The Good Life

Into the Woods

Scotch whisky never fails to delight with novel tasting notes. One big reason is the casks used to age them.
| By Jack Bettridge | From David Harbour, September/October 2020
Into the Woods
Photo/Jeff Harris
The rules for making Scotch single-malt whisky are largely straightforward. You start with only barley, malt and water, and ferment it into beer, which you distill in copper pots and age for at least three years. So how is it that Scotland continues to thrill us with innovations while sticking to the same formula?

The answer can be found in the wood used for aging the whisky. While barrels that once held American Bourbon are, by far, the maturation casks of choice, a slew of fine Scotch makers have turned to a spectrum of vessels to add interesting new twists to their products. Casks once used to age liquids as diverse as rum, Sherry, Port and wines are now lending their flavors to what is often considered the world’s most traditional whisky.

Historically, much of the flavor influence and difference in Scotch has been explained regionally. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) currently recognizes five: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown, and such factors as atmosphere, altitude, water source, local distilling styles and the relative use of peat smoke play a part. But the wood in which a whisky rests for years provides the biggest impact. A common rule of thumb in whisky making points to casks as providing 60 to 75 percent of the flavor of the end whisky. In Scotland, those wooden casks have been making themselves known in the form of a mostly new technique called finishing.  

While purists cleave to the idea of traditional aging, it is unclear what that really is. Yes, the vast majority of Scotch is aged in former Bourbon barrels. That’s partially because they are excellent containers for aging, but also because American straight whiskey regulations require the use of new barrels, making used casks relatively cheap. But that’s been a somewhat recent development—having begun in earnest in 1946. In the dawn of Scotch whisky making, it’s unlikely that much serious aging was being done at all. Until 1823, when onerous taxation laws were eased, distilling in Scotland was largely illicit and storing whisky for a lengthy period was risky. Then a variety of new casks and former wine vessels, especially Sherry, became popular based on their availability. (One—probably apocryphal—story claims the use of fish barrels. Yuck.) 

But in the 1990s a new wrinkle developed: wood finishes. Instead of keeping a whisky in one type of vessel for its entire maturation, Scotch makers would use Bourbon barrels for, say, a decade, and then transfer the liquid into a cask that had held another type of alcohol for a year or two. By finishing “you can develop a new product with a very short lead time to market,” says Dr. Bill Lumsden, who, at Glenmorangie, was among the first to use the innovation. “Sometimes in as little as six months. It gives you a lot of flexibility.”

The effect is fairly predictable. During finishing, the Scotch takes on the flavor of the liquid previously stored in the second casks. Sherry aging results in Sherry notes, whisky will soak up rum from a rum barrel, and so on. But within those examples comes a range of tasting notes that include fruit, spice, flowers, cocoa and nuts. Over-finishing is a risk with casks made of European oak (such as those that once held French wines or Port), a wood that is less dense than American oak. Over time their welcome, spicy notes can turn tannic. While finishing can be a boon when done right, it takes some careful monitoring to ensure it doesn’t harm the spirit. 

By the turn of the 21st century the finishing trend had led to some gimmicky excesses, and the SWA put its foot down, confusingly saying that only “traditional” containers could be used. Then, in 2019, the association clarified its rules, broadly allowing casks that held former spirits, wine and beer vessels, except those to which fruit, flavoring or sweetening had been added. That opened the door to Tequila finishes, which we are already seeing in the world of blended Scotch whisky. It remains to be seen what new alchemy will come of the amended rules, but in the meantime we can cheer ourselves with spirits that have already proven worthy—especially when paired with good cigars.

The Pairings

SIngle-malt Scotch made with interesting casks are ideal partners for fine cigars, so we paired 14 single malts aged in a variety of wooden casks with two top-rated cigars from the August 2020 issue of Cigar Aficionado. The Cohiba Lancero (7 1/2 inches long by 38 ring gauge, £37.52, 93 points) is a Cuban panetela that blends herbal and floral notes with almonds, hickory smoke and shortbread. The La Aroma de Cuba Edicion Especial No. 2 (5 by 50, $8.25, 92 points) is a Nicaraguan robusto with wood and toffee notes, a spot of leather and a sweet finish. The Scotches range in price from $35 to $300 per bottle.

Red Wine 

BenRiach 21

92 proof, $175

A complex mingling of red wine casks, virgin oak and Pedro Ximénez Sherry produces a Sherry and spice palate, with cinnamon that is softened by bread dough and cocoa. The Cohiba provided too many tannic notes. But the BenRiach brought a candybar sweetness to the La Aroma with toffee and nuts, and became rich and hearty.

Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve

88 proof, $150 

Richard Paterson, the creator of this malt, is a cigar lover, and it shows. Maturation in ex-Bourbon casks, then 10-year-old Matusalem Sherry butts before finally being finished in wine barriques. Notes include cinnamon, vanilla and red fruit aromas, with toffee notes and orange zest. The Dalmore wakes up the floral and fruity notes in the Cohiba and gets nuttiness in return. The toffee in both the La Aroma and the whisky hit it off and the fruit and savory flavors start to flirt.

Rum 

The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve

80 proof, $35

This most recent addition to Glenlivet’s fleet of whiskies makes no age statement, but divulges a finish in former rum barrels. It is supremely smooth with aged rum notes and the taste of tropical fruits. With the Cuban cigar, the rum notes come front and center, although the cigar gets woody. The Nicaraguan gives it the glue that puts all the notes together into one resonant chord, while achieving a snappy spice itself.

Port 

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban
14 Years

92 proof, $60

Ruby Port casks are the source of this Scotch’s slightly pink color. This non-chill-filtered whisky is like biting into a chocolate-covered cherry. It features dark fruits, honey, spice and cocoa, as well as licorice, cinnamon and cigar tobacco. It’s jam on toast with the Cohiba as the cigar’s bread notes get some extra texture. With the La Aroma, comes the rancio nuttiness of fine Port. 

Laphroaig Càirdeas
Port & Wine Casks

104 proof, $100

This limited release mingles ruby Port barriques and Bourbon barrels, and then gets a finish in wine casks. It’s a nuanced crossing of classic smoky Scotch with peaches, pears, tangerine, toasty nuts and a bit of chocolate. The Laphroaig gives the Cuban extra body and adds nuts and salt. The leather on the Nicaraguan cigar expands with the whisky, which shows off a range of maritime flavors.

Sherry 

Ardbeg Traigh Bhan Batch 2

92.4 proof, $300

This 19-year-old Islay malt is not finished, but mingles casks that once held Oloroso Sherry as well as Bourbon barrels. It is peaty with doses of red berries, cocoa, mint, walnuts, salt and cayenne. The peat softens when paired with the Cohiba, while the cigar finds more of its own sweetness. Its body balances well with the La Aroma, giving the whisky a caramel richness.

Auchentoshan Three Wood

86 proof, $70 

It’s hard to imagine a bad pairing for this triple-distilled whisky, a malt from the Lowlands aged in a combination of woods including Bourbon and Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. It shows a spectrum of flavors, including flowers, red berries, orange marmalade, toffee, cocoa and nuts. It melded well with the almond and honey of the Cohiba, finding some spiciness of its own. It conferred more body on the La Aroma and burnished some rough edges off the cigar.

The Balvenie DoubleWood

86 proof, $60

Scotch that rests in a variety of cask types such as rum, Port and Madeira are the hallmark of this Speyside distillery. This particular example spends 60 days in Sherry. The upshot is spicy vanilla and caramel notes punctuated by nuanced raisins, cinnamon, white chocolate and meaty fruit. The Cohiba showed off some nuts in the pairing, while the Balvenie became more meaty and tart. The Nicaraguan meshed perfectly with the whisky’s Bourbon notes and deepened, while the Balvenie popped with cinnamon.

Bowmore 15

86 proof, $75

This Islay whisky debuted under the name Darkest. The Scotch starts in Bourbon barrels and develops its color after spending three years in Oloroso Sherry casks. It has a comparatively dialed-back peat content, but shows sea spray amid the fruity overtones with cherry, caramel and Christmas spice. Under the Cuban’s influence, the whisky’s maritime charms are enhanced and cherry pops on the cigar. With the La Aroma, the whisky’s peat stands its ground, and grows leathery.

GlenDronach Parliament

96 proof, $252

This 21-year-old whisky is unusual because no Bourbon barrels are used in the maturation; instead it’s a mix of whiskies aged in both Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso Sherry casks. It renders vanilla, maple syrup and Christmas pudding notes with the spice of pimento. The Cohiba’s herbs balance well with the GlenDronach’s spice, and some previously hidden berries appear. The La Aroma rounded out the whisky, while it gained some complexity. 

Glenfiddich 15 Solera

80 proof, $70

The 15-year-old Speyside malt combines whiskies aged in Bourbon, new oak and Sherry casks that are then melded with earlier stock in a large vat. The payoff is fruitcake, Christmas spice, a slight cinnamon tang, hard candy and almond. It clashes a bit with the Cohiba, the pairing taking on a hint of sharp cheese. The Nicaraguan, however, brings a touch of vanilla, softening the whisky’s spiciness and getting a welcome fruit in return.

Royal Brackla Cawdor Estate
12 Years

80 proof, $65

A key component in the Dewar’s blend, this Highland wasn’t marketed as a single malt until relatively recently. Its Sherry finish pops with a range of raisins, tangerine, cinnamon graham cracker and chocolate. The whisky sweetens the Cohiba while receiving a tanginess and a dose of toffee. It imparts fruit as well as a lengthened finish on the La Aroma. 

Glengoyne 18 Years

86 proof, $150

This Speyside uses “a generous number of first-fill Sherry casks,” making it a very exotic malt with notes of tea, spicy vanilla, nutmeg, apples and nuts. The Cohiba reflects the whisky’s nut flavor, giving some white pepper to the Scotch. The spice counterpoint of the La Aroma made for a sultry pairing. 

Tamdhu 15

92 proof, $115 

Wine flavors dominate this Speyside malt, aged in Sherry. They soften into a meld  of raisins, cinnamon, pimento, chocolate, maple and tangerine. The Cuban won savory notes in the deal, but it left the Tamdhu with a Stilton cheese note. The La Aroma gives the whisky a bit of grit and the cigar took on cinnamon graham cracker notes. v

Drink

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