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Great Scotch!

What's old is new in Scotland, where malt masters are proving their traditional spirit is still evolving with exciting new expressions that are pushing the envelope in the whisky world
Jack Bettridge
Posted: December 1, 2006

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The clamor for new taste sensations is insatiable even as more and more of Scotland's 90-some distilleries have created single-malt bottlings out of whisky formerly sold to blenders. And that is where the industry's hottest innovation—cask-finished whisky—comes in.

The concept is pretty simple and was probably done by someone on a limited basis long before Glenmorangie made it famous with its Port wood finish in 1994. Any whisky takes most of its flavor from the cask in which it matures. That's why age—the time it spends soaking into the staves—is such an important concept. Unlike Bourbon makers, who are bound by law to age their spirit in new barrels, Scotch makers can reuse casks—even ones that once held other products. Because of the Bourbon industry's steady supply of once-used, relatively inexpensive barrels, a majority of Scotch is aged in them. However, Sherry, Port and Madeira barrels are also common. As you might suspect, the liquid that first inhabited a barrel implies a particular flavor on the next whisky to find a home there. At Glenmorangie they thought, "Why not take our core expression that has rested in Bourbon barrels for 10 years gaining the signature vanilla notes and add some fruit and spice by aging it a few more years in a Port barrel?"

Judging by sales and the amount of imitation by other distilleries, the experiment was an unqualified success, one which Glenmorangie has followed with other finishes that have included casks from fine French wine houses like the aforementioned Château Margaux as well as Château d'Yquem. Techniques used by some of its competitors are even more arcane. (Auchentoshan has a three-wood finish, using Sherry, Port and Bourbon. The Glenlivet finishes in unused Limousin oak.) Lumsden calls the practice the first genuine innovation in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, some purists believe that it compromises Scotch whisky tradition. I first witnessed that resistance a number of years ago at an introduction by Bowmore of a selection of whiskies that had been finished in Port and Bordeaux wine casks. While most found them fascinating, one guest implored then-master distiller Jim McEwan (now of Bruichladdich), "Please, don't do this."

His point was that a Bourbon barrel was the natural and customary partner for the whisky; it had always been aged that way and there was no reason to change. That would be an arguable—if a little Luddite—point, if it were true. "Bourbon casks didn't become the standard aging barrel in Scotland until after Prohibition ended," points out Fergus Hartley, the global sales director for Bowmore. "Before that, all sorts of casks were used: wines, Sherry, Port, rum barrels." His is a good argument: how would Scotland get barrels from an industry that was shut down? Furthermore, beginning in the seventeenth century, ever stricter taxes made distilling effectively illegal until regulations were softened in 1823. With essentially all whisky being moonshine, it's unlikely that anyone would have been importing American barrels even after Bourbon was invented in the 1780s. If distillers aged their whisky at all, they likely used whatever barrels were available.

Certainly options for Scotch aging have always existed and been availed by whisky makers. In today's climate, even producers who aren't involved in anything as radical as cask finishes are fine-tuning their product through other kinds of wood management. The Macallan and Highland Park, both predominantly Sherry-aged whiskies, sometimes meld a low percentage of Bourbon-aged whiskey into the mix. The Macallan countered the trend to wine casks with its Fine Oak in 2004, which uses Bourbon barrels alongside Sherry casks. Russell Anderson, distillery manager at Highland Park on the island of Orkney at Scotland's northernmost tip, takes the approach of re-creating Bourbon barrels in the image of his own casks. When barrels are sent from America, they are disassembled to save shipping space. Coopers in Scotland put them back together. At Highland Park, the staves are reshaped to create a larger vessel. The practice creates more surface area with which the whisky can interact.

Many other variables contribute to the unique character of single malts: the still shape, how it is operated, the type of barley used, the local water and climate, even air quality. The Glenlivet, for instance, is made high on a hill in fresh air overlooking moorlands. Many Islay Scotches are made at sea level, with salt air imparting its flavor on the whisky. Anderson points to the consistent climate at Highland Park and the fact that the whisky makers do their own floor malting of barley (the stage at which relative amounts of peat smoke are infused in the grain), but he reckons that 60 to 80 percent of the flavor of whisky still comes from the wood.

Even casual Scotch drinkers will note that the packaging of Scotch now contains more and more information about the way the spirit was aged. That is an attempt to explain the idiosyncrasies of the product. Most Scotch makers point to the education of drinkers as one of the most important tasks in the current atmosphere of innovation. David Cox of The Macallan simply has to point to his title, director of brand education, to show the importance the brand puts on teaching customers about the product.

If special finishes ruffled a few traditionalist feathers, they offered a wide spectrum of new choices to the not-so-stodgy majority, who could taste something special without paying the nosebleed prices charged for super-aged Scotches found at auction. "The consumer is demanding to be excited," says McEwan. "He wants to come through the cloud base and really fly. It's the consumer that pays my salary and not the collector."

Things turned a little weird, however, when it wasn't just wine casks that were used for aging. How does a Tabasco sauce finish sound? Some found that they could cut corners by adding wood chips into the barrel to promote faster aging. Others just skipped the aging process altogether and added the wine itself. Some Scotches were finished in casks from other regions in Scotland, such as a Speyside whisky poured into former Islay casks. "Islay cask finishes? Why would you want to do that?" asks McEwan, a maker of Islay whisky. "Why bugger up a good Speyside with an Islay finish?" The deeper issue was that it confused consumers who might read the word "Islay" on the label and assume the whisky had actually been aged on the Western island known for the effect its sea spray has on its heavily peated whiskies.

It was in this atmosphere of confusion that the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) stepped in and defined Scotch whisky vis-à-vis the kind of casks it can be aged in. The industry organization essentially ruled that extra wood finishes were allowable as long as a pedigree and a precedent existed for aging Scotch in the type of barrel used. In other words, wine casks and rum barrels were all right, but not Tabasco sauce tubs, even though they are actually reused Bourbon barrels.

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