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  • Writer's picturePeter Miles

The art of 'Barrel Finishing' Whisky

All whisky spends some time (usually 3+ years) after distillation in wooden barrels to ‘mature’. Maturation is typically the key contributor to the aroma and taste of the whisky.

By ancient tradition and/or regulation, the barrel protocol was typically new American oak barrels for Bourbon and Rye and various pre-used (bourbon and sherry) oak barrels for Scotch and Irish whisky.

However, after WWII, Scotch and Irish whisky had taken on the role of the old man’s drink: reliable, unchanging, and lacking any adventure or development. More popular drinks based on clear spirits such as vodka, gin and tequila were slowly eating into the whisky market and by the 1980’s the whisky industry went into one of its periodic slumps. It needed to offer something new.

One of the new ideas was to add an extra dimension of flavor to the base whisky by using a different secondary ‘finishing’ barrel for additional maturation.

Finishing has been defined as the ‘transfer of a mature whisky into a different cask type for an extended period of ageing’ This approach was initially promoted by the Glenmorangie distillery in Ross, Scotland.

Note that adding an additional liquid flavoring directly into the whisky was and is against the rules in many countries. After all, what you would have then is a ‘whisky cocktail or liqueur’.

By the mid 90’s Glenmorangie had a range of ‘finished’ whiskies headed up by the highly acclaimed Port Wood Finish, which became the ‘poster child’ for the ‘finishing’ technique. Other distilleries quickly followed. Since then, there has been an intense period of experimentation on finishing and wood management in general. Some of these whiskies have become huge sellers, a prime example being the Balvenie 12-year-old ‘Double Wood’.

As we sit here in 2021, we have whiskies of all types (including bourbon and rye from the USA and whiskies from many other countries) being subjected to all sorts of wood barrel treatments, including barrels previously containing other spirits such as cognac and rum, beers including IPA, stouts, sours and of course every type of wine imaginable. The wood used in the barrels has reached out beyond American and European oak to other woods, perhaps most notably mizunara oak in Japan.

However, it is the application of used Sherry and Port oak barrels for finishing that has remained the dominant and most popular approach. Let’s informally taste a just few of these sherry/port ‘finished’ whiskies.

The Balvenie 17 year old double wood single malt. The extra time compared to the popular 12 year old seems to be in the ex-bourbon barrel and not in the sherry barrel as there is a more distinct oak woodiness layered under the fruit and berry flavors. Wonderful balance overall, smooth, complex, and a delicate buildup of warmth. A great after dinner dram. Approaching the level of a showcase whisky but is still cheap enough to buy and actually drink.

The Glendalough double barrel whisky. This young Irish whisky has less than half the age of the Balevnie and is less than half the price. It is light on the nose, and yet quite viscous, the alcohol hit is a little hot, and up-front dry tannin and polish flavors dominate. But it winds down with a surprisingly well-integrated medium dry sherry finish. This is quite impressive stuff for a young whisky, and it will be worth while keeping an eye on Glendalough as their stock matures. A fall afternoon single shot dram to keep you on your toes.

The Glenmorangie 12-year-old Lasanta single malt. Skipping past the 14-year-old Glenmorangie ‘Quinta Ruban’ port finish that has received mixed reviews, this simpler 12 year old whisky is a great example of fine sherry barrel finishing. A taste profile not too dissimilar to the Balvenie, but a little drier and with hints of classic Glenmorangie spices and less wood in the base. A smooth easy drinking dram with laid-back fruit and berry influence. This bargain priced bottle could easily become a fine daily sipper.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye. For those who drink their rye in a single gulp from a shot glass and like it that way, the whole idea of ‘finishing’ it in some fancy wood barrel might seem way too pretentious. However, it turns out that the powerful dry spice kick of the rye and the related rapidly building alcohol warmth is wonderfully tempered by the port finish influences floating on top. As expected, a very different experience to the other whiskies here. The future of rye whiskies might well lie in this direction. A summer, night cap whisky on the porch.

Overall, the fine art of ‘finishing’ may be the most important development in whisky in the last 50 years, may it continue to flourish.

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