Human evolution and its link to fire is well documented – heat, cooking, cremation, propulsion, ritualistic devil worship or just good old-fashioned pyromania. Humans and fire go way back. And so, does whisky production and fire. Regardless of your friend’s insistence that they detest any matured liquid that’s been anywhere near a source of flame or combustible material – they’re mistaken. From a light toast all the way to a heavy char - *all* whisky cask have been subjected to a baptism of fire – many of them, more than once.
Though now lost to the annals of time, I’ve read on more than one occasion that exposing casks to fire originated through a necessity to purge vessels of their previous contents prior to refilling – a rather (and literally) scorched earth policy to not wanting to clean up after oneself. Regardless of whether these beginnings are true, toasting and charring have become a fundamental characteristic of cask preparation – least of all because few people want their whisky tasting like green, sappy, liquid oak.
The first time that warmth is applied to a cask is when staves are dried – usually by the heat of the sun. But once the coopers get their skilled hands on the wood – the heat is turned up. Staves are commonly arranged around fires which both toasts them, but also, allows them to be bent into the required shapes to form barrels. At the same time, this heating process transforms the surface of the oak – breaking down the structure of the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. The result has several effects which prove vital to successfully maturing (nice) whisky.
The burning of the compounds in the oak unlocks flavours (in the case of hemicellulose – caramel and nuttiness. And in the case of lignin – vanillins and wood spices) and also tannins. Wood tannins - themselves a hoarder of oaky flavoured lactones bring with them both colour and textural elements. The toasting/charring of surface of the staves forms a layer of charcoal, which provides a filter for the interaction between the spirit and the wood (removing undesirable influences such as sulphur), as well as, particularly in the case of deep char levels - a method of ingress for the liquid to contact the exposed inner oak. The deeper the surface is split and striated, the deeper the spirit can penetrate the wood and ergo the more intense the interaction with the oak..
After several fills casks will commonly be reconditioned – a process known as dechar/rechar. If you’re a smaller distillery this might mean a painful afternoon with a scouring pad – but if you’re a larger operation in possession of both a de-charring cabinet and a dude with an industrial flamethrower the process of reconditioning a cask takes mere minutes – and is impressively efficient to watch.
And that moves us on to the Currach Atlantic Kombu Seaweed Cask which we’ll be looking at today. As opposed to other methods usually employed to add external flavours into the spirit – for instance peating barley or macerating additives with which to season casks (which may or may not raise eyebrows with authorities depending on which country you’re in) Origin Spirits Ireland have taken a route which I’ll freely admit to not having considered before. They’ve burned dried seaweed into the inside of the cask by utilising it as an additional ‘fuel’ during the charring process.
Originally triple distilled and matured in ex-bourbon casks from West Cork Distillers - this single malt (which was preceded by a ‘Founder’s Edition’ bottling at 60% ABV) has been finished in virgin oak. And it’s these virgin casks – which also require the tender kiss of some flame, which is where the Kombu seaweed comes in. The marketing talks of the Tatly Family from County Clare and their hand harvested 100% organic Kombu – certainly this sounds a lot sexier than edible ‘kelp’. It also starts to intrude on mentions of the terroir of the land and sea – careful now. But regardless, the process itself, is to my mind, rather innovative in conception. And it opens up questions for what could be permissible – both for Irish whiskey and wider.
Whilst Ireland’s specified usage of casks is looser than Scotland’s (oak is not mandated), a quick look over both Technical Files reveals that neither specifically considers the possibility of additives which are derived from the charring process. Though, in the case of the Scotland, many ‘sins’ are covered under the deliberately vague and oft-time repeated mantra that “all casks used must still result in a spirit which has the taste, aroma and colour generally found in Scotch whisky.”
But here we’re not dealing with maturation in a precursor cask which either did, or did not, have a ‘traditional’ history of usage – here the additive comes in the wood preparation stage. Does this open the door to drying out a whole manner of previous unpermitted additives and simply charring them into the innards of a cask as a means of circumventing their usage as a previous liquid fill? I doubt it. The catch-all stipulations are there to allow a leeway for innovation, but do not exist to side-step best practice. Nevertheless, whilst charring cask additions is unlikely to be ‘the future’ – here, in the Currach Atlantic Kombu Seaweed Cask whiskey – it’s utilisation most certainly demonstrates that it is a physically effective method for adding both aroma and flavour into a final product.
The bottling is an NAS expression and is delivered at 46% ABV. It is not widely distributed (particularly outside of Ireland), but can be picked up from The Celtic Whiskey Shop for €55.
Nose: Certainly atypical. Out of the bottle, a tangible nutty influence with marzipan-encased Battenberg cake and chopped macadamias. Royal icing provides sweetness and sits against powdery (but not quite chalky) minerality, salt and vinegar crisps, rose petals and a background ‘greenness’ of vines and warmed compost. Running throughout - Playdoh (a trademarked aroma combination that consists of vanilla, cherry and salted wheat dough) and milky chocolate. Reduction isn’t required but reveals a wider selection of kitchen aromas – buttered toast and pancake mix alongside dusty salinity.
Taste: The arrival is delicate, but short-lived – the main event combo of sweet, sour, savoury and floral rolls in swiftly. Playdoh right from the off (incidentally, this is now available in cologne form for those who find its aroma particularly captivating) alongside custard=y ex-bourbon vanilla, liquorice, nutmeg and cardamom. Milk chocolate follows alongside bitter almonds (which Agatha Christie had a thing or two to say about) and tingly white pepper, which builds into the back palate. The addition of water brings salinity, minerality and the oak to the fore – green and sappy staves alongside charred heads – sadly all rather overbearing.
Finish: Medium in length with continued pepper build-up tempered by nutty milk chocolate sweetness.
The Currach Atlantic Kombu Seaweed Cask is distinctive, idiosyncratic and an oddity. Whilst I would not associate its characteristics directly with seaweed, the influence of the kelp is apparent throughout and manifests itself in a sometimes pleasant, sometimes slightly uneasy, nuttiness. It works better on the nose where the cask is largely in check and natural sweetness provides a suitable foil. On the palate there’s less equilibrium and the curiously bitter, herbal, nutty combination, which, whilst throught-provoking, feels less integrated and at the same time neither inherently Irish, nor fundamentally coastal in origin. Without a doubt, a curio - but one which is worth trying.