Despite being publically unveiled as a core expression in 1983 by Balvenie for their Double Wood (and very likely having been practiced hidden away from prying eyes in warehouses years before this) – cask finishing is still regularly described as a ‘new technique’. A bewildering assessment of the passage of time considering that in the same year the UK was being introduced to the wonders of the Pound coin, mandatory driver seat belts and the timeless expression “Can I have a P please Bob”. A significant number of today’s whisky enthusiasts were nothing more than the promise of a good night out in 1983 – and yet tradition is quite the adhesive concept. Whilst whisky is always moving forwards, perceptions usually follow at a much more languorous pace.
Watching a recent Zoom tasting from a well-known, and arguably traditional distillery, I was reminded of the prejudices that still pervade whisky – and how these too sadly take a considerable amount of time to be ironed out from people’s consciousnesses. “If you’re finishing whisky then that whisky must have been crap” – an incredulous (and frankly insulting) sweeping statement – which was backed up by the equally outdated illustration of Murray McDavid purchasing the then silent Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. The suggestion being that everything was cask finished at this time due to all of the remaining, pre-purchase, stock being nothing more than sub-standard bulk that was destined for blending. Whether or not this is true, or indeed that Laddie fans of old believe it be to the case is frankly irrelevant – once again the strange passage of time in the whisky world results in a tired example from two decades hence being exploited as a justification for traditional thinking in a modern world.
When looked at over the 500 years of the production of whisky (as we might potentially recognise it), cask finishing makes up a mere 37 years of that timeline – and even less if you look at the widespread adoption of the technique throughout the world’s whisky producers – which arguably has only occurred within the last 20 years. But what was once thought of as being a bit clever/buggering about with something which should not be buggered about with – is now a commonplace and standard practice.
It is certainly worth noting at this juncture that not all cask finishes are successful – sometimes the integration of two casks feels more like an uneasy cohabitation rather than a true marriage. Similar, as I have mused about on The Dramble regularly – some spirit styles are more, or less suited to particular finishes – not all distillate offers comprehensive versatility – and that’s saying nothing for the quality of either the original or the secondary cask.
And yet other examples are quite miraculous. Whiskies full of wonderment where the finish has elevated the whole beyond its original composition.
I suspect many of the prejudices (outside of just being a diehard traditionalist) stem from a tendency of some producers/bottlers to seek to salvage a whisky whose original maturation has not resulted in the ideal or expected result. Whilst in my opinion this practice is declining, it still certainly occurs. And in doing this, producers exasperate the biases which still exist about finishing – to the point where there now exists a whole new lexicon for describing a finish without actually calling it such:
Secondary maturation (the technical term – as loosely defined as it is)
ACE’ing (Additional Cask Enhancement)
Double wood / triple wood etc
Finishing is an awkward term that some producers feel required to avoid. As a word ‘finish’ comes loaded with the implication that the whisky was not complete/ready without the added time in a new cask type. It suggests that the liquid requires more maturation before being released. And it also sounds short. And short feels bad in a world where time in cask is still a highly sought-after commodity/concept.
Whilst an initial maturation of three years is a knowable (and enforceable) amount of time – a finish has no such specificity. Whilst commonly producers will rerack for a period of 6-18 months – this is by no means an obligation. A finish could be as little as a week (which would achieve nothing save for in the smallest of vessels). But equally a finish could be many years – in some cases even longer than the original maturation. I.E. 4 years in ex-bourbon followed by 6 years in ex-sherry. This does occasionally happen. And why not?
As a word, a ‘finish’ sounds brief and transitory. And that doesn’t sit well with those who believe that twenty years in the whisky world is a mere blink of the eye.
There’s then the thorny issue of ‘indrink’ – nicknamed by Jim Beam as the devil’s cut. This is the volume of liquid absorbed into the wood during maturation – and speaking from experience I can let you know that this can sometimes be quite substantive. As such, there are some who suggest that a finish can result in an effective, hard-mixing of the initially matured spirit directly with the precursor liquid. In essence your ex-bourbon matured whisky when re-racked into sherry directly takes on the ’indrink’ of that sherry and becomes inherently influenced by it, over and above the actual maturation of the secondary cask. Whilst distilleries want a cask ‘wet’ to ensure integrity, there are times when you wonder quite how much liquid was left swilling around in the barrel before refilling.
Nevertheless, regardless of how much flavour is caused by indrink, and in my opinion this can be quite substantive, it’s also my view that it’s the results which should count. Finishing should be judged on the quality of the whisky produced – not on preconceptions of either how badly wrong it can go – nor by biases on what is, or is not tradition. If twenty years ago still feels like yesterday you might be living a youthful existence, but you’re equally being unnecessarily fettered to the past.
Today we have the last of the current batch of ‘Single Casks by The Whisky Exchange’ in the spotlight – an Ardmore that has been matured in ex-Laphroaig casks. Not a finish, but nevertheless an amalgam of peated styles where the influence of the precursor cask has played a significant role in defining the final shape of the whisky.
The TWE Aird Mhor (independent bottler speak for Ardmore) was distilled in 2009 and matured in one (#707912) of Laphroaig’s many spare quarter casks. The distillery has used these for a variety of bottlings, including 2018’s OB 1996 20 year old vintage. 242 bottles have been produced from this single cask at an ABV of 58.5%. They’re available from The Whisky Exchange for £54.95.
Nose: Inland earthiness from the off – soils, vegetable patches and potting sheds. Underlying fruitiness pushes through – unripe apples and gooseberries – whilst in the background, salinity, sticking plasters and boiled potatoes are joined by clay and alluvialness. The addition of water expresses brighter notes with pineapple cubes and pear drops alongside sharp and tart floor cleaner.
Taste: More powerfully composed and with much more overt peat presence – lemon drops and orange juice sit with a combination of bonfire smoke, antiseptic and moist, earthy peat. Salinity runs throughout – rock pools, pebbles and gravel – together with ferns, bracken, moss and building pepperiness. Dilution reveals a sense of creaminess with piped buns, together with drying wood fire smoke, cocoa nibs.
Finish: Quite long with minerality from slate sitting with sweet candied apple peels, liquorice and smouldering leaf mulch.
TWE’s Aird Mhor 2009 provides an enjoyable ride at an agreeable price for the quality and ABV. Whilst this is very much my type of ‘thing’, it’s worth pointing out (as other reviewers have done) that the quarter cask impact is quite palpable here. As such, the result feels midway between the distillate styles of Laphroaig and Ardmore – a combination of coastal and inland peat influences. You might prefer sampling these separately – and indeed, nothing is stopping you looking elsewhere to do so. But as someone who regularly enjoys both distilleries, I’m quite happy with the occasional combo.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
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