Sitting back and waiting for spirit to properly mature is not the plat du jour that it used to be – getting younger stocks out of the doors and onto the shelves is now a commercial imperative for many distilleries. And there are a number of ways to achieve this: smaller casks; STRs; super-charged heavy finishes; employing peat and of course utilising virgin oak. Whilst you’ll see ‘new’ oak being used more and more in the production of single malts (oft times without acknowledgement on the label), it’s a maturation tool which seems to divide the crowd. Adding additional oak and sweetness (particularly to younger whiskies) can give them additional depth and flavour beyond their years. But at the same time, it can result in a pile of whiskies which all largely taste the same.
There’s a disconnect between the use of virgin oak to add additional layers of flavour, and its utilisation to simply curtail the length of maturation period required to produce a sellable product. But, there’s similarly a disconnect in palates too. Whilst I tend to naturally lament an overabundance of vanilla flavours which result from an overuse of virgin oak, increasingly I’m seeing and hearing from folks who are actively seeking it out. Natural woody sweetness, vanilla, coconut etc – these flavours all appeal to folks. And whilst I personally don’t understand the desire to drink high ABV wood juice, there’s clearly demand out there for it.
The use of virgin oak was not always permitted by the Scotch whisky industry. The US requires fresh oak for bourbon production, and traditional values hold that Scotch is better being matured in a cask which has previously held a precursor liquid. These set traditions are also being broken down - the US is now utilising refill barrels (for American whiskey rather than bourbon) and Scotland is has been plumbing for greater cask diversity for years – just look at the recent SWA rules change. Taken in isolation, the selection of casks available to distillers offers a much greater canvas for experimentation – and this includes the use of virgin oak – not just for super-charging early maturation, but for adding interesting layers to whiskies which have reached 10 and 12 years of age.
The art and the nuance is exactly the same regardless of the cask type – it’s about balance. Too much of any cask will upset the delicate equilibrium.
Glenglassaugh was closed from 1986 through to 2008. Deemed surplus to requirements by (then) owners Highland Distillers, a phoenix-like re-emergence was spearheaded by The BenRiach Distillery Company in 2013, and since 2016, with Brown-Forman at the reins. But, that’s 22 years of activity and that sort of period of closure does no favours to building up a depth and breadth of stock. Whilst Glenglassaugh has been distilling once more for over a decade now, they’re had to be rather creative with their recent releases. One demonstration of this creativity is the utilisation of finishes – taking some of their younger whiskies and looking to ‘beef’ them up a bit. The result of that is the distillery’s ‘Wood Finished Range’ which was released at the start of 2018 – a first foray into cask finishing. Second nature to many distilleries – treading new ground for Glenglassaugh.
The Wood Finished Range consists of four expressions: Pedro Ximenex, Port Wood, Peated Port Wood, and Peated Virgin Oak. The Dramble reviewed the Peated Port Wood Finish earlier in the year. Now it’s the turn of the Peated Virgin Oak Wood Finish.
Similarly to the other releases in the range, the Peated Virgin Oak Wood Finish has been aged in 1st fill American oak before being re-racked. The re-racking in this instance is unsurprisingly – fresh American oak and a finishing period of ‘up to two years’. The bottling is delivered as an NAS – though given the history you can calculate that it’s less than 10 years of age – likely 6/7 in my opinion. Pricewise, in the UK you’re looking at a shy under £60 from both Master or Malt and The Whisky Exchange. Whereas if you’re over in Germany the wood finished range will cost you substantially less – closer to €40. Quite the variance.
Nose: Vanilla is immediate and upfront – it sits alongside whipped cream, toasted oats and shaved coconut. Jolly Ranchers (Green apple), grapefruit and melon provide a fruit ensemble, whilst waffles and cinema popcorn are joined by cut grass, reeds and pine resin. In the background, further herbaceousness with ferns, bracken and lightly smoked mosses. Dilution adds both additional creaminess and smoke whilst unleashing a washing powder note of lavender talcum powder.
Taste: The arrival is sweet and sticky with wood – vanilla, cobnuts and toasted sesame seeds alongside butterscotch sauce and maple bark chips. The peat is more perceptible than on the nose, and very in-land in styling - burnt logs, scorched soils and smouldering greenery (wet leafy bonfire). In the back-palate, honey and chopped almonds, and some signs of spirit youthfulness. Reduction brings out a pleasant soft and juicy side with lemon peels and balm alongside caramac and dry charred cask ends.
Finish: Short to medium in length with dry wood and dry smoke.
Glenglassaugh Peated Virgin Oak Wood Finish pairs typical ex-bourbon cues with a pleasant inland smoke style. Whilst it’s youthful, it’s both agreeable and easy-going. But, it’s fair to suggest that both the peat and particularly the virgin cask influence have somewhat buried the underlying spirit character. Smoked vanilla is the order of the day here, and to my palate that’s becoming homogenised. Whilst that’s disappointing to my tastes (I’m here to drink spirit!), I can see the expression holding greater appear to those who enjoy the natural sweet flavours which American oak imparts. Nevertheless, the combination does work and I’d be interested in revisiting it in a few years’ time when the spirit has had further primary maturation – then, a well-judged virgin oak finish could be just the thing.
With thanks to the Js.
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