As special finishes evolve into an ever more specialised genre, the options span various styles of wine: chenin blanc and chardonnay, red bordeaux and burgundy, malaga and madeira among fortified styles, not to mention casks that haven’t aged a drop (in the case of a new oak finish). So, what’s next? Spirits, actually, with the likes of cognac and calvados casks adding distinctive finishing touches to a range of malts. Maturation is not an inexact science: you can’t assess the degree of influence that each element of a finish exerts. There are endless possible permutationsbetween the length of the finishing period, the type of spirit previously matured in the cask and the nature (and fill) of the cask itself. Regulations governing the use of finishing casks aren’t exactly definitive either. Apart from the compulsory use of oak, the choice must comply with the ‘traditional casks’ principle that applies to all Scotch whisky. Is there such a definitive list? Well, not really. Nor would it be easy to compile one. And as distillers would in the past have used casks from various European wines and spirits shipped to the UK, this hardly seems a restrictive clause. Far clearer is that the finishing influence must stem entirely from the cask and not from any liquid presence of the previous incumbent. Residual spirit within the staves is, naturally, exempt. However, as this can amount to several litres – depending on the size of the cask – it is a significant factor. Just as with a first fill barrel used for main maturation, there is an initial rush of this residual liquid being released into the malt during the first few years. While this spirit contributes some archetypal characteristics to the malt, this is essentially a wood extractive spirit which also contains various flavour compounds derived from the oak. As recent research indicates that the type of oak, European or American, is more influential than the alcohol the cask previously contained, this is another key factor when considering a special finish. European oak’s looser, more open and porous grain compared to American oak’s straighter, tighter grain enables the malt to penetrate the surface layer of oak more readily. This heightens the release of wood extractive spirit, while European oak’s higher tannin level also promotes astringency, balance and structure.Considering the oak’s provenance in more detail also poses questions such as: Tronçais or Limousin oak for a cognac finish? Oak from the Tronçais forest is renowned for contributing smooth tannins and more pronounced vanilla flavour than Limousin oak, which is more porous and known to add strength and balance. Whatever the type of finishing cask, and the length of the finishing period (anywhere from several months to a few years), the effect of a finish also depends on the character of the malt. This in turn questions the peating level and provides an opportunity for debate. A finish is generally more discernible in a lighter or unpeated malt, compared to a richer, peatier malt, which requires a more substantial impact for the finish to register. However, higher peating levels can also offer greater versatility and complexity. The essential consideration is how the finish shows in the malt: as a complimentary garnish of top notes or as a deeper, balanced group of flavours.“You get balance more quickly in a finish using a more heavily peated malt than a lighter malt, which takes up the influence of the finish more readily. If you left a Speyside malt in a finish for too long it could soon be overpowered. Higher peating gives you a safety net and the opportunity to mature in a variety of casks. You might lose subtlety, but you’re adding another dimension,” says Ewen Mackintosh, Gordon & MacPhail’s Quality Control Manager.Gordon & MacPhail’s Calvados and Cognac Finishes are ideal test cases, each applied to two different malts, Imperial and Caol Ila, bottled last year under the Private Collection label. Having previously matured malt for around 25 years in brandy barrels (the result being bottled in 1993), using a cognac cask for a finish was a natural progression for Gordon & MacPhail. Calvados barrels are also a logical choice, as apple notes thrive invarious Speyside malts. “We decided to use a clean Speyside whisky, Imperial, so that the finish might have a more profound impact. With the Caol Ila, which is not overly peaty, we thought it might interact better, so we covered both ends of the spectrum,” adds Mackintosh.The vital statistics are that the Imperial was matured for eight years in second fill sherry hogsheads, with the Caol Ila
experiencing 10 years in second fill bourbon hogsheads. Second fill casks were chosen to ensure that the malt showed more distillery character, rather than sherry or bourbon oak. Similarly, using hogsheads ensured a milder oak influence and more of an open canvas for the finishing cask. Both malts were finished for two years in what were effectively first fill cognac and calvados barrels (six monthly nosings monitored progress). “It’s pretty difficult to predict what’s going to happen, as the parameters are quite wide. As the Caol Ila is already quite complex, both finishes give it another dimension: more integrated and more complementary. As the Imperial is lighter, the finish is at the forefront and quite dominant: if we’d finished it for any longer the cognac would have started to unbalance it,” says Ewen Mackintosh. Comparing tasting notes for each special finish clearly shows how influential the choice of malt is. The Imperial Cognac Finish has grape, with underlying malty, cedar wood aromas. Cognac is also the primary note on the palate, with an immediate clean and intense fruityness. The Caol Ila Cognac Finish has initial medicinal, germolene cream aromas and fruit combined with rose water. Cognac notes are predominant on the sweet, quite fruity palate, with a hint of Islay also evident.Meanwhile, the Imperial Calvados Finish shows English apple and intensely fruity aromas complementing the fruit inherent within the malt. More maltyness comes through on the palate, with apple flavours secondary, and a drier, maltier balance. The Caol Ila Calvados Finish delivers increased fruityness, giving integrated fruit and peat aromas with mulled wine notes. The palate is initially very smokey, followed by sharp fruit.The benefits of secondary maturation using a rum cask will be showcased next March when Springbank releases Cask Expressions Rum Wood. There’s a sense of anticipation, which is quite a contrast to Springbank’s somewhat controversial 1992 malt bottling fully matured in rum casks. There’s a practical reason for this choice of wood, as Springbank’s sister company, William Cadenhead, is a leading rum bottler in Scotland, which means empty casks are readily available.Following a seven year maturation in bourbon barrels, the secondary maturation period is a leisurely five years, using first-fill demerara rum barrels, as Euan Mitchell, Springbanks’ Sales Manager, says: “A larger cask wouldn’t add the same level of flavour over that time scale. For this bottling the secondary maturation is more of an integration of flavours rather than a garnish. Demerara adds a very strong fruit character, almost tropical, with hints of banana, coconut and dried fruit notes, and a subtle hint of light sugar,” he adds. The influence of the main and secondary maturation also capitalises on the lightly peaty, salty, citrus character of the malt.
Euan explains: “The secondary maturation adds more layers of flavour, with a rich, fruity character, and a balance between the classic vanilla flavours from the bourbon oak.” As special finishes evolve, a clear divide between traditionalists who decry gimmicks and progressives who relish innovation has evolved. How specialised it becomes remains to be seen. However, if special finishes rely further on more rarified barrel provenance rather than the end result, the sector could start to disappear up its own butt.