Cask finishes should no longer be classed as innovation. Having dominated new releases for the past decade or so, with everything from wine and beer and now Tequila being used to impart flavour, they’ve certainly added complexity and variety to the whisky landscape. But are they really all that innovative anymore? Let’s face it: Balvenie, Glenmorangie and Diageo were playing with cask finishes back in the 1980s. We’re now 40 years on, and have exhausted almost every cask type. Let’s reserve the word ‘innovation’ for creations that are truly progressive.
That was my argument when discussing the most exciting developments in Scotch whisky with Scott Adamson, brand ambassador for Tomatin, on his Softer Sessions video series. We covered a variety of subjects, but it was one of Scott’s folow-up questions that stuck in my mind: what’s the difference between a cask finish and double maturation, and do we need some form of regulation?
Sure, a ‘finished’ whisky tends to be matured in a second cask for a period of months as a ‘finishing touch’, while ‘double maturation’ suggests a much longer residency. But as for pinpointing the specific difference between the two, my response was this: who cares?
Neither term accurately represents how much flavour has been imparted by the secondary maturation, for that is the combined result of several variables. The nature of the cask’s previous contents and how long it was seasoned for, whether the wood has been toasted or charred, how many times it has been reused, the ABV of the whisky being filled into it, and even the climate, all determine its impact.
To define and regulate the difference between finishing and double maturing is to slap an arbitrary time limit on secondary maturation when it is just one factor at play. More to the point, it is this level of superfluous detail which adds yet another unnecessary verb to whisky’s dictionary and only succeeds in confusing drinkers.
For the majority of whisky drinkers the bigger questions come down to flavour
Surely the more effective questions are how does it taste, and will I like it?
As whisky enthusiasts it can be all too easy to get bogged down in the detail, such that we often forget to actually enjoy the liquid in our glass. For the majority of whisky drinkers the bigger questions come down to flavour. So, as I told Scott, who cares?
A few weeks after our conversation, I attended a private virtual tasting of the new single malt whiskies from Waterford distillery in Ireland.
The distillery (run by ex-Bruichladdich MD Mark Reynier) uses 100% Irish barley from a variety of farms to explore the concept of terroir. Each bottle in its new Single Farm Origin series is a reflection of individual farms and harvests, not to mention an exploration of different barley varieties.
The most impressive aspect is the unique Téireoir code printed on each bottle, which from the end of June can be entered into the distillery website to reveal details of the farm, harvest, distillation process, and wood used.
Waterford has created an entire database of thousands of these intricate details, access to the bulk of which will be restricted to researchers and academics - the reason being that too much detail can very easily overwhelm and alienate people.
Waterford is an ‘inquisitive, intellectual’ single malt brand that thrives on specifics, but it also recognises that not every whisky drinker is interested in diving into the rabbit hole. As Reynier pointed out during the tasting, ‘the aim is not to force all this on one person. If you’re interested then great; if you’re not then here’s a glass of very good Irish single malt whiskey’.
Most brands recognise that there is a faction of whisky enthusiasts who are curious about intricate production information, but Reynier is correct in that it should remain an optional supplement, for the devil is in the details. Whisky is complicated enough for new drinkers as it is, but regardless of wherever you are on your personal whisky journey, don’t forget to sometimes kick back and just enjoy the liquid in your glass. You’ll appreciate it more. Trust me.