By Neil Ridley

Maturing nicely

Neil Ridleyis a regular contributor to Whisky Magazine and a number of publications including Imbibe, The Malt Whisky Yearbook, The Evening Standard and Aston Martin Magazine. He also sits on the panel for the World Whiskies Awards. As well as cofounding the irreverent whisky website Caskstrength, Neil runs a spirits-based creative marketing consultancy, helping to bring whisky to a new audience
Is it just me, or are things beginning to get a little bit exciting in the world of distillation? Last month, I had the privilege of meeting Chip Tate, owner and distiller at the Balcones craft distillery in Waco, Texas and his portfolio of wacky, but wonderful spirits. A few days later, I was tasting the impressive arsenal of Hudson whiskies produced by Tuthilltown. Then an outstanding book about craft distillation penned by Corsair distillery’s Darek Bell landed on my doormat; effectively a blueprint recipe book for a plethora of new whiskies.

Right now, whether you agree with it or not, the American craft distilling movement is pretty much re-shaping the boundaries of flavour and innovation when it comes to American whisk(e)y. Unusual grains on mashbills, spirits are being infused with smoke from a variety of different woods and casks are, well, being ‘interfered’ with in some truly bizarre ways.

All this brings me to the subject of wood and specifically maturation. A few months back, I visited the new high-tech Cambus cooperage for a lesson in raising a cask.

Naturally, I was useless at it, given that the coopering apprentice scheme takes around four years – simply to master the basics.

"The American craft distilling movement is re-shaping the boundaries of flavour"


The cooperage has not only melded together man and machine, removing some of the more manual and dangerous aspects of the job, but has also found a nifty way to extend the usability of casks way beyond their current life cycle.

It’s the equivalent of applying the surgeon’s knife, as erm… gravity starts to take hold in all the wrong places.

But while we view the prospect of advances in cask rejuvenation as a relative innovation in the UK, the US craft distillers appear to be having way more fun in terms of how to get the best results from their wood. Not being bound by the same (some would say ‘challenging’) whisky making rulebook, distillers like Tuthilltown have been able to mature superb whiskies using tiny casks (between three and 20 gallons), drill dimples into the inside of the staves for additional surface area, even employ the services of a bass bin and an iPod playlist full of heavyweight rap music to vibrate the slumbering casks, thus aiding maturation.

Sure, it sounds absurd, but the results speak for themselves. If anything, it gives the distillery a vaguely rebellious standpoint and a common ground, more in tune with a younger generation of drinkers. At the very least, it demonstrates that small distilleries can stamp their individuality on a great product, without the results being a million miles away from what is perceived as ‘whisk(e)y’.

Curtailing creativity and innovation on a small scale as we have experienced in the UK during the past decade has killed off some genuinely good ideas and highly enjoyable, well-made whiskies; think Compass Box’s original Spice Tree, which saw the whisky maturing in casks with additional staves inserted inside. With a number of new Scottish distilleries in the planning, you can almost feel the shadow of the authorities waiting to swoop, clipboard and red pen in hand.

Protecting the traditions and legacy of the Scotch whisky business is one thing, but surely, there’s a positive lesson or two to be learned here and there, from our American cousins?

Closer to home, the new distillery based at the Adnams brewery in Norfolk has begun to challenge conventional wisdom, especially with its new Spirit Of Broadside release. A well made distilled beer, matured in oak casks hardly seems revolutionary, but when it hits three years old, will it be allowed to call itself a whisky?Similarly, with news just in that London is close to confirming its first whisky distillery in more than 100 years, will we see a similar approach to making whisky as those at the sharp end in the US?

One thing’s for sure, I can’t stop laughing when I imagine Scotland’s dunnage warehouses sound-tracked with Wu-Tang Clan.