Before the nosing and the tasting, observing the colour of the whisky can sometimes provide hints as to its characteristics and maturation. But, whilst the hue of the liquid plays a significant part in the overall appeal of whisky, its often at this visual observation stage that our inbuilt presuppositions start to kick in. Darker whisky, being rich and sherried. Lighter whisky being light and less flavoursome. Neither of these two statements are necessarily true, and to my mind it’s a mistake to overly focus on the lustre of a particular whisky – like so many things, it is not a marker for inherent quality. But, there is one type of cask maturation which can result in an particularly vibrant hue – the pink of port casks.
It’s important to note that not all port casks will result in pink whisky – It’s not a certainty by any means. Pink colouring will depend on the type of port used (some are more oxidative than others), the activity left in the wood (how often the cask has been reused), and the length of the maturation/finishing period. Likewise, if the original colour of the whisky, from whatever predecessor barrel it was first matured in, was particularly dark, the port colour extracted will largely be subsumed and imperceptible.
Port types vary greatly, and if you start to get into categorisation and vintage, it can become rather bewildering – nevertheless, unlike whisky, the cask itself plays little part in the port ageing process – it’s merely a container with a (hopefully) neutral environment. As such, when using port casks for whisky maturation and finishing, in many ways, it’s the liquid itself that is more significant that the wood – the level of port leaching from cask to spirit can vary greatly. Some will result pink, others won’t.
Likewise, ‘blush Scotch’ is not only the preserve of port cask maturation – particularly active red wine barriques have been known to imbue a similar tone. I remember many years ago, a slight press furore around the release of Bruichladdich Flirtation – the use of Mouvedre wine casks producing a particularly vivid pink in just five weeks of finishing. At the time, the media tried to suggest that pink whisky was both an aberration and/or simply a marketing gimmick – of course, finishing in both red wine and port had taken place for many years -particularly poor journalistic knowledge about the whisky industry, or in essence an early outbreak of fake news.
Tobermory 14 year old Port Pipe Cask Finish was released at the tail end of 2017 – the distillery exclusive bottling was matured in ex-bourbon for nine years before being re-casked into port pipes (long and narrow 650 litre casks) for a five year long finishing period. 534 bottles were produced at 57.8% ABV.
Nose: Opening with big sweet and sour berry fruitiness – raspberries, cranberries and cherries – combined with jammy apricots, orange marmalade and tart rhubarb. There’s a real sense of dusty wine cellars throughout – damp soils, wet oak and rancio mustiness. This sits with some leafy and viney greens – moss, bracken, garden vegetable leaves and under-ripe fruits. In the background, chopped walnuts. Reduction offers a dramatic change in complexion that develops the longer the liquid rests in the glass – creaminess, burnt toffee and pan sugars with gingerbread and an almost industrial edge to the underlying spirit.
Taste: Oily and thick on arrival with reduced raspberries and cherries (part jammy, part cultured and fermenting), orange liqueur and a raft of spiciness – cinnamon, pepper and charred oak. The mid-palate offers some unexpected salinity alongside walnuts, vanilla cream and toasted sappy oak. Water again has a similarly divergent effect as the nose – fruit teas, Chantilly cream, raspberry pavlova and marzipan. Diluted and then rested, this develops an increasingly salty bite alongside the buttery fruitiness.
Finish: Medium with syrupy red fruits, tingly pepper and drying oak.
Despite Tobermory 14 year old Port Pipe Cask Finish being highly wood-focussed, the end result is quite effective. Both the fresh and concentrated fruit notes have impact throughout, and there’s a lovely textural weight throughout the development. Whilst not required, dilution does transform the balance of this whisky – moving the focus away from the cask and towards rather luxuriant creaminess – which when combined with the volume and definition of fruits on offer makes for a winning combination. A tasty limited edition that’s worth keeping an eye out for.