As a younger man my father was always keen to remind me of the folklore wisdom of “grape or grain, but never the twain”. But like a bad chef always blaming their tools, it’s an easy excuse to lay the culpability for a hangover on mixed drinking as opposed to either the intake volume or simply dehydration. Whilst reality provides zero scientific evidence that combining different alcohol types will (in isolation) produce an increasingly undesirable effect – anecdotally many drinkers, myself included, are rather fond of the different configurations of aroma and flavour that it’s possible to produce from amalgamation and experimentation. Sorry Dad.
As the global whisky industry continues to boom, there’s both an increased desire from consumers to experience diversely composed spirits, as well as an increased willingness from producers to experiment to meet this demand. Whilst finishing is not a new enough concept to be termed as ‘innovative’ in most compositions – there is still ample room left within the technique to demonstrate that combining the inherent characteristics and profiles of different types of alcohols can produce an enhanced and elevated end product, with increased favour and complexity.
Grains with grapes is becoming a much more regular sight – at least in Scotland where expressions from red, white, fortified and even sparkling (I might have misgivings about those on a technical level) wines have all become woven into the fabric of distillery’s ranges. But over in the US there’s still something of a stigma in certain quarters about giving bourbon a secondary soak in oak. The first major US distillery to release a cask-finished bourbon was Jim Beam – Distiller’s Masterpiece which featured an additional maturation in cognac casks was unveiled back in 1999 (a later version of the bottling explored PX sherry finishing). Compare that to Scotland where finishing has been part of product development (particularly behind closed doors and conducted by warehouse men themselves) since the 1980s.
But despite grumbles from purists, finished bourbon has found a place in the market (both domestically and overseas) – and similarly to other distilling nations, US producers are increasingly looking to different cask combinations with which to heighten and expand the flavour profile of their spirit.
And once again, cognac casks are back in play 21 years later with the upcoming release of Rebel Yell Cognac Barrel Finish.
Cognac is produced from a double distillation in pot stills of fermented must from Ugni Blanc grapes. Its denomination comes, similarly to wines produced in the country - from its regionality – specifically Charente and Charente-Maritime in Western France. Cognac's use for whisky maturation and/or finishing has a far shorter history than that of sherry – despite the spirit being produced since the 17th Century. The oldest bottlings I’ve discovered (please let me know if you’re aware of any older) are the Distiller’s Masterpiece and a one-off expression from Glenmorangie – both from 1999. However, if you look at the use of other distilled grape spirits – you’ll find some much older examples such as a 1970 Speyside 22 year old released by Gordon and MacPhail that features a full-term maturation in a brandy cask. Brandy being permitted to be produced anywhere in the world – Cognac being a protected appellation d'origine contrôlée designation.
Down in the South West of France in the Gascony province, Armagnac is produced. Similarly to cognac it is produced from a distillation of fermented grape must – but as opposed to pot stills, utilises columns (continuous stills). It is also crafted from a wider pool of grape varietals – Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle Blanche and the Ugni Blanc that is often synonomous with with Cognac production. As far as I can tell, the use of Armagnac as a finishing or maturation cask for whisky production rarely takes place – I can find only a handful of examples – all from small, provincial French distilleries.
Cognac casks are coopered to particular specifications – either virgin of refill, but always from French oak sourced from the Limousin or Tronçais forests, situated to the east of Cognac producing region. And the age of the matured spirit has its own classification, which is a wee bit more complicated than that of a simple age statement. As well as measuring production on an annual cycle until the 1st April each year – otherwise known as the Compte system – Cognacs are also provided with one of four categorisations:
VS – Very Special (Compte 2 minimum – more than 12 months from point of distillation)
VSOP – Very Special Old Pale (Compte 4 minimum)
Napoleon - (Compte 6 minimum)
XO – Extra Old (Compte 10+)
This changed in 2018 with the specification of Napoleon and XO which were previously used fairly interchangeably. That’s likely enough Cognac background (d)rambling for now – onto today’s review bottling.
The Rebel Yell Cognac Barrel Finish, Master Distiller John Rempe utilised a 6-month finishing period – which in bourbon terms is a fairly standard amount of additional maturation time, rarely have I seen finishes longer to date. The release is being rolled out in the UK shortly before then hitting the shores of Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, France and Switzerland. Interestingly it will not be released in the US itself. The whiskey has been bottled at 45% AVB – 6,000 bottles have been produced and here in the UK one will set you back £34.
Nose: Expressive and vibrant with apple turnovers, cherry Bakewell tarts and apple flavoured Jolly Ranchers (hard candy). Fruits are joined by prominent spicing from cinnamon apples soaked in butter, whilst vanilla-piped buns are sprinkled with golden sugars and desiccated coconut. Reduction ups the perception of buttery pastries with choux buns and shortcrust alongside chopped pecans and background singed citrus peels.
Taste: A fulsome arrival with good mouth cling. Cinnamon spiced butter sits with cider apples and cherries, whilst building pepper and stem ginger spices are joined by plenty of cask-led vanilla, toasted oak and rich toffee. In the back palate the cask finish offers more definition with melon balls and gooseberries joined by golden cereals and light hints of leather. The addition of water offers a transposition in the overall shape of whiskey – opening on spices with the fruits pushed into support. Barley water and crunchy, crisp toffee enlivened by dusty cinnamon, whilst underripe bananas and a touch of menthol bring up the rear.
Finish: Medium to long in length with vanilla-forward oakiness, touches of mint leave and lingering cask spice.
The Rebel Yell Cognac Barrel Finish feels none too dissimilar to last year’s French Oak Finish – and given the oak type this shouldn’t come as any surprise. Similarly to 2019s release, the combination between spirit style and wood selection works successfully here once again – butteriness amalgamating agreeably with the underlying sweetness and spiciness of the Rebel Yell distillate. A logical progression from the previous release and more than enough to persuade me to keep my eyes open for what Rempe has planned for 2021.
Review sample provided by Chapman Poole on behalf of Lux Row Distillers