Earlier this year the change in the SWA rules around cask maturation opened the floodgates to a wider array of experimental wood types which could be utilised in the production of Scotch whisky. The move came as little surprise (though why cider casks are still effectively outlawed is beyond me), given the noises Diageo had been making around the need for wider cask experimentation for some time prior to the rule change. An announcement a few years back of a special edition of Don Julio reposado tequila finished in Scotch whisky barrels (from the Buchanan’s blend) was swiftly followed by a leaked report detailing the company’s intention to create a variety of new product types, whilst at the same time seeking to rewrite the regulations around what constitutes Scotch whisky.
Fast-forward to 2019 and that’s all now taken place. I guess that a 40% share of the global Scotch market place carries a fair amount of SWA clout. But, irrespective, the circle is now complete - and Diageo have a pile of Don Julio aged whiskies that they’re going to release onto the market at some point in the future.
Whilst part of me recoils at the thought of tequila whisky (not being a tequila drinker – we all have to focus down eventually), the other part sees the rather perfect symbiosis that this offers Diageo – the possibility for a near endless cycle of scotch matured tequila and tequila matured scotch. It’s clever. I’m not sure it’s desirable, but it's clever. Others within the industry will likely benefit from this opening up of the SWA regulations – indeed I’ve spoken to a few distillers who have confirmed that they’re already started experimenting with newly permitted precursor liquids. Including tequila.
But, at the same time, I find myself wondering at what point does Scotch loses its character? Tequila is about at Scottish as Toyota. Its aromas and flavours, whilst produced as a result of distillation, could not be more different than that of whisky. When does experimentation and innovation start to denigrate the inherent characteristics that have been established for generations?
Time will tell. And I'm watching.
Whilst you all should sit back and strap in for what is likely to be a raft of tequila-aged whiskies over the coming years, for the time being their numbers are highly limited. Tiny (one man-band?) bottler Whiskypack over in Germany has been messing around with blood tubs over the past decade, producing an array of finishes that includes tequila (and absinthe?!?) for his Sir John Barleycorn’s Selection of bottlings. Similarly, over in Germany, St Kilian Distillers released a distillery only tequila cask expression earlier this year. Other than that, the only trace of tequila experimentation I can presently find comes from Balcones over in Waco, Texas – in the form of Boutique-y whisky’s second batch (of a planned four) of independently bottled American single malt whisky.
Boutique-y’s first batch of Balcones single malt was a two year old matured full-term in oloroso. The followup is rather more radical, upping the age to three years and utilising a 24 month tequila cask finish. 212 bottles have been produced at 52.1% ABV and a sticker price of £69.95 (for a 50cl) from Master of Malt.
Now I’ll be totally honest here – given the very limited number of tequila cask whiskies currently available, this will indeed be my maiden voyage. That’s daunting as a writer – I spent years drinking thousands of whiskies before every putting pen to paper, and yet here I am endeavouring to qualify a whisky type with no previous baseline or experience. Oh well. Someone has to start somewhere <deep breath>.
Nose: A unique and idiosyncratic combination of brown sugars, BBQ’d burnt ends and grown pumice stone with an assortment of vegetal matter – sage, tarragon and wet leaf mulch. Running throughout, ginger-spiced chocolate, sultanas and reclaimed planking. The tequila casks manifests itself in the form of lime, salt and thick-fleshed succulent plants – in effect margarita mix. It’s feels almost two drinks in one, and yet there is integration – the American single malt can just about stand up to the cask. Reduction ups the herbal components with potpourri and rosehips, whilst adding soft caramel and a scattering of cherries.
Taste: Strangely softer, yet surprisingly powerful. Blackcurrant jam, cherry liqueur, and dried red berries sit with burnt pan sugars, chocolate, maple sauce and BBQ’d meats (as if a few drops of smoke extract had been added to the mix). The oak here is heavily scorched – creosote and charred cask heads with touches of cinnamon and vanilla. Again the tequila cask has a palpable influence – prickly pear, tangible agave and a vegetative pepperiness. The addition of water lessens some of the astringency from the oak and adds fresh lime juice alongside a further twist of black pepper.
Finish: Quite long, quite sweet. Molasses and drying charred wood sit with agave, green leaves and arugula pepperiness.
This Boutique-y Whisky tequila finished Balcones single malt is both intriguing, and exceedingly hard to properly score. I’ve simply no benchmark as to how a tequila cask can, and should, integrate when used as a precursor liquid for secondary maturation. All I can do is baseline this against other US-style single malts I’ve sampled, and in that regard it performs quite favourably. The quartet of sugar, spice, herbs and vegetation provides both layers and depth – though the end destination of the combination seems a little less clear to me – should the single malt or the tequila cask dominate here? At times they both take the lead. It’s all very egalitarian.
The whole experience has persuaded me that perhaps tequila and whisky can mix – but that the amalgamation is not something I want an overabundance of on my shelves. Similarly, if the cask qualities which are presented in this Boutique-y Balcones are indicative, there’s not going to be a wealth of Scotch whiskies robust enough to retain their spirit character over and above the tequila influence. This Balcones has had two years of finishing – many lighter styled whiskies are unlikely to be able to stand up to as much.
Review sample provided by Atom Brands