Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Innovation or Thrift? The Rise of Whisky's Unusual Oak Finishes

Photo: Mike McCune (CCL)
Glenomorangie have done it with the godfather of Super Tuscans, Sassicaia (and with Sauternes and others to great effect). Bruichladdich have played with Chateau Le Pin (Pomerol). Edradour seemingly have done it with anything they can find from Barolo to Chateauneuf du Pape. Glenfiddich – Madeira and Rum of course. And the list goes on, but what is really driving the recent surge in unusual oak finishes for the Scotch Whisky distilleries? 

Is it the clich├ęd frugal nature of the Scotsman (have you heard the rumour that the Grand Canyon was started by a Scotsman who lost a coin in a ditch?), or the other stereotype of the Scots being great innovators (telephones to televisions)? Or maybe something else completely?

The Scotch Whisky industry matures around 97% of its spirit in ex-American Bourbon barrels. Barrels that, by some estimates, have increased in price between 600-800% in the last 8 years alone. This of course must drive distilleries to search for new ways to keep costs in check.

Some are taking the approach of releasing younger entry levels single malts (often without age statement, a contentious issue for some) so they can get the barrels re-filled earlier with fresh spirit. Others are giving extra love and attention at the Coopers to their oak to maximise its life (some apparently will be used for over 100 years now). It is entirely possible that this is also encouraging distilleries to look elsewhere than the Bourbon industry for their barrels, particularly for a final wallop of flavour and complexity added toward the end of the maturation period (say the last 6 months).

These different barrel finishes, aside from potentially saving the distillery money are also an attempt to add something unique and special to the Whisky. In a market driven by fantastic growth and with an unbelievable increase in the level of competition, brands will do what they can to differentiate themselves and their products. Obscure finishes achieve this in a way that drinkers often understand as artisanal and limited, which in a world where ‘craft’ sells must undoubtable help with sales.

Not that using non-Bourbon barrels is a new path for the industry. Indeed 100 odd years ago wine casks were the favoured maturation vessel. Maybe with the enormous expansion of the industry and the resulting modernisation this is a nod back to simpler more romantic times.

Whatever the motivation is the end results are definitely worth a taste! Here’s a few I had a taste of recently:

Glenmorangie Cote de Beaune wood finish. 46% ABV (£204.99 from Amazon). 10 years in ex-Bourbon followed by 2 years in ex Premier-Cru red Burgundy.

Copper coloured, with a slight reddish tinge from the oak finish. Sweet vanilla and blossom nose with hints of allspice. The palate is really smooth with lots going on; sweet dried fruits and spice warmth. There are hints of the Burgundian earthiness coming through, but the added complexity from the finish is present in a subtle and unpretentious way. Amazingly long finish. Overall a whisky to savour and enjoy slowly.
There's bottles of this floating around on whisky auction websites so it's worth keeping a look out.

Benromach Wood Finish Chateau Cissac (£39.99 from DrinkFinder). 45% ABV, approx. 6 years in First Fill ex-Bourbon followed by 20 months in Chateau Cissac (Red Bordeaux, Haut Medoc).

Amber-Gold in colour with an enjoyable medium peaty/phenolic nose but more towards medicinal iodine than clean smoke, with a hint of damp forest floor with some floral notes. On the palate, the expected peat is there, along with some nice cinnamon and pepper notes, but overall rather bitter I found. There is good citrus as well, and the length is good but overall unbalanced. Good but not memorable. This one is currently on release and can be picked up from for £39.99 + delivery.

Edradour ‘Straight from the Cask’ 11 YO Barolo Finish. Vintage 2002 (£56.57 from Amazon). 57.7% ABV. First 9 years ‘in hogsheads’ with a 2 year finish in Ex-Barolo barrels.

It was a dark bar where I tried this, but to me the colour was verging on tawny. The nose was sweet sherry like, orange peel marmalade with loads of leather. The palate was leather and nuts with maple syrup. If I was generous I’d say maybe I could taste some of the ‘bitumen’ character from the Barolo, but not certainly. Overall though very luscious and smooth. My type of Whisky.

Aside from the Amazon link above, you might find this on the secondary market - they should be a bargain at around £60.

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