Age Your Own Whisky – Glen Elgin Islay Finish

Age Your Own Whisky - Glen Elgin Islay Finish 01

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.

Age Your Own Whisky - Glen Elgin Islay Finish 02

Once again, the colour difference is apparent. The original is on the left, with the one and two week old samples to its right.

After one week, the Glen Elgin immediately displays more oaky notes on the nose, with the distinctive aroma I’ve come to associate with my cask. Through the vanilla puffs a faint whiff of smoke, which struggles to break through on the palate and only really appears in full force towards the finish. It’s an improvement over the original Glen Elgin, but needless to say, the transformation is not quite complete. When comparing the one week sample to both the original and the end result, it perfectly displays the transition between light, barley flavoured Speyside and the more robust, flavourful version that’s described below.

After two weeks, the oaky scents dominate, meaning the peaty fragrance is harder to spot. On the palate, the whisky has become full-bodied and creamy, with a really good mouthfeel. The bouquet of flavours is much richer, with notes of red fruit from the port and vanilla from the cask. The finish has more bite, as the smoke from the Ardbeg comes to the fore.

Age Your Own Whisky - Glen Elgin Islay Finish 02

The result is a wonderful dram that’s neither Speyside nor Islay, but a delightful jumble of soft barley, gentle smoke, sweet port and oaky vanilla. While I would have wanted the oaky flavours from the cask to be a little more subdued for perfect balance, I am more than happy with the end result. While my Ardbeg Port Finish was interesting but not necessarily better than the 10 year old, this experiment definitely improves on the original Glen Elgin 12 year old. I could happily have produced another few bottles of this stuff, but unfortunately I am limited by the size of my cask (good thing too, it’s cheaper this way). So it’s on to a new experiment for the next batch. I am currently contemplating a quite unconventional sake finish, or perhaps the slightly safer option of a rum finish. Will keep you posted!

Interested to try it out for yourself? You can buy the cask here at Master of Malt. 

Age Your Own Whisky – Ardbeg Port Finish

Ardbeg Port Finish 01

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.

Age Your Own Whisky - Port Cask 01

I am no great connoisseur of port, so I won’t bore you with taste profiles of the versions before and after maturation. Suffice it to say there is a very noticeable difference in flavour, with the matured port having much more depth and character.

Now for the exciting part, filling up the cask with Ardbeg 10 year old. As usual, the barrel took in about 1.1 litre of liquid, which I then stored in my shed for lower temperatures and less evaporation. When I checked on the liquid after just one day, the Ardbeg had already taken on a reddish colour, as it mixed with the port that was absorbed by the wood of the cask. I intended to take a sample each week for a month, but decided the whisky had already matured enough after just two weeks. As described in previous posts, the fact this barrel is so small and was until recently unused means that the maturation process is incredibly quick. Since I did not want to lose Ardbeg’s unique flavour profile to the influences of the cask altogether, I emptied out the barrel and with great anticipation sat down for a tasting.

As you can see from the pictures, the Ardbeg changed colour massively after just one week in the cask, as it mixed with the port residue left in the wood. Interestingly enough, after two weeks, the liquid was in fact slightly less red than before. I can only assume this is because the wood itself imparted some of its colour to the whisky, turning the colour a slightly less bright shade of red. Overall, the colour is comparable to a fairly dark rose wine.

Ardbeg Port Finish 02

On the left is the original Ardbeg 10 year old. The middle glass has received one week of extra maturation, while the glass on the right was finished for two weeks.

On the nose, the Ardbeg Port Finish is immediately less sharp and smoky when compared to the regular 10 year old version. Although still clearly recognisable as an Ardbeg, vanilla notes now dominate, mixed with the scents of dried red fruits. It is interesting to see that the oak from the cask in fact had more impact on the nose than the port that the cask held previously. After one week, there was still a slight hint of the Corenwyn from the initial batch. This translated into spicy notes of cloves and nutmeg, but these were fortunately less noticeable after two weeks.

Ardbeg Port Finish 03

The difference in colour between the original Ardbeg and the Port Finish is immense.

In terms of flavour, after one week the port finish wasn’t at all an improvement over the Ardbeg 10 year old, being a slightly restrained, sweeter version of the original. While not a bad whisky, it tastes like an Ardbeg 10 year old with unwanted interference. After two weeks however, things are quite different. The extra week of maturation allowed the liquid to become more of a whisky in its own right, as the Port Finish is now quite different from the original. Expectedly, there are more oaky flavours, as well as a distinctive winey influence. The initial swell of honey and vanilla gives way to notes of fruit cake topped with strawberry jam. The body is drier and more smooth, and the customary Ardbeg peat explosion has been tamed somewhat. While this is not necessarily a good thing in my book, the additional maturation has given an extra depth and complexity to this otherwise straightforward peat monster. While I am unsure whether my Ardbeg Port Finish is better than the original 10 year old (which I find very hard to beat), it is a very pleasant dram, and one that proudly holds its own in my extensive collection of Ardbegs. I certainly don’t mind having a litre of the stuff: while I can always go and buy more Ardbeg 10 year old, this Port Finish is a single (tiny) cask bottling, once again demonstrating the amazing impact that maturation can have on a whisky.

Ardbeg Port Finish 04

My very own Ardbeg Port Finish!

Interested to try it out for yourself? You can buy the cask here at Master of Malt. 

Age Your Own Whisky: Batch #1

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.

Bols 01

The first batch uses Bols Corenwyn

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.

Anyway, enough about the background, let’s move onto maturing the stuff. I filled the cask with 1175ml of Corenwyn, and placed it in my shed in the hopes that lower temperatures would lead to less evaporation. I can’t be sure whether it helped or not, as I lost about 25ml to evaporation each week either way. This equates to an angel’s share of about 2% per week. Comparing this to 1-2% per year for a typical whisky distillery, this may seem like a lot. Yet because the size of the cask is so small, there is a lot of contact between wood and liquid, which leads to much quicker maturation. For a finish like this, an additional maturation of a month seems more than enough, and overall evaporation will be around 8-9%.

I took out a 50ml sample at the end of each week, and decided to empty the cask after one month. As you can see in the picture, the korenwijn clearly changed colour over time, as the wood imparted its flavours to the liquid.

Korenwijn 01

On the left is the original korenwijn, with each subsequent glass having received an extra week of maturation.

Korenwijn 02

The difference in colour is clearly visible, with the oldest liquid being the darkest.

In terms of flavour, the effects of the additional maturation were clearly noticeable. Even after spending just one week in the cask, the wood had taken some of the rough, acrid edges off the korenwijn. Over time, the flavour of toasted wood became more and more apparent, and the liquid had a much fuller and more complex character. While the taste of the botanicals was strong in the original korenwijn and after one week, the woody vanilla flavour became more dominant from week 2 onwards. In fact, by week 4, the influence of the cask is quite overpowering, and the liquid has become rather one-dimensional. The end result is slightly bitter, and admittedly the korenwijn tasted better after spending three weeks in the cask rather than four. This shows that there is such a thing as too much maturation, and explains why whisky makers bottle their whiskies at different age statements. Particularly for a virgin oak cask, the impact of the wood can quickly become overpowering if left too long. This is one of the reasons virgin oak is rarely used in the Scottish whisky industry.

Having said that, my end result is still a marked improvement over the original korenwijn. Although the maturation period was only a month, it makes a world of difference in terms of flavour, and clearly shows the power of wood in transforming an average liquid into something far more special.

Korenwijn 03

The original on the left, with the end result on the right.

Although the cask is now ready for the first batch of whisky, I have decided to first fill it with port, so the wood may take on some of the port’s flavours. After this I will fill it with Ardbeg 10 years old, to create my very own Ardbeg Port Finish. More on that in next month’s post!

Port&Ardbeg

Ready for the next batch: Ardbeg Port Finish!


Interested to try it out for yourself? You can buy the cask here at 
Master of Malt. 

Age Your Own Whisky: Before the First Batch

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.

Cask 01

The cask is ready for use after inserting the bung and tap.

 

In order to make sure that the cask is watertight, Master of Malt (where the cask was bought) recommends to first fill it up with warm water for a day. This allows the wood to expand slightly, closing any small gaps there might have been. Although the barrel has a stated capacity of 1 litre, 1.2 litres of water actually went in. There was no visible leakage, although the wood did become damp in certain areas (mainly next to the tap). When I drained the cask the following day, the water came out looking like this:

Water 01

After spending just a single day in the cask, the water had changed colour completely.

 

Over the course of a single day, the water had taken on a distinctly blackish, brown colour from the toasted wood, and even had a few charred wood splinters floating around in it. The smell was somewhat reminiscent of bourbon, and the taste of vanilla and wood was definitely present in the water. Although 1.2 litres of water went into the cask, only 1.1 litre came out. This means that 100ml was lost, either absorbed into the wood or through minor leakage.

As you can probably see from the pictures, the cask has never been used previously. This means that the wood is still packed full of flavours, and will easily overwhelm any liquid that is first placed inside it. As such, it is advisable to fill up the cask with another liquor for a first batch, before putting in your precious whisky. For this I chose Bols Corenwyn, a Dutch jenever that approximates new make whisky spirit rather closely. More on that in about a month’s time!

Bols 01

The first batch is ready to go!

 

Interested to try it out for yourself? You can buy the cask here at Master of Malt.