Spirit of the Cask
Much ink—not to mention whiskey itself—has been spilled on the topic of age. The older a whiskey is, the better, we assume. This boom in NAS (shorthand for “No Age Statement”) whiskies has largely been borne out of necessity, as it seems that the world’s thirst has outstripped its distilleries’ reach, and we’re drinking the stuff before any of it can reach a decent decade mark. No wonder that the flacks from the major distillers are scrambling to re-educate the drinking public about the (un)importance of age. So if age is but a number, what else should we be looking to as an indicator of quality?
Well, here’s yet another way that whiskey can be a lot like life: How much pleasure you get out of it isn’t so much about the number of years as much as it is about where those years are spent.
If you’re going to be really nerdy about it, there are five considerations that will tell you what kind of life your whiskey is having. First, there is the type of wood used to make the casks, and here (as in the world of wine) the Old World stubbornly claims dominance: European oak is far more prized than its American counterpart, if only because the snooty European oaks like to take their time growing. By comparison, the brash American oaks grow irritatingly fast. In terms of flavor, American oak imparts the vanilla notes so typical in bourbon, while the European notes are more tannic, giving off more, ahem, sophisticated notes of spice and bitterness. The substance in European oaks that give it this flavor is rather amusingly called gallic acid (insert Francophobic joke here).
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.
Most astonishingly—to me, at least, since I’ve never thought to investigate—the cask’s previous life 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.
There are at least two dozen kinds, 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. All kinds of wine and sherry casks are used; so are rum barrels, quite commonly.
It’s a surprise that not more whiskey brands make a statement on their labels about the types of cask used, but The Balvenie is among the handful of those that do. The single malt’s numerous expressions over the years have meant countless interesting iterations of age vs. cask, among them: Caribbean Cask 14 Years, the audience favorite at a private tasting led by regional brand ambassador Neil Strachan, this version is smooth, warm, with hints of spice and fruits. Admittedly, it didn’t spend all of its 14 years in rum casks, as the name suggests—it was matured in “traditional” whiskey casks for all those years, and was finished in rum casks as a final touch. 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.” The Peated Cask 17 Year has a rather convoluted and confusing story. As far as I can make out, this whiskey was finished in barrels that once held a “heavily peated batch of barley” the distillery once had in 2001. This bottle contains 17-year-old whiskey that’s been finished in those peated casks, and married with 17-year-old whiskey finished in new American oak casks to make a smoky but subtle single malt. Double Wood 17 Years is the big brother to the entry-level Double Wood 12 Year. Both expressions were matured first in American oak whiskey barrels, then finished in European oak sherry casks, but the five extra years on this one seems to have been well-spent, as the 17-year-old whiskey is striking in its depth. Exactly as a pretentious 17-year-old human would claim to be.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.