People

In conversation with Dr Jim Veveridge

Maturation expert, Dr Jim Veveridge, demonstrates the virtues of the refill cask to Charles Maclean.
By Charles MacLean
CM Is it not something of a contradiction for a ‘back-room boy’ to become a ‘communicator’?
JB When I started with DCL it would have been unthinkable.
Even distillery managers within the company were forbidden to speak to each other. But everything has changed. Knowledge is shared, and, most important, consumers are much better informed and want to know more. Anyone in the company who deals directly with consumers – from distillery staff to advertising agencies – must be up to speed with what we have discovered in the ‘back room’, as you call it, if they are going to supply this need for information accurately and truthfully.
CM You mean ‘singing from the same hymn-sheet’?
JB It’s not that. You cannot pull the wool over the eyes of the kind of consumers I am talking about – the readers of this magazine, for example. Also, there is no reason to do so. We have nothing to hide – not only UDV, but the other whisky companies.The truth is that our understanding of whisky has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. What was previously magic is now science; what was once divided into watertight compartments – new-make production, maturation and blending, for example – is now conceived as a whole.
CM Give me an example.
JB Refill casks.
CM What do you mean?
JB A refill is any cask which has been used for maturing Scotch whisky more than once. In other words, any cask which is not a ‘first fill’ cask. Refills are much less active than first-fills.
CM And this is a good thing? Surely, the given wisdom is that first fills do a better job?
JB The flavour of malt whisky is a combination of distillery character (i.e. everything which contributes to the style, flavour and aroma of the new-make; different for every distillery), the wood-derived character and the interaction between the two (wood and spirit) during maturation.Casks are much more than mere containers. First the wood ‘subtracts’ undesirable notes (sulphur, for example), then it ‘adds’ flavour (or rather, the spirit draws flavours from the wood, which add sweetness and complexity) and finally there is an ‘interaction’ which ultimately develops ‘maturity’.UDV owns 27 malt whisky distilleries. It is vital for us that they all taste differently, in other words that maturity is achieved without loss of distillery character. This is best achieved in refill casks. Let me show you.At this point my host poured samples of a new-make single malt, and the same spirit, matured in a variety of casks demonstrating the effects of maturation. In particular we compared the effects of an exhausted cask and a refill - the latter being the casks favoured by UDV. The difference between them was chalk and cheese.JB The first of this pair is simply an inert container. The spirit has gained little maturity in 10 years. The refill demonstrates the interaction between wood and spirit during maturation – the spirit has retained the distillery character, but has filled it out and rounded it off beautifully. Now look at these . The same spirit at the same age, filled a first-fill American oak ex-bourbon cask and a first fill European oak ex-Oloroso cask. Both casks are highly active. They have added a lot of flavours to the spirit, derived both from the wood itself and from the casks’ first incumbent.
CM Sweet, oaky, bourbon-like; fruity, winey, somewhat sulphury.
Both pleasant.
JB Now look again at the ‘interactive’ refill sample. You have to
agree that this has retained the character of the original spirit better, without overlaying it with other aromas. And this is only after ten years: you can imagine how little distillery character will be left after 15 or 20 years in the first-fill casks.
CM May I conclude in the traditional way by asking you to name your favourite whisky.
JB Talisker – from a refill cask, of course!