Like all whiskeys that mature in wood barrels, many of Scotch whisky’s virtues develop during that metamorphic, cocoon-like stage. But what precisely happens to the whisky during its years in barrel is part of the spirit’s mystique. The lore of single-malt Scotch whisky—the distinctive whiskies made from 100-percent malted barley, produced in one distillery—is filled with stories about the influences of this or that type of wood. For example, two barrels lying side by side that are filled on the same day and contain whisky from the same distillation batch can produce significantly different whiskies years later—but why, remains a mystery.
Laws drawn up by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) state that the fresh, raw grain spirit that comes off the still must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Most Scotch whiskies are kept in barrel for longer than that. The decision of when to pour a whisky out of the barrel is the responsibility of the master blender, chief warehouseman, or the master distiller. That conclusion is arrived at via a number of interdependent variables, most importantly, the whisky’s stage of development, the purpose it will serve (part of a blend or as a single malt), and the demands of the marketplace.
The SWA’s regulations also cite specific types of barrels that can be used to mature a whisky. The overwhelming majority of single malt Scotch whiskies have matured in one of two varieties of used oak barrels—either those used to age American Bourbon whiskeys or those in which Sherries from southern Spain were aged.
Over the last two decades, a handful of intrepid Scotch whisky malt distillers have been taking an extra step: They remove mature single malts from their original barrels and, in a procedure called “wood-finishing” in Scotland and “cask-finishing” in Ireland, pump single malts into casks that once matured Port, Sherry or even red Burgundy, and allow them to age for up to two years more. The wood-finished malt whisky reflects the influence of both barrels and becomes a distinct new expression of the distillery’s single-malt roster.
While Scotland’s distillers—in particular Glenmorangie, who introduced their Port-wood finish Scotch in 1994—have been viewed as the trailblazing practitioners of the craft, wood-finishing is not exclusive to Scotland. Two of Ireland’s foremost distillers, Old Bushmills and Jameson, and American Bourbon distillery Jim Beam have likewise experimented with finishing some of their premier whiskeys with a few months in uncommon kinds of oak barrels. These whiskeys include the seductive Old Bushmills 21 Year Old Madeira Wood Irish Single Malt Whiskey, Jameson 18 Year Old (aged first in Sherry casks, then in old Bourbon barrels), and Jim Beam’s spectacular Distillers’ Masterpiece Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskeys. One version of Distillers’ Masterpiece is finished in Cognac barrels, the other in used Port pipes (barrels).
If wood-finishing is such a good idea, why aren’t more distilleries behind it? The answer: pure economics. The practice is labor-intensive and therefore expensive, and the price of barrels, especially exotic types such as those that formerly matured Port, Madeira or fine wines, is prohibitive.
A crucial element in the wood-finishing equation for master distillers is matching the whisky with a compatible finishing wood. Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden, says that “Château d’Yquem and [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] Burgundy barrels were something that I viewed as being highly likely to complement Glenmorangie.”
Lumsden’s instincts were accurate, since both the landmark Glenmorangie Côte-de-Nuits Finish (no longer available) and Glenmorangie 1981 Sauternes Wood Finish (available, but rare) proved to be points of reference for future wood-finished single malts.
For some distillers, the type of oak also plays a key role in the finishing process. “We took the view that we should remain true to the origins of the brand,” said Jim Cryle, master distiller at The Glenlivet Distillery in Scotland’s Speyside. “We selected Limousin oak for its ability to enhance the fragrance and spicy oakiness [of The Glenlivet]. One of the characteristics of Limousin oak is its relatively lower levels of lactone and higher levels of tannin and vanillin, which add richness and delicate spicy oakiness that perfectly complement The Glenlivet character,” added Cryle, whose French Oak Finish Glenlivets are gaining popularity.
“The advantage of [wood] finishing, provided that it does not mask the original character of the brand, is to add a complementary layer of flavor,” continues Cryle. “There is demand from consumers to have the opportunity to experience different expressions of their favorite brands.”
A word to whiskey men about wood-finished whiskeys: Keep them coming.
12 Top-Notch Wood-Finished Single Malts From Scotland, Kentucky and Ireland
Distillers’ Masterpiece 20 Year Old Port Cask Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Kentucky); $300. A delicious new direction for traditional Bourbon whiskey. The wine overtones imparted by the Port-cask finish make this delectable Bourbon one of a kind.
Glenmorangie 1981 Sauternes-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Northern Highlands, Scotland); $299. The elegance and ambrosial virtues of the Sauternes oak (yes, it was Château d’Yquem) add a stunning fruitiness that melds perfectly to the grain foundation. A masterpiece and a benchmark for wood finishing.
Old Bushmills 21 Year Old Madeira Wood Irish Single Malt Whiskey (Northern Ireland); $100. The finishing in Madeira casks adds an alluring red plum/black raisin quality to an already fantastic single malt. The result is a prototypical example of the subcategory.
Old Bushmills 16 Year Old Triple Wood Irish Single Malt Whiskey (Northern Ireland); $100. This luscious malt is aged for 16 years in both Sherry and Bourbon barrels, then those whiskeys are brought together and aged further in Port barrels for 6 to 18 months. The result is magical.
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Sherry-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Northern Highlands, Scotland); $49. Doubtless, the finest and silkiest of the three mainstream wood-finishes offered by Glenmorangie. Fruity, with succulent notes of tropical fruit, yet dry and supple.
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Fino Sherry-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Northern Highlands, Scotland); $99. Drier and more intense than the regular Sherry-wood finish bottling from Glenmorangie. The slightly yeasty, bread dough and pineapple-like aroma immediately identifies the nature of the wood finish.
The Glenlivet 12 Year Old French Oak Finish Single Malt Whisky (Speyside, Scotland); $45. The Limousin oak finish lends a racy, wine-like element to this inherently sleek and sophisticated malt.
The Glenlivet 2003 Cellar Collection Release French Oak Finish 1983 Single Malt Whisky (Speyside, Scotland); $200. Offers totally seductive flavors of candied nuts, light caramel, vanilla and pine nuts. Plump and luscious.
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Madeira-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Northern Highlands, Scotland); $49. The scents of ripe black plums and blackberries make this malt likable right from the sniffing stage.
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Port-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Northern Highlands, Scotland); $49. The most popular of the mainstream Glenmorangie wood-finished malts isn’t the best, but it is notable for its elegant, moderately sweet midpalate.
Jameson 18 Year Old Master Selection Irish Whiskey (Ireland); $65. This toothsome blended whiskey was first aged in casks that once housed oloroso Sherry. The whiskey was then “finished” in old Bourbon barrels. Excellent balance.
The Balvenie 21 Year Old Port-Wood Finish Single Malt Whisky (Speyside, Scotland); $99. Shows more than a little Port-like qualities especially in the taste. Nicely married flavors.