Wood work

Posted 05 February 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Wood work

“What do you want to be when you grow up Timmy?”. “I’d like to be a whisky brand ambassador mummy.” Said no kid ever. Yet. Alongside the growth in the popularity of whisky has come an increased desire from the fandom to work within their hobby. As much as Master Distillers and Master Blenders are in the spotlight – so too are those whose roles requires them to be out and about (hopefully physically once more in the not-too-distant future), talking the talk about the wonders of whisky. But whilst there’s countless pieces written about the importance of this role within the industry and of outreach in general, there’s one profession which receives far less attention that it deserves given its vital importance to the creation of whisky – the role of Coopers.

The now sadly defunct scotchwhisky.com was to my mind always a wonderful source of whisky knowledge. It focussed not just on the liquid itself, but on the countless facets which summed together make up world whisky. The economics, the social impacts, the raw ingredients - the richness that makes the whisky industry so varied and so interesting to explore and seek to understand. It was one of the few places where you’d reliably be able to find insight (and thus promotion) of the significance of Coopering. From exploring the rite of passage ‘Blackening’ to highlighting important changes in the makeup of profession with the first female cooper made hires by Diageo. I miss scotchwhisky.com. It was an important resource.

The large swathe of whisky bloggers and vbloggers for the most part all seem quite content to focus on the whisky part of the whisky industry – I.E. tasting notes. And when they look to explore the conception and creation of whisky, that exploration usually only touches upon what a cask physically is (I.E. the type of wood and its size) and how it has been subsequently used to shape the aroma and flavour of whisky. Few ever dwell on how these vessels have come to be crafted and the skills (and physical strength) that are required by those working in the Coopering profession.

It always pleases me to see someone visiting the behemoth that is Loch Lomond and subsequently spending their column inches writing about the coopering facility there rather than the stillhouse. That’s not to say that the stills are not a wonder of ingenuity (they are). But the coopering operation is equally impressive and far from a common sight when visiting most distilleries.

Distillers, blenders and particularly brand ambassadors are the most visible manifestations of whisky industry personnel – often selected *because* of their larger-than-life personalities. The industry needs them. But the industry also needs coopers, and it would be good to see these folk celebrated more for their skills and craftsmanship. That’s not to say that we need an Icon of Whisky – Cooper of the year. But I’d not complain one jot if we got one. As much as the industry loves to celebrate tradition and heritage - coopering is a manifestation of those same traits.

Through my work at Bimber, I’ve tried to shine something of a spotlight on the skills and significance of coopering to the production of whisky – it’s vital to the operation of that distillery. And going forward I’m liking going to be attempting to do moreso on the pages of The Dramble.

Today’s review selection from the Firkin Whisky Company have all required the expertise of coopers. As a neccessity to their conception. The independent bottler has selected a unique route to produce its selection of single malt whiskies – very much drawing from the notion that I explored last week – that bottlers are increasingly looking to not only be a guide to wider whisky exploration, but to shape the profile and flavour of whiskies through their own ingenuity and imagination.

All of the Firkin Whisky Company’s expressions are matured in custom casks constructed from a combination of both 1st fill ex-bourbon American oak and virgin limousine French oak. The proportions of staves of one particular type vary with each cask, but were specified to me as roughly 70/30 US vs. French. This type of construction is not without some considerable skill. Wood types and therefore wood grains and the pliability of the oak once it has been shaped varies greatly. Crafting a customised ‘firkin’ cask is not something that a bottler can do themselves without the assistance of a skilled cooper. Similarly, these American/French ‘frankencasks’ are far from an industry standard – to be best of my knowledge there is not a cooperage in the world who is producing these style of amalgamations as any type of ‘norm’.

Firkin take their cask divergence one stage further then just the physical production of their custom vessels – they pair each with a fortified wine and then season them. Each ‘soulmate pairing’ is selected specifically for the style of distillate to be matured (between 1-2 years) – but with each working from the same fundamental basis of possessing the profiles of both American white oak and French limousin at their heart. Super interesting.

The company is relatively new to my horizons – bottling all of their four releases (that we’ll explore below) at a common 49.8% ABV. The ABV apparently selected as the midpoint between the birthyears of the founder Mike Collings and Blackadder head honcho Robin Tucek (1948 and 1949) – as you do! Also of note is the pricing structure of the releases here in the UK – all pegged at £69 via Top Whiskies – which has lately become something of a whisky shop in their own right.

The Dramble reviews Firkin Whisky Company Benrinnes 2008 - Firkin 10

Bottle Name: Benrinnes 2008

ABV: 48.9%
Distillery: Benrinnes
Bottler: Firkin Whisky Co.
Region: Speyside

Our first dip in to the Firkin Whisky Company comes courtesy of a 2008 Benrinnes. Bottled in 2020 at the bottlers' standard 48.9% ABV this release has spend some time in a custom ‘firkin’ cask seasoned with madeira wine. Whilst madeira is not a frequent cask fill there are plenty of examples of madeira matured whisky that have been produced over the last few years – its popularity is certainly growing.

305 bottles were produced from custom madeira cask #307384. You can pick one up from the Top Whiskies website for £69.

Nose: Pastry, toffee, digestive biscuits, whipped cream and banana peels – so banoffee pie. Together with curry leaf and reductive notes of marmalade and figs. Running throughout – clove studded oranges and rose petal aromats together with build a earth equality. Dilution reveals more overt madeira wine – burnt sugars and walnut oils alongside peach melba.

Taste: An effective ABV for the distillate – the arrival offers and impactful, yet breezy mouthfeel. Seville orange oil, Terry’s Chocolate Orange and dusty wood spices – clove and nutmeg – sit with spent espresso and a tingle of white pepper. Citric pangs punctuate the development alongside a palpable earthy quality – sun-dried soils. Reduction softens things up quickly, but the overall shape of the whisky is retained – sweeter stone fruits are presented together with candied peels.

Finish: Medium in length and still on the orange/coffee vibe. Darker chocolate and aromatic wood spice fade to a finish.

An impressive first stop on our Firkin Whisky Co. journey. This Benrinnes is packed full of defined and expressive aromas and flavours – it has quite clearly been matured in a cask that has had an agreement with the distillate. Soul-mate wine indeed. Well integrated, communicative and exceedingly quaffable.

Review sample provided by Top Whiskies on behalf of Firkin Whisky Co.

Score: 86/100

The Dramble reviews Firkin Whisky Company Tullibardine 2012 – Firkin 49

Bottle Name: Tullibardine 2012

ABV: 48.9%
Distillery: Tullibardine
Bottler: Firkin Whisky Co.
Region: Highlands

Firkin Whisky’s 2012 Tullibardine – is by-lined as ‘Firkin 49’ - both after the founding date of the distillery (1949) and owner Mike Collings’s number of years working within the whisky industry. As well as coming from the American/French oak stave combo cask, it is a product of both oloroso and amontillado sherries (concurrently).

Bottled at the end of last year, 306 bottles have been produced from custom cask #652504 – they can be purchased via Top Whiskies for £69.

Nose: An exceptionally nutty selection of aromas – almond oil, walnuts and royal icing covered marzipan (without the fruit cake underneath). Strawberry cordial and caramel wafers are joined by Twix bars and suede leather, whilst in the background, Eaton Mess has been livened with a few sparing drops of balsamic. The addition of water offers a more reductive (so that’s the oloroso rather than the amontillado) quality – jams, preserves and compotes – with both berry fruits and orange additions.

Taste: Rich, nutty sherry from the get-go. Rum-soaked raisins, crunchy and bubbly honeycomb and light and fluffy sponge cake. All the nuts (especially walnut) sit alongside drinking chocolate whilst orange liqueurs and a punnet of berry fruits is pepped up by a sprinkling of ground ginger and pepper. Dry, earthiness runs throughout together with polished oak and tobacco leaves. Dilution presents sweetness alongside a syrupy texture – favouring the oloroso overt the amontillado once more – orange gel, strawberry foam sweets and a selection of reduced, sugar preserved jams.

Finish: Medium with chocolate becoming more bitter and a cask char that that’s dry and almost fizzing in quality.

Firkin Whisky’s Tullibardine 2012 is yet more proof (as if you really needed anymore) that judging a whisky by its colour is a folly. Whilst there’s a cheerful golden hue to the liquid – its profile is altogether darker with rich, animated sherry running throughout. The use of two types of sherry within one cask can sometimes feel a touch gimmicky, but here the qualities of both ably shine – both independently and together. One is sweeter and more reductive, the other nuttier and drier in character – but combined they straddle the line between sweetness and spice admirably. Oh, and it’s just plain tasty stuff too. Winning.

Review sample provided by Top Whiskies on behalf of Firkin Whisky Co.

Score: 87/100

The Dramble reviews Firkin Whisky Company Caol Ila 2010 – Firkin Islay

Bottle Name: Caol Ila 2010

ABV: 48.9%
Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottler: Firkin Whisky Co.
Region: Islay

Always good to have something peated in an initial line-up from an indy bottler – and Firkin’s is a 2010 Caol Ila that rather than being served in a more usual 1st or refill ex-bourbon barrel, comes with a custom marsala wine maturation.

325 bottled have been produced from this rather unusual cask (#324069). Delivered at the bottler’s standard ABV of 48.9% - this is noted as ‘original strength’ which frankly I find to be a point which will likely cause confusion. This ABV is not natural, nor cask strength, but rather a product of a discussion. Fine enough - but nevertheless, the use of ‘original’ on the label by implication implies a level of unaffectedness – which is simply not the case here. Language means different things to different people.

The release can be picked up via the Top Whiskies website for £69 – the same price as the other bottlings in the Firkin series. I do like this single pricing structure. Nice.

Nose: Meaty with bacon lardons and burnt with a combination of melted plastic, ash, medicinal wipes and an electrical box fire. Golden syrup and nut brittle joined smoked caramel whilst residue minerality and sea breeze lurk in the background. The addition of water presents citrus fruits – St Clements together with additional antiseptic peat cues and ozone.

Taste: The arrival is meaty – roast beef dinner served next to an ashy log fire. Medicinalness is never too far behind – sticking plasters, ointment together with lamp oils. Then comes a combination of sweetness and salinity – crunchy toffee apples with an additional sugar dusting alongside a huge wave of brine and salty pasta water. Minerality persists into the back palate – hewn granite and limestone – together with persistent salinity. Dilution feels ill advised, reducing the fruity sweetness levels and emphasising the one note that’s already too domineering - salt.

Finish: Medium to long – with bacon Frazzles and serrano ham together with crushed aspirin minerality and dogged saltiness.

Despite favouring coastal and mineral whisky styles – this Coal Ila sadly exceeds my comfort zone for hard-hitting salinity. And at the same time, it leaves me wondering whether the marsala wine treatment has really paired well with the Caol Ila distillate style – to my palate, there’s less of an exchange of flavour and character here and more of a simple addition of sweetness atop of the powerful maritime notes. Distinctive and different but it doesn’t quite work for me.

Review sample provided by Top Whiskies on behalf of Firkin Whisky Co.

Score: 77/100

The Dramble reviews Firkin Whisky Company Aultmore 2010 – Firkin Rare

Bottle Name: Aultmore 2010

ABV: 48.9%
Distillery: Aultmore
Bottler: Firkin Whisky Co.
Region: Speyside

The final stop on our Firkin Whisky exploration takes us to Aultmore and ‘Firkin Rare’. Here’s the custom US/French oak casks have had a saturation of tawny port wine.

The release of 273 bottles from custom cask (#800670) is available as of writing via Top Whiskies for (no prizes) - £69.

Nose: Immediate expressive berry fruits – wild blackberries, redcurrant jelly, cassis and berry gelato. Battenberg cake and desiccated coconut sit with lacquered oak and beeswax polished tables whilst freshly picked mint provide a herbal coolness. Reduction transposes the nose to reveal more stone fruits – apricots – alongside a cup of mocha and crumbled rich tea biscuits.

Taste: Impactful on the arrival – 48.9% is spot on here. Blackberries, and press blackcurrants – Ribena time. Dark ground chocolate and sponge cake sits with sticky toffee pudding, whilst walnut oils and stem ginger are given a polished oaky kick. Water offers a brighter outlook with more red berries than blackberries -cranberry and redcurrant – whilst golden syrup is joined by ginger and brandy snaps.

Finish: Quite long with persisting berry fruitiness and drying, mentholated dark wood.

On paper, tawny port Aultmore doesn’t necessarily feel like a ‘rare’ whisky. But not only have I struggled to find another example of this pairing, but also, and similarly to all other Firkin releases – the custom American/French oak casks are far from a gimmick, offering palpable influence. Here the combination is unique – and in that sense ‘rare’. There’s a touch too much dryness from the port wine in the finish for my liking – but other than that, this is on-point throughout. Very very easy to like.

Review sample provided by Top Whiskies on behalf of Firkin Whisky Co.

Score: 87/100

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