In the spirits business, and perhaps in whisky most of all, a lot of fuss is made over the vessel in which drinks are served and consumed. This issue of presentation ranges from appropriate tasting glassware (which we covered in issue 185 of this magazine), to the crispness of a cut-crystal tumbler and the elegant slope of a highball.
For some, the receptacle is less important than the beverage itself. The nth degree of this approach is, perhaps, sipping an at-home tipple from a mug in lieu of a clean glass (come on, I know I’m not the only person who’s employed this tactic in a bleaker moment). For others, the choice of container is a key component of the drinking experience – not just for its inherent purpose, but as a symbol of expertise, style, or even status. For still others, the synchronicity of drink and vessel, to showcase each at its pinnacle, will be paramount.
There is one presentation vessel for whisky, however, which is unlikely ever to win any beauty contests: the humble cask. While there may be something appealing in the vibrancy of a virgin oak barrel, the starkness of freshly charred staves, or the muted tones of a slumbering butt, to the untrained eye straining over a dimly lit dunnage warehouse they are little more than lumpen containers with a murky hue and a musty smell.
The cask, through no fault of its own, lacks the pleasing aesthetics of other vessels in the whisky production process that are often commented on by dewy-eyed aficionados: the crisp glint of a stainless-steel mash tun; the quiet majesty of a pine washback; a gleaming copper pot still that somehow encapsulates both whisky-making modernity and nostalgia.
But I’d like to make a case for the understated beauty of the cask. Although the decision to store whisky in wooden casks was borne of pragmatism as much as anything else, they embody a romanticism to rival that attributed to other stages of the whisky-making journey. What’s more, casks’ ubiquity in the global transportation of alcoholic drinks gives distillers myriad flavours to play with. It conjures the image of a gigantic spice cupboard, from which distillers and blenders can pick ingredients and craft a recipe that complements the character of their new make. What’s not romantic and beautiful about that?
We must also take a moment to appreciate the art – and I believe it is an art – of coopering. As with the distilling of whisky, this vocation has beauty not only in its precision but also in the instinct that can be observed among its most talented and long-serving practitioners.
One cask-related statistic that fascinates me is that 90 per cent of all casks used in the maturation of Scotch whisky are ex-bourbon. When we factor in the roughly seven or eight per cent contributed by ex-sherry or sherry-seasoned casks, that leaves barely one in 40 casks free for experimentation. But in that few per cent, we see so much imagination: from more unusual wine-cask finishes such as Tokaji (Glenmorangie’s Tale of Cake), Amarone (Arran Single Malt) and white port (employed by Angus Dundee’s Tomintoul and Glencadam), to Tequila and mezcal (Kilchoman has used both) and beer casks (Glenfiddich’s IPA Experiment or Deanston’s Dragon’s Milk stout cask-finished single malt).
This is just Scotch whisky. What about the blackberry wine cask-matured whisky produced at Stillhead Distillery in Canada, or Japan’s Togouchi whisky finished in sake casks? And we haven’t even begun to talk about distillers that are using different wood varieties specifically to harness their flavours, such as Westland Distillery in the US’s Pacific Northwest (whose Garryana single malts use bespoke casks crafted from local garryana oak) or Woodford Reserve (which has used cherry wood in its Master’s Collection).
Whisky casks are a capital example of the oft-repeated adage that it is what’s on the inside that counts. Those weathered staves could be concealing a beautiful whisky – one that holds a vibrant cornucopia of flavours and inspires a spectrum of emotions that stand in stark and humbling contrast to the unassuming exterior.