After the Glen Elgin Islay Finish, I gave my cask a rest for almost a year. While some part of this is probably down to laziness, it also has to do with the fact that I prefer to mature my whiskies in winter, when lower temperatures result in less evaporation. It really is quite frustrating to finally bottle the contents of your cask, only to find out that only about half your whisky remains…
Although I was contemplating a rum or even a sake finish, in the end I settled for seasoning my cask with IPA beer. India Pale Ale originally rose to prominence during the time of the East India Company, with the hoppy style become quite popular in overseas territories. Lately I have really been enjoying the boom in craft IPA beer that’s swept across bars and shops the world over. I also have to admit that my decision to go for an IPA finish was more than a little influenced by Glenfiddich’s excellent IPA Experiment, released in 2017.
My go-to-choice for a good IPA has long been Mooie Nel from Dutch brewers Jopen. Based in an old church in Haarlem, Jopen won best beer in the Netherlands with Mooie Nel in 2015. And I won’t argue with that: despite trying many different IPAs, I’ve found few (if any) that I prefer.
When it came to filling my cask with Mooie Nel, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. Having not held any liquid for over a year, the oak had dried out and contracted slightly. After filling in the cask, I soon realised that it was no longer watertight, and was leaking IPA everywhere. Blessing my luck that I hadn’t filled it with whisky instead, I quickly drained the cask and filled it with warm water for a few hours, to allow the cask to reseal itself. With this done, the cask was ready to hold Mooie Nel, which remained in the barrel for two months.
After this time the IPA had obviously become flat and extremely bitter, so after tasting a sip I poured it down the drain. By then it was time to fill up the cask with whisky. I selected Arran 10 year old not only because it’s a good dram, but also because I felt that Arran’s floral, fruity character would be a nice counterpart to the bitter hops flavours from the IPA cask. Arran distillery has been successfully finishing their whisky in all sorts of weird and wonderful casks, but an IPA finish was still missing. I decided to fill this gap.
As always, I took samples every week to see how the maturation of the whisky was progressing. After one week – there’s no way around it – I was bitterly disappointed (quite literally). Whereas the original Arran 10 year old displays a vibrant fruitiness with soft barley notes, after one week the IPA Cask tasted overwhelmingly of hops, which completely drowned out the flavours of the whisky. In fact it tasted more like a beer bottled at 40% abv, which although interesting, was not particularly good. So I left the whisky in the cask for another week, hoping that the oak would smooth out the IPA flavours over time. Perhaps this is what happened, or maybe it was just that the hoppy notes needed some time to ‘marry’ into the Arran whisky. Either way, the result after two weeks was markedly better than after just one. The hops was more subdued, with more of the Arran shining through. The IPA influences were there, but meanwhile the oak from my cask had not yet had enough time to properly make its mark. Although certainly more enjoyable after two weeks, I felt that my Arran IPA Cask could benefit from some extra maturation.
After three weeks, the whisky had much more depth. It had also lost some freshness, substituting this for complex oaky notes. With the hops now only leaving a subtle mark, this was much more like what a finished whisky should be. After four weeks, the dram has become distinctly oaky, with subtle, bittersweet flavours. There is now a better balance between the flavours of the Arran 10 year old and the hops and oak from the IPA cask. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I also seem to get a hint of smoke from the Ardbeg that was in my cask for a previous bottling. The finish lingers longer, although a slightly higher alcohol content would have made this an even more enjoyable dram. While up until now this whisky was getting better every week, I felt that after spending a month in the cask, the oaky flavours were coming to dominate the spirit, which meant it was time to bottle it. Since my cask was initially virgin oak and has such a small surface to liquid ratio, I’ve seen time and again that those vanilla and caramel flavours from the cask can become overpowering within a matter of weeks. Although this effect is less and less noticeable as my cask has held more liquid, I still need to be careful not to leave my finishes in the cask for too long.
Having said that, the differences between the samples became less pronounced every week. So while the difference in flavour between the Arran 10 year old and week 1 of the IPA Cask was huge, the contrast between week 3 and 4 was less obvious. This is also reflected in the colour changes per week, as you’ll have seen above. When you don’t line up all samples in a row though, and first drink the Arran 10 year old and then the final result of the Arran IPA Cask, you will certainly notice the difference, with the hoppy profile of the IPA Cask clearly present. The end result is a whisky that’s quite bold and definitely different, but I am rather happy with how my Arran IPA Cask turned out. For me it’s an absolute improvement over the original Arran 10 year old and it’s great to taste a whisky with a bit of a twist. My IPA Cask can’t quite match the likes of the excellent Amarone or Madeira Cask, but this may also have something to do with the alcohol percentage. In the end, this has been another interesting experiment, and I’m happy to have another compelling whisky to show for it.
Interested to try it out for yourself? You can buy the cask here at Master of Malt.