It’s hot in the UK right now. Too hot. But whilst I’m feeling weary, fatigued and a little sluggish that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m being entirely unproductive. Things are just taking a little longer at present (like writing - sorry folks). The same is true of oak – it is a false assertion that a tired cask is an entirely dead cask – there are methods to both reinvigorate wood and to utilise and harness its characteristics at a point where it exhibits lower levels of activity. Indeed, some of the most famous and lauded bottlings have been matured in wood which nowadays some would argue was knackered.
New and eager distilleries – particularly those releasing new and eager (read: young) whisky will often raise their first fill wood policies up the flagpole. And in doing so they will assert that only fresh oak (2nd fill at worst) has the life and activity levels required to enhance the inherent characteristics of a spirit. And in many ways they’re on trend for the profile of a large number of whisky drinkers (particularly newer ones) who have, over the past two decades, moved towards compositions where the oak influence vis-à-vis the spirit is much more pronounced.
However, the difference between fresh oak and well-worn oak is not nearly as black and white as these distilleries claim. Whilst of course a tired refill cask will do little to a spirit being bottled at 3-5 years of age, over longer period of time casks with a diminished inference and extraction can achieve wonderous things. Patience is a virtue.
One only needs to look at DLC’s Rare Malts to see a manifestation of this concept. All were filled at very high ABVs into arguably knackered wood in something of a blind panic. But 20-25 years later the happenstance of these arguably haphazard fillings bore fruit. Many of the bottlings from the Rare Malts collection are now acclaimed, collecting and fought over – and this is not solely because of their 1970s (heyday) origins, but because their slow and gentle gestation has resulted in bottles which typify the spirit characteristics of each distillery whilst possessing both elegance and considerable impact (many still possess high ABV).
Of course, this example and others are something of a corner case nowadays – distilleries don’t tend to fill casks in dread and then leave them decades in the hope that something might come good from tired wood. Indeed, the trend has moved away from longer maturation ‘guess work’ towards planned cask rejuvenation which can extend the life of a cask for another 30 years+.
No real surprises as to why – after the cask is ‘re-activated’ and the relative activity level increased, it can be used readily and, importantly, turned around quickly. Few if any want a refill wood policy which requires decades to come to fruition – casks need to produce results in 10 years, or even less.
But there are still examples of worn-out oak being utilised poorly. And many of these come via the indy market where casks which might reveal hidden qualities decades later are traded and sold as if they were an investment market 'short'. They are rarely if ever a good investment/purchase on short terms.
Whilst I would certainly argue that leaving a notionally duff cask for half a lifetime can produce a very special kind of magic that is impossible to replicate using fresher, 1st or even 2nd fill wood – at the same time, taking one of these casks and bottling it young will often produce little more than a raw whisky. Some might (and do) argue that these imperfect maturations are exciting because they allow the spirit to shine – but there’s a level of acceptable ‘nakedness’ to any expression. The influence of the cask should not just be looked at in terms of the flavours it imparts and the gradual relaxation of the spirit via oxygenation, but it should also be thought of in terms of how the wood and charcoal layer from charring actively ‘cleans up’ the byproducts of fermentation and distillation. Naked whisky is fine enough – but not at the expense of clarity and proper development.
Tired wood has its place within the industry – and not just in front gardens as plant potting. But there’s far too many knackered casks not being utilised as their characteristics should determine – low and slow. And in these instances, the whisky that results is both often under-developed and also tacitly supportive of the notion that older casks are inherently poorer casks – when arguably they have simply disgorged too hastily.
Worn out doesn’t mean unproductive. And old dogs don’t always need new tricks - they just need patience and persistence.
Edition 31 from Whisky Sponge draws from this notion of tired oak to present a 2003 Edradour described as “topsy turvy” – and adorned with a Stranger Things-eque upside down world upon its label. It’s explanation (depending on where you look) also does something which I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see other bottlers and distilleries jumping on over the coming years – it makes a heavy play of its precursor cask’s provenance.
In the case of this Sponge release, we’re looking at a refill cask that was previously used to mature a 1962 Signatory Glenburgie. The only one I can find reference to is this one – but a 1998 disgorgement is five years before the filling date here, and a wine treatment also feels a little improbable. Then again, I’m unaware of any others of this vintage from Signatory Vintage. Overall, it doesn’t really matter – the point here in terms of the profile of this Edradour is that the cask is particularly old, and its activity levels have dramatically diminished. But the point is also that the cask’s origins are alluded to – and 1962 will have far more appeal to some than 2003.
It's rather the nice thing in terms of history and transparency – and despite labelling regulations often being tighter than spandex shorts – it is also a presently under-tapped marketing resource available to distilleries and bottlers in terms of possible storytelling. I’ve certainly seen attempts along these lines before – ex-Port Ellen casks noted as either being a reason for a light peaty influence added to a refill whisky – or just an excuse to add a zero onto price tag. But the trope hasn’t quite extended as far as it possibly could (yet).
Not got anything particularly interesting to say about your whisky? Don’t worry – just highlight the vintage nature of the cask you’ve reused. “From the makers of that excellent bottling back in 1988 comes this new release, which bears little to no resemblance to it, but was matured in the same cask.”, “Drawn from ex-Sir Peter Blake casks”, “Matured in casks which previously sat next to a very expensive Springbank”. I jest – but I’m genuinely perplexed that we’ve not seen more attempts to contextualise refill casks – perhaps it’s only a matter of time?!
The Sponge Edradour is a release of 334 bottles and comes at a rectified (that’s a good thing) ABV of 53% having spent 18 years in the 1962 Glenburgie hogshead. I was going to note how I find the pricing (just shy of £200) difficult – but then as of this weekend the bottling has sold out – so what do I know?
Nose: Orange marmalade and golden barley sit alongside yeasty buns, fermenting beer and minerality – part rocky with pumice, part flinty with gunpowder and aluminium cans. Running throughout is French toast and a selection of tarts filled with fleshy stone fruits. Dilution reduces the overall funkiness – raisin scones, buttered nut loaf and sliced green apples.
Taste: Straddling oiliness and greasiness the palate tells a similar story to the nose. Barley water and oat cakes together with brass polish, industrial lubricant, damp hay loft and spirit sulphur. Peach cobbler is joined by burnt toffee and waffle mix whilst limestone cliffs, putties and clays add a sense of alluvialness. Water again diminishes the oddness/character (delete as appropriate) – cider apples, unrefined sugars and barley bread alongside cask pepper and a lick of chilli heat.
Finish: Very long and on a combination of sweet and sour fruits, barley fields and metallurgy.
Whisky Sponge’s 2003 Edradour is not a whisky that you’re likely to fully comprehend on the first sip. It’s very much a thinker as opposed to a drinker. At times there’s a nakedness to the composition where the raw ingredients are given ample space to sing loudly. But at others, it’s almost as if the whisky-making process itself has taken charge with clear notes of malty mashtuns, funky fermenters and sharp, steely stills. Either way, there’s an admirable naturalness throughout. But when reduced below the bottled ABV of 53% it’s rather a different story – not quite an alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world – but certainly far more linear.
Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks