The Whisky Tasting Club The Whisky Tasting Club

Get Wood

Explore the wide range of influence that wood can have on Whisky.

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Although whisky only has three ingredients as such: water, malted barley and yeast, two other components impact heavily on flavour: peat and, most importantly, the wooden cask it is matured in. All the leading whisky producing countries support the view that whisky should be matured in oak barrels, but their approach varies. For instance, European malt whisky must be matured in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, straight bourbon for two years. There is a more fundamental difference between America and Europe, too. Malt whisky tends to be too delicate to be matured in fresh oak because the tannins and flavours in the wood overwhelm it (with notable exceptions, see below). Hence it is normally matured in casks previously used for other alcohol. Bourbon on the other hand is more robust, and can be matured in fresh oak. Indeed, the laws governing bourbon production state that a new barrel must be used for every fresh batch of whiskey.
This creates a happy partnership. Scotch whisky is normally matured in casks which have previously contained sherry or those which have been used for bourbon – and as the bourbon industry is dumping them in their hundreds of thousands, a grateful Scotch whisky industry can buy them for a snip. For this reason, bourbon casks, made with white American oak, are the most common form of maturation vessel for malt whisky.
The effects of the wood on whisky spirit are major. The magic of whisky is that no two casks will mature the same way, and the interaction of wood and spirit is unpredictable. Four reactions take place in the cask. The oak imparts flavour; it removes impurities and undesirable flavours; and the wood and spirit react together to create new flavours. The final reaction is oxidization, as air is drawn in to the cask as liquid evaporates from it.
Finally it has become commonplace for distillers to experiment with combinations of casks to seek out glorious new dimensions and flavours. In addition to simply using ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks, some distilleries use both, or use casks previously used to mature drinks such as Madeira, rum, brandy, red or white wine or port. These other casks may be the sole casks used or may only be used to ‘finish off’ their whiskies, perhaps for six months or two years after the initial maturation.
Our tasting is designed to demonstrate the full range of effects that different woods can have. We start with whiskies which are “second” matured. The first, the Glen Moray Port Cask Finish is, unsurprisingly, finished in port pipes. The second, the Tullibardine 225, is finished for a short time in Sauternes casks. Aberlour’s A’bunadh is matured only in sherry butts and bottled and 60.5%. It’s a sherry monster and one of our favorites. Then, a rarity: a whisky matured solely in virgin oak, the Benromach Organic. This clearly demonstrates the basic taste of oak: spicy, dry and astringent. Lastly, the Glenlivet 15 year old, which is matured in Bourbon casks and then finished in virgin French Oak, giving it a spiciness, but counterbalanced by the sweet and fruity bourbon cask.

Benromach Organic

The smallest working distillery in Speyside, Benromach slipped out of view for a while after it was mothballed in the 1980s. Happily, Gordon & MacPhail bought it and re-opened it with new, smaller stills in 1998. The result is a richer whisky and a host of new bottlings.

This whisky is certified by the soil association as organic and is matured in organic virgin American oak (i.e. oak not previously used to mature whisky). Maturing scotch in virgin oak is difficult as the wood can easily overpower the whisky, and The Benromach organic is recognised as the first to really pull it off.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Quite liqueurish. Digestive biscuit. Junipers. Dough. Resin. Amaretto. Sherbet.
Palate: Quickly turns quite bitter which then fades. Almonds. More juniper. Orange skins. Pine. By the finish, it's morphed in to something pretty special, with a distinctive savoury mouth -coating full and fruity conclusion.

Retails for around £40

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Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak

The Glenlivet is one of the iconic Speyside distilleries with a huge worldwide following. The 15 year old French oak reserve spent most of its life in American Bourbon casks before being transferred to Limousin oak. Barrels from the Limousin forest in South-Central France are more commonly used to mature cognac and sherry. European oak is slower growing than American oak. This can mean they impart a more subtle wood flavour on whisky.

This is an outstanding expression, all zippy spice from some virgin French oak, and scattergun oak and malt, like a couple of playful kittens tumbling over each other.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Sweet, rich. Honey and vanilla, with caramel. Rich Marzipan.
Palate: Oak with toasted almonds and vanilla.

Retails for around £40

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Aberlour A'bunadh

One of the best and certainly best-value sherry-finished whiskies on the market, the a'bunadh (meaning 'of the origin' in gaelic) is a stunning example of its type.

Aberlour is situated in the Speyside region and has been in the top ten selling malts for over a decade. It is also the most popular single malt in France, where a much larger range of expressions is available than elsewhere. Happily, the a'bunadh is widely available within the UK.

Only second-fill oloroso sherry casks are used to mature the a'bunadh, using Aberlours ranging from less than 10 to more than 15 years old, vatted together. Each batch released is slightly different both in terms of subtleties of taste and alcoholic strength.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Rich oloroso, Jamaica ginger cake, cinnamon, brown sugar.
Palate: Sherry at first, Dundee cake, glace cherries, dried fruits, nutty.

Retails for around £40

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Glen Moray Port Finish

Speyside distillery Glen Moray is owned by French company La Martiniquaise a large drinks company with very little presence in the UK. Unlike Louie Vutton, La Martiniquaise seem to have a more traditional view as to style. The case for the 16 year old is adorned with Scottish soldiers and looks like it should come with a free sample of shortbread. If you have seen Glen Moray it is probably the 8 or the 12 year old, which is often discounted to around £20. It is a very good dram at that price, but by paying a little more, you can pick up this cracker, dribbling with fruit. Although we are told that port pipes (casks) are quite temperamental beasts to work with, we’ve yet to come across a port finish that hasn’t worked. This is no exception.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Soft. Sweet. Rose petals. Juicy. Fruit pastilles.
Palate: Soft, fruity and lightly-oaked. Turkish delight. Raspberry jam. Soft, sweet and rounded finish.

Retails for around £25-30

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Tullibardine 225 Sauternes Finish

One of the less well-known distilleries, Tullibardine is situated on the site of a former brewery at Blackford in Perthshire, making one of a handful of South Highland distilleries.

Tullibardine was mothballed for years until 2003 and has produced an ever-changing range of malts since. Some of the more recent ones use a number that denotes the size of the cask it was matured in (225 litres in this instance). This expression was “second” matured in a Sauternes wine cask from Chateau Suduiraut.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Citrus fruit. Black pepper and a background herbal note. Patisserie.
Palate: Ripe Jaffa orange. Cereal. Spicy malt. Creamy.

Retails for around £40

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