but then finished transferred into sweet oloroso sherry casks for up to a year.)
While the traditional once-filled, American oak bourbon barrels tend to soften the raw spirit and add some vanilla and caramel character, sherry wood tends to bring more depth and fullness of flavor, with spicy and nutty notes, more than can be discovered in the Founder’s Reserve.
How to explain the difference? If a customer has tried the Macallan, for instance, then he already knows what heavily sherried malt, one aged exclusively in sweet oloroso casks, tastes like. If the sherry notes in Macallan were a bit more rich than he liked in a malt, but thought the Founder’s Reserve too dry, then Balvenie Doublewood might be a good compromise.
HOW IT WORKS
After fresh whiskey is stored in a cask, seasonal and climatological effects will make the wood breathe expanding and contracting, giving off it’s own tannins and flavors and those absorbed from previous use. From American oak used to age bourbon come notes of toasty vanilla and an additional creaminess. From sherry barrels come toffee and nuts. Other barrels used to age different wines add character of their own.
Glenmorangie is possibly the most aggressive in wood age experimentation. The distillery has pioneered occasional offerings of malts finished in various woods in what it calls the Wood Finish Range. In the US, Glenmorangie has released versions finished in fino sherry barrels, Burgundy barrels from the Cote de Nuits, sweet Sauternes casks from Bordeaux, even Cognac and red Bordeaux casks.
Even the makers of powerful whiskies from the island of Islay aren’t immune from the trend. Morrison Bowmore Distillers wood finished range includes Bowmore Dawn, which spends 12 years in bourbon casks, then is transferred to ruby port casks for two more years where fruity, raisiny sweet notes join in the mix.
Bowmore also offers Bowmore Darkest, finished in oloroso sherry butts, and Bowmore Dusk finished in claret (red Bordeaux) casks. All have done very well in international whisky competitions.
Others go a little further: lowland malt Auchentoshan offers Auchentoshan Three Wood, matured in bourbon, oloroso sherry and pedro ximenez sherry casks.
Balvenie has not only the above-mentioned Doublewood, but also Balvenie Portwood, a 21 year old spirit matured traditionally and transferred to port casks.
But unusual finishes extend to not only wines, but also the oak itself. America’s favorite single malt, the Glenlivet, has done well with a 12 year old French Oak Finish, aged in new French limousin oak from the Dordogne region of France, normally used to age wines and Cognacs. Limousin oak, with a wider grain than American oak, lends a drier and spicier sort of oak flavor.
And there may be more on the horizon. While it’s available only in duty-free shops at this point, the Glenlivet also offers an American Oak Finish. Heavily charred casks made from American white oak are filled with aged malt and allowed to add their tangy burnt oak tones and flavors. The finished result, importer Pernod Ricard says, is an “exceptionally floral, full-flavored malt with smooth and subtle overtones of vanilla oakiness.”
As for creative finishes, perhaps the most interesting award goes to the Balvenie, where malt master David Stewart has also created the Balvenie Islay Cask 17 Year Old. He takes Balvenie matured in traditional oak casks for at least 17 years and transfers it into casks that had previously held Islay single malt for six months. Peaty notes, typical of Islay, join with the honeyed character of The Balvenie in an interesting experiment that adds another tweak to the single malt, double wood trend.