About the size of it
Posted 20 April 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Despite many in the whisky industry considering the use of smaller cask as a modern conception – the custom of storing goods, liquids, foods, ores, grains or even explosives in diminutive vessels can seen to have occured for centuries. For nearly 2000 years – until the introduction of pallet-based logistics and containerisation in the 20th Century – the high degree of integrity and portability that wooden casks possess - made them an ideal container for the transportation of bulk goods. But whilst a rose-tinted view of the goods trade would have you believe that transportation – particularly of Spanish sherry – was always in huge and cumbersome butts – smaller casks – octaves – can be seen to have been historically used as long ago as the 1850s.
Following the 19th Century Excise Act, duty was levied on the volume of spirit distillers produced on a per gallon basis. As such, whisky was distributed straight from the still to the market – no time to waste. The transportation of the spirit was often conducted in the same vessels in which sherry had arrived in the UK from Spain – butts. However, their large size, unwieldly construction and less manoeuvrable nature led to them being re-purposed into something more portable – octave casks. Coopered using the same staves from the butt – but reduced to 1/8 the size (around 50 litres – though sizes do vary), these miniature vessels were historically used to ship whisky internationally – however in terms of their modern application their purpose is far less on transport and now much more readily focussed on the effects their size has on the spirit they contain.
Octaves are used for rapid or ‘accelerated maturation’. The nub of the concept being that the greater liquid to surface ratio contact that results from a smaller cask size produces a faster biochemical reaction – I.E. maturation. The whisky industry – largely led by the work of Duncan Taylor – who trademarked the name ‘The Octave’ over a decade ago – have mainly taken to using these smaller casks to imbue whiskies with additional aromas and flavours from secondary liquids – I.E. sherry – as opposed to looking at them solely as a mechanism for getting whisky from the still and out the door as quickly as possible. As such, most (though not all) octave matured whisky is delivered to the customer in the form of a ‘finish’ – and indeed, most of these finishes are far from long in the grand scheme of additional maturation – anything from a few months through to perhaps a year at most.
The reasons for an octave's higher degree of influence on a developing whisky is very much a factor of its biological makeup. Oak is composed of a variety of organic compounds including cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – and it’s the latter two of these which have a higher degree of activity when it comes to their interactions with alcohol. Hemicellulose contains a variety of different wood sugar sources which, when released via toasting or charring produce an equally wide variety of extractable aroma, flavour and colour compounds.
Lignin on the other hand possesses guaiacyl and syringyl – both of which are converted to aldehydes, acids and phenols when extracted through the interactions of alcohol and oxygen. All of these compounds are present no matter what cask type a distiller uses – however in the cask of smaller casks such as octaves, the extraction is far quicker and more pronounced. As such, these are not casks which can simply be left in a warehouse and forgotten about – unless you enjoy sucking lollypop sticks as opposed to drinking nice whisky.
Whilst octaves are rarely used to speed up the entirety of the maturation process – there is still something of necessity for haste with any finish. And that to my mind can be both a boon or a bane. Boon – in that octave finishing allows a distiller micro-control over an additive liquid – bringing an overlay of additional aroma and flavour without necessarily losing the underlying distillate profile or texture in the process. But a bane in that the high levels of extraction cannot then be matched with a long ‘resting’ period for those extracted compounds to relax and merge into the bulk of the liquid – the interaction is quick and sometimes in my opinion a little rough around the edges.
Nevertheless, I believe that octaves are here to stay – least of all because they allow distilleries the opportunity to experiment on a small scale. As new secondary liquids (I’m looking at you tequila) come to be used as a seasoning/finish in the wider whisky market, being able to micro maturate allows producers to assess what longer and larger (and therefore more costly) volumes of spirit might turn out like – without the fear of having to tip away large quantities of poorly composed whisky – or as seems to sadly be increasingly the case – blending in away to hide it, or just selling it to a customer base who seemingly will buy anything.
Today’s triptych of octave finishes comes from Atom Brands Darkness range. Originally launched back in 2014 and focussed solely on sherry octaves that possess “an unparalleled richness and depth of flavour. The kind that can only be achieved by the liquid to wood ratio in octave cask maturation.” Right then...
Bottle Name: Darkness 8 year old
Distillery: Undisclosed Speyside
Bottler: Atom Brands
Darkness 8 year old was introduced as a continuous expression of the previously ‘one shot’ octave-finished range back at the start of 2020. It hails from an unnamed Speyside distillery who utilise worm tubs and two and a bit distillation – so answers on a postcard for that one. The spirit is initially matured in ex-bourbon casks before being re-racked into octaves for “at least three months.” Bottled at 47.8% ABV, it’s available via Master of Malt for £49.95.
Nose: Strawberry bootlaces, glace cherries and brightly zesty orange peels are joined boot polish, leather conditioned and a glug of balsamic. Toffee and vanilla runs though the centre alongside chocolate covered macadamia nuts and sappy resinous oak. The addition of water reveals a wider array of dried fruits with raisins and currants sitting with crisp pastry cases and freshly toasted bread.
Taste: Opening sweetly and syrupy with a strawberry and orange marmalade combination, reduced plums and a scattering of dried fruits. Things quickly turn towards the cask with the fruits souring and being joined by prominent earthy oakiness, charred staves and an unexpected blob of polystyrene cement. Reduction loosens the grip of the cask on the spirit with a softer and sweeter outlook focussing on biscuit dough, marzipan and toffee pastries.
Finish: Medium with dry, tannic oak and a fading amalgamation of toffee, chocolate and berry sweetness.
Darkness 8 year old is a modern, cask-driven whisky – and one which irrefutably demonstrates the ability of an octave to have a tangible influence on flavour, colour and oak extraction over a relatively short space of time. Here the sherry sweetness comes through consistently alongside darker, brooding aromas and flavours. However, patience and dilution both seem required to tease the most of this expression in terms of its balance - out of the bottle it feels a touch synthetic and coerced which doesn’t produce a flawlessly harmonious union.
Review sample provided by Atom Brands
Bottle Name: Darkness Benriach
Bottler: Atom Brands
Benriach distilled towards the tail end of Billy Walker’s time at the helm of the distillery – initially matured in ex-bourbon and then given a short additional stopover inside a sherry octave. Botted at 56.8% ABV with 230 bottles available (shortly I believe) this will set you back £50 for a 50cl bottle.
Nose: Immediate and prominent salted caramel alongside a sugar-dusted berry strudel fresh from the oven. Tangerine zest provides a pep, whilst a stack of griddled pancakes and a plate of shortbread add rich and sweet treats. Straight-forward, but quite appealing. Dilution offers less definition and brightness, pushing darker fruits – blackberries and plums to the fore alongside orange peels and breakfast cereals.
Taste: We’ve had the sweetness on the nose – so I guess now is the time for the spice. Aromatic and forceful – stem ginger, pepper and cloves with a split red chilli providing heat and prickle. Fruits try to push through – nectarines, apples and pears – all nicely reduced – whilst burnt caramel, cask char and golden barely all hark to the ex-bourbon origins of the spirit. Water takes the edge off the spice, but it also favours the cask over the distillate – toffee and malty undertones alongside sawdust, freshly planed oak and pencil shavings.
Finish: quite long with pepper and ginger spiced fruit lingering and a domineering oakiness.
The nose of this Benriach Darkness 7 year old is really rather lovely and alluring – however the palate is less inclined to give you a hug and more persuaded to punch you in the face with spicy heat. It’s certainly impactful – but it’s a bit too extreme for my palate – and likewise proves tricky to tame without at the same time manifesting too much of the cask.
Review sample provided by Atom Brands
Bottle Name: Darkness Irish Single Malt
Distillery: Undisclosed Ireland
Bottler: Atom Brands
With all the nascent demand for Irish booze, I have to say I’m a little surprised to see a 14 year old single malt given the octave treatment by Atom Brands for their Darkness range – but then again, with Boutique-y Whisky in the stable, there’s already an outlet for this type of thing eau naturale. This unspecified Irish whisky (though being single malt should help you hone in) consists of 227 bottles and has been finished in an oloroso octave before being bottles at 57.6% ABV (cask strength? If not – surely pretty close to it).
This will release – which I believe is coming to retailers shortly costs £99.95 for a 50cl bottle.
Nose: Dusty aromatic allspice – almost trad pot rather than single malt in character. Reduced blackberries and plums sit with sultanas and figs, whilst split vanilla pods, cinnamon and cloves provide a lighter touch alongside a cup of filter coffee and plate of biscotti. The addition of water makes things sweeter. Way sweeter – almost tinned, syrupy fruit with an unnecessary large spoonful of sugar added. It’s quite tutti-fruiti offering peaches, apricots and nectarines alongside toffee apples a cup of café latte and a glass of root beer.
Taste: Nicely weighted with a pleasant mouth cling. Toffee apples, scattered lemon and orange peels, coffee grounds, mocha and crystalline ginger are given a firm beating with the oak stick – sawn 2x4, sawdust and a combo of both older dry wood and young sappy, resinous oak. Dilution offers a much creamier composition with milky coffee, chopped walnuts, gingernut biscuits and a handful of crushed redcurrants.
Finish: Medium to long in length. Initially quite sour and dry, but developing berry and apple character an the sweetness associated.
Darkness Irish Single Malt 14 year old delivers a lovely, welcoming, almost pot still style nose. But I struggle with the palate undiluted – despite the alcohol being well-integrated for the high strength, the cask influence here is very firm – to a point where you can physically feel the tannins around your lips and gums – and in that sense something of a distraction. When reduced down to closer to 50% I found this much more enjoyable – more supple, broader in scope and without an army of tannins threatening to dry my mouth out completely. As such this is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde whiskey for me – and I’ve scored it right down the middle of its two distinctive personalities.
Review sample provided by Atom Brands