Here's the Other Detail Besides Age That Matters in Your Whisky
The older a whiskey is, the better, we assume—and you won't be wrong. The experts will tell you that age definitely matters in a whisky, because there are just some things that take time. But it's not the only thing that matters, especially at a time in the industry where we're seeing more (and more interesting) No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies out in the market.
So, think of whisky as being a lot like life: How much pleasure you get out of it isn’t just about the number of years as much as it is about where those years are spent. Before it moved into its nice glass house, your whisky spent its past life maturing gracefully in a cask, where it was imbued with character and complexity.
Now, if you’re going to be really nerdy about it, there are five factors that will affect your whiskey's quality of cask life. First, there is the type of wood used to make the casks, and here European oak is far more prized than its American counterpart, if only because the snooty European oaks like to take their time growing. In terms of flavor, American oak imparts the vanilla notes typical in bourbon, while the European oaks are more tannic, giving off more sophisticated notes of spice and bitterness.
The size of the casks also matters, since the smaller a cask is, the more contact the whiskey gets with it. There’s a joke here somewhere about the size of the wood, but we’re too lazy to figure it out, so let’s move on to the charring or toasting of the casks, which means exactly what it sounds like—firing the casks, to the distiller’s specifications, can impart the right amount of smoke into the liquid. The number of times a cask is reused also matters: a responsible distiller will limit the number of reuses, since the wood understandably has less to give over time.
Lastly, and perhaps most obviously these days, the cask’s previous job comes into play in a very important way. All whiskey casks were casks of something else before they graduated to whiskey, and what they used to house, the predecessor liquid, in other words, still whispers into the whiskey like insistent ghosts.
All kinds of wine and sherry casks are used; so are rum barrels. There are at least two dozen kinds of old casks, from Pedro Ximenez sherry casks that impart a syrupy-sweet, raisiny quality to the whiskey, to old chardonnay casks that can leave a crisp, bright, and spare spirit in the cask.
You may notice that distilleries are labeling more of their brands with reference to the casks, a signal perhaps, that the houses are experimenting more. Good news for whisky lovers—variety, after, all, is the spice of life. Here are a few locally available ones to try now:
The Balvenie Rum Cask 17 Years
The audience favorite at a private tasting led by regional brand ambassador Neil Strachan was the 14-year old Caribbean Cask, which garnered praise for being a warm and slightly spiced single malt. This version spent three more years finishing up in rum casks than its cousin, both having matured in traditional whiskey casks before transferring to Caribbean rum casks.
Johnnie Walker Black Label Sherry Limited Edition
The supermarket brand ventures into territory normally occupied by its higher-end counterparts with this limited-edition blend that's been matured in sherry casks. The result is a smooth, dark whisky that makes you think of a fruit and nut chocolate bar, but is nonetheless surprisingly deep for an everyday blend. Thanks to its friendly price point, home bartenders can experiment with cocktails using this blend. We suspect it'll do well as a darker variation on the dark n' stormy, or as a simple highball. We'll keep you posted.
Teeling Small Batch Whiskey (Rum Casks)
Like Tom Cruise in that forgotten epic Ireland, this small-batch whiskey is quite the character. The flagship among Teeling's whiskies, the Small Batch was finished off in rum casks for extra spice, giving you an especially bold, delicious, almost creamy whisky. It made perhaps the best Irish coffee we'd ever tried, bar none, and the price tag was unbelievably reasonable (sub-P1,500, believe it or not) for such a big taste.
The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years
The Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years has an additional note on each bottle to assure you that it is one of “no more than 650 drawn from a single cask,” calling attention to the small sherry butts in which the whiskey was stored. The resulting whiskey is complex and rather elegant, in a manner that will shame all those of you who giggled at the mention of “sherry butts.”