Having matured port, beer, jenever and three different whiskies in my cask, I started noticing that I didn’t get as much flavour from the oak as I used to. This is common in the whisky industry too, where casks have a limited lifetime. Distillers will typically use first fill or refill bourbon barrels, with first fill having held only bourbon before, and refill both bourbon and one batch of whisky. After this, the casks become less active: the oak has fewer flavour compounds left to pass onto the whisky. Distillers of course don’t discard cask that easily and have found ways to reuse them. One common approach to reactivating the oak is to toast or char the inside of the barrel. This opens up new surface area for the spirit to interact with, thereby replenishing those lovely oaky flavours that are needed for a maturing a good whisky.Continue reading
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…
After the Ardbeg Port Finish it was time for something new. Clearly, Ardbeg is a heavily peated whisky with a distinctive smoky character, and I’m counting on the fact that my cask will have retained some of these flavours for the next batch. The idea is to take an unpeated whisky, and impart it with some smokiness purely through the maturation process. This isn’t necessarily a new concept, as whiskies such as Glenfiddich Caoran, Scapa Glansa or Balvenie Islay Cask have all been finished in casks that previously held peated whiskies.
For this batch I have chosen Glen Elgin 12 year old. It’s a soft Speyside which I happen to like very much – partially because it’s the first malt whisky I ever drank – but also because it has quite a distinctive flavour profile. I selected a Speyside for this batch, since I think a whisky like this will be easier to ‘tame’. I reckon the peat influence from my cask will be quite subtle, which is why I need a soft whisky that easily takes on new flavours.
As I described previously, the small size of my cask means that the maturation process is incredibly quick. After continuously taking samples (not a chore at all 🙂 ), I decided that after just two weeks, my Glen Elgin Islay Finish was ready.
For this next batch, I filled the cask with port first, to finish the Ardbeg 10 year old in it afterwards. I chose a ruby port for the job, as these do not previously age in oak casks and therefore retain the full, fruity flavours I was looking for in my Ardbeg Port Finish. I let the wood soak up the port for just over two weeks, after which I emptied the cask.
For the first batch, Master of Malt recommends to fill your cask with something other than expensive whisky. This is because the cask has never been used before, and the wood is still packed full of flavours that are ready to overwhelm any liquid you place inside it. For this purpose, I decided to use Bols Corenwyn, as this resembles unaged whisky spirit fairly closely.
Korenwijn (Bols uses the Corenwyn spelling to make their product seem that little bit more fancy) is a type of Dutch jenever. It literally translates to ‘grain wine’, and to an extent it is just that. By regulation, korenwijn must contain at least 51% malt wine, meaning that like a whisky, malted barley is its main ingredient. To contrast, ‘jonge’ jenever may contain no more than 15% malt wine, while ‘oude’ jenever must have at least 15%. As such, korenwijn is often seen as the more luxurious cousin of jenever, and indeed is often cask-aged before being bottled. Korenwijn is distilled to a strength of about 50% alcohol and bottled at a standard 38%. Distillation to such a low alcohol percentage leaves a lot of space for impurities, and these are traditionally masked by the addition of herbs. The botanical of choice is typically juniper, from which the name jenever derives.
This year I was given a brand new, toasted, 1 litre American Oak barrel for my birthday! While it’s possible to buy new make spirit and mature it from scratch, I intend to use this cask to give a special finish to some of my favourite whiskies. Excited to get started, I got right down to business. Upon taking the cask out of the plastic, the smell of freshly toasted wood immediately filled the room. The bung and tap still had to be inserted, and although this required some force, it was otherwise easy enough.