The popularity of wine cask finishing is growing. Which on the surface seems strange – there’s a surfeit of vocal grumblers and conversely few outspoken evangelists (“wine cask perverts” as termed by Whisky Exchange’s Billy Abbot). Cask symbiosis exists throughout the alcohol producing world – ex-bourbon, at one time sherry, beer and also wine. Sharing is caring. The dearth (death?!) of true sherry casks the ready availability of wine casks have combined with a market eager for wood experimentation – the result is an increasing volume of wine influenced whiskies. Like them or not, wine casks are here to stay.
But let’s be clear, wine casks are not the same as whisky casks. Indeed, they’re often not even the same as casks use for the fortified wines more frequently utilised in spirit maturation. Their oak sources, and thus inherent biological character are different. And their precursor liquids – whilst all made from grapes do not behave in an uniform fashion.
Historically, wine cask usage in whisky production was the purview of fortified wines – port, madeira and sherry. These greater ABV products both encourage interaction with the wood, as well as possess a high level of residual sugar content. And when you think of those cask types, sweetness from rich fruits is often what springs to mind. The use of non-fortified wines for maturation is a more recent development – but with less overt sweetness, and this absence playing into the hands of a higher tannin content – they’re steadily becoming recognised as being far from straight-forward to utilise successfully.
Outside of the use of different oak types – often with tighter wood grains which promote a forceful maturation packed full of spicing and tannins (particularly in the case of red wines which utilise the grape skins) – styles vary greatly. When you combine that with the huge variance in whisky styles, you’re left with a puzzle which is impossible to unpick on paper. Not every wine is going to be a match for every spirit style – a shiraz finish might prove perfectly lovely for an already robust heavily peated malt – and equally it could totally overpower a lighter more delicate malt.
Whilst the industry sees the availability of wine casks, and the clamour for cask experimentation from the market, it is having to quickly adapt to effectively delivering the goods.
I’d posit that the two facets above are the amoungst the key reasons why wine cask maturation and finishing are susceptible to such a wide variance in their results. All too often distilleries feel an inescapable allure to push their spirit beyond the confines of what it is capable of. There’s only a small selection of distillates which are truly versatile to the full breath of ages and precursor liquids – and even then, like with all whiskies – there are good casks and there are knackered casks.
The fact that enthusiasts get to try the good, the bad and the indifferent is simply testament to a waste not, want not mentality. There are few distilleries out there who would dare to entirely write off a whole cask or indeed casks of liquid which had suffered an unfortunate wine cask malfunction. Some will be blended away, much of it will be sold to brokerages. Indeed, looking over the brokerage sheets that have circulated over the last 12 months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that distilleries and wineries all had the same owners. Wine casks really are here to stay.
But wine cask finishing can and does work. On the one hand, distilleries are starting to understand which wine styles and oak types are a more sympathetic match to the inherent characteristics of their spirit. On the other, and interestingly, wine ABV’s have been steadily rising over the past decade – those 12-13% robust reds – many are now clocking in at 15%+ - a function of both the desires of wine drinkers and a warming planet.
The adaptation of the industry to wine casks will only continue, and whilst we’ll all have to labour on through the duff releases, there are plenty of notable successes. Today’s review couplet will provide you with both ends of this spectrum.
This Toberymory has spent most of its like in ex-bourbon, before being racked into an Allier wine cask for finishing. Don’t be attempting to look up who Allier are and what type of wine they produce – it’s simply a region within France responsible for producing one of the primary sources of oak for barrelling (alongside the better known Limousin and Nevers, Troncais and Vosges. Each of them have different characteristics – and each of them is treated differently depending on the winemakers requirements. Allier is notable for its particularly tight wood grain and its ability to impart spicy oak character into a wine.
Here the Allier finish (from cask #4) is unspecified in terms of its length (I’d make a punt of around 12-18 months). 357 bottles were produced. The original price from memory was around £100 (I bought it very soon after its release back in 2015), how you can still pick it up but you’ll be paying a premium of around £140 to one of the smaller retailers.
Nose: Straight out of the bottle – immediate cheese: Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Philadelphia spread – severed with a scattering of week old socks. It fades after time in the glass, but never completely loses the feel of malolactic fermentation. Running throughout – red fruits, soured and tart – cranberries and cherries. Sweetness is brought from strawberry boot laces and sticky toffee pudding, whilst salinity and minerality from limestone cliffs provides a backdrop. Reduction moves things farmwards – hay and barns with a side of hedgerow berries.
Taste: Thick and quite viscous, irrespective of the reduced ABV. Soured stone and berry fruits – tart plums and well overripe blackberries are joined by salted toffee, stem ginger, chilli pepper and salt – a full array of cask spicing. It’s all rather two note – acerbic fruits with perky spicing. After some time resting, leather, car seats and glutinous pan fats. Reduction soften things up – and brings out some much needed sweetness – syrupy red and black berry fruits with a sprinkling of brown sugar and chopped almonds.
Finish: Quite long with peppering charred wood, beach shingle and path gravel.
It should be plainly obvious already that this whisky is not going to be for everyone. One might say that its left-field and far from predictable – another that is all over the place and imbalanced. I’m more in the latter camp here sadly. The initial composition with its huge lacticness and profound sourness feels more of a chore than a joy. That said, both resting and dilution are beneficial so it’s not a disaster by any means – but I’m still not enamoured that I’ve got the rest of this bottle to wade though. Nevertheless, this feels like a tightly wrought whisky that has had a misjudged wine cask rescue/experiment attempted.
German-based Malts of Scotland seems to have a soft spot for Laphroaig – they've bottled a wealth of it over the past decade – including a solid dozen from the year we’re going to be turning to – 1998.
This 20 year old has been finished for an unspecified time in an Amarone wine cask – a style produced in the Italian DOC Valpolicella.
A wide variety of Valpolicella wines are produced from three main grape varieties: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara. One of the types of wine produced from Valpolicella is Amarone - where the grapes have been allowed to partially dry out before production has commenced. This drying causes the grapes to shrivel, but also to intensify in both sugar and flavour. As such, Amarone wines are usually high in alcohol and are often quite expensive – after all, if your grapes are half the size, you need twice as many.
The release comes from cask #18036 which gave up 322 bottles at 47.7% ABV. Last time I saw this in the wild it was £250 (Laphroaig, indeed much of Islay, is just getting perversely expensive) – now you’re more than likely going to need to frequent some auction sites to find it.
Nose: Bright, fresh and fruit forward with redcurrant jelly, rhubarb (OK, technically a vegetable) and strawberry cordial. Supporting this is a vein of coal ash – it dips and dives in an out of medicinalness with bandages and sticking plasters substituting for anthracite and vice-versa. Running throughout, a combination of coastal cliffs and sandy beaches, after time joined by soils and mulch – all rather alluvial. In the background, dusty books and firm sea breeze meet a squeeze of lime juice and vanilla cream. Water reveals petrichlor and ozone whilst the medicinalness peat is unlocked further – sudocream, pickled onions and a drizzle of balsamic.
Taste: Immediately bolder and more forceful. Overt TCP, iodine, floor cleaner and smouldering pipe tobacco. Raspberry chews and reduced liquor meet damp wood, mossiness and musty cellars liquorice and foam strawberry add a fading sweetness. Reduction reveals burnt wood – fireplace and bonfire alongside earthy smoke and dry oakiness. Juicy berries persist alongside salted caramel.
Finish: Long with ashiness, jams and preserves and lingering antiseptic.
Whilst the nose of the Amarone influence Laphroaig teases the distillery’s spirit character, the palate delivers it in spades. Quite remarkably, despite the two decades of maturation, this still has plenty of vigour and punch left in it. The aromas and flavours are precise, complementary and integrated throughout – with the wine cask adding layers of fruits and sweetness which feel in harmony with the drier, medicinally-tinged spirit. An enchanting example of sweet meeting peat. Excellent.