Scotch Whisky Gains New Admirers with Cask Finishing

Scotch whisky develops distinct flavors and finds new followers through the use of recycled, toasted, or charred casks.

Single malt Scotch has always been the refuge of the purist. Distillers with generations of family experience have dedicated themselves to crafting these hyper-local spirits according to ancient recipes—and consumers have long appreciated this noble task. Even in eras when connoisseurs overwhelmingly preferred wine over liquor, single malts were objects of desire.  

When the most recent explosion of the cocktail culture occurred in the 1990s, however, things began to change. The new wave of mixologists sought to make a statement with bold, arresting flavors, and single malt Scotch suddenly felt tame alongside bourbon and rye. As the consumption of spirits soared and prices achieved unheard-of levels, Scotch seemed more and more like your grandfather’s drink.

As a result, Highland distillers are increasingly turning to the process of cask finishing to enrich their whisky. The spirit is removed from its original aging barrel and placed in a different one for six months or less prior to bottling. The practice was first used in 1982 when The Balvenie released a malt that had rested in Sherry casks. Today, it’s not unusual for single malts to be finished in casks that once held wine, Port, Cognac, Madeira, or American rye or bourbon, as well as barrels that have been heavily toasted or charred. How common is it? Costco sells 18-year-old Kirkland Speyside Sherry Cask Finish ($33), and Trader Joe’s has jumped on the trend with the Highland Malt Bourbon Cask Finish ($18).

Experimentation is also flourishing at the upper end of the market. Case in point is the Bowmore 27-year-old Port Cask Finish ($415), part of the Vintner’s Trilogy series from the historic distillery on the island of Islay. This exceptional malt spends 13 years in bourbon barrels followed by 14 years in Port pipes, resulting in a dramatic reddish-mahogany color. You might mistake it for bourbon at first whiff, were it not for the earthy scent of peat poking up through the sweetness. That sensation hits the palate first, followed by saline flavors and caramel notes. The finish is rich and meaty with a salty tang.

Even Glenfiddich, the benchmark Highlands distillery that virtually created the single malt category after World War II, is getting in on the action. It recently debuted Fire & Cane ($50), the fourth in a series of experimental expressions. It consists of a peated malt (rare for Glenfiddich) that is aged in bourbon barrels before spending three months in rum casks. Those rum casks mask the peat on the nose, which yields aromas of toffee and salt air. In the mouth, the spirit does a remarkable balancing act: Smoky, sweet, and angular all at once, it marries the richness of bourbon with the tart astringency of single malt Scotch. Hints of spice and candied fruit linger on the long finish.

Across the Irish Sea, single malt Irish whiskey is finally getting the respect it deserves—also aided by the use of Sherry, Port, and Madeira casks. The Tyrconnell, a venerable operation dating to 1876, employs all three in different age-dated expressions. The 15-year-old Madeira Cask Finish ($110) has a light amber color and a nose redolent of crushed hazelnuts and sea spray. In the mouth, mocha and caramel intertwine with red fruits and butterscotch. The malt’s elegant texture is nicely enhanced by the sweetness from the Madeira barrels, making it the perfect accompaniment for a rainy night by the fire. «

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