Spirits in Wine Barrels

Distillers are turning to cask-finishing for a richer, more complex product.



Which do you prefer, a glass of wine or a tumbler of whiskey? What if you didn’t have to choose?

A growing number of distillers want to provide the best of both worlds in a single glass by resting whiskey, rum, even mezcal in barrels that were previously used to age wine. The end result is a deeper, more complex spirit with a little something extra, such as the rich touch of Port or a honeyed brush of Sauternes.

Cask-finishing, as the technique is commonly called, has captured the imaginationof many spirits makers. Some are hustling out limited-edition experiments; others are releasing special bottlings begundecades ago, now fully mature and sparking further interest in the category as imbibers get a first luscious taste.

The technique
In brief, here’s how cask-finishing works: After barrels used to age wine are emptied, some of the wine’s essence remains in the wood. When those barrels are refilled with a spirit, the spirit “chases” those vinous characters out of the wood, adding subtle flavors and color to the spirit in the barrel.

Casks that previously held Port and Sherry are the most sought after for finishing spirits, followed by Sauternes and Madeira. However, distillers are also experimenting to fine effect with vessels that previously held Bordeaux, as well as Zinfandel, Grenache, Cabernet and Chardonnay.

The back story
Although cask-finishing has been gaining new fans in the spirits world (some distillers claim to have recently invented or perfected the technique), experts say that cask-finishing is nothing new. In fact, it’s rather old.

“Wine casks were the casks of choice in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” says John Campbell, master distiller and distillery manager of Laphroaig Distillery, who uses oloroso Sherry barrels to finish Laphroaig’s 25-year-old Scotch. “It’s taking people back in time.”
However, cask-finishing is still far from routine. “We use the casks when we are looking for something special, different from the normal,” Campbell explains. For example, Sherry barrels, sourced from sister company Harvey’s, are used to add “a real Christmas cake flavor” and body to the Scotch, with dried apricot, raisin and cinnamon notes. “It coats the whole of your mouth with Sherry,” he explains.

With most single malts, the primary difference within a brand’s range is age. But now, some whiskey makers offer a variety of finishes, such as Glenmorangie’s line-up of 12-year-old Highland Scotches, each with a distinct, wine-influenced touch. The Lasanta, finished in oloroso Sherry casks, has rich almond and dried-fruit notes and a deep amber cast; the Sauternes-finished Nectar d’Or has a distinctly smooth, honeyed quality; while The Quinta Ruban, which is finished in ruby Port barrels, shows a ruddy tinge and a subtle cherry-vanilla fragrance.

“We now have the ability to sculpt flavor profiles for our single malts using a range of different cask types,” enthuses Brian Cox, vice president of the Glenmorangie line. “We are innovating by going back to the roots of Scotch whisky.”

“An incredible palette”
At New York’s tiny Park Avenue Liquor Shop, Senior Vice President Jonathan Goldstein has developed a reputation as a savvy instigator, requesting bespoke creations from spirits makers around the globe, often to be sold to his customers alone.

Goldstein’s persistence was directly responsible for the luscious Chichicapa Cask, a “single village” mezcal from producer Del Maguey, aged for 14 years in glass bottles, then finished in a Stags Leap district Cabernet barrel for 43 days. The result: a light nut-brown mezcal with beautiful aromas of raisin, vanilla and dark chocolate, with a mellow pepper note in the background. But it’s a limited-edition find, priced at a hefty $320.

“People are tired of the same old thing,” says Ron Cooper, president of Del Maguey. “But when you start thinking about flavor, there’s such an incredible palette to work with. Look at the flavor profiles you get from wine—all that dark fruit you can get. Having some really great dark fruit notes on top of a spirit, it’s already like a cocktail!”

Cooper was so pleased with the Cabernet finish, he is now planning to age mezcal in a 200-year-old Manzanilla Sherry barrel as well, a nod to bartenders who combine Sherry and mezcal in cocktails.

Searching for “the holy grail”
About 20 years ago, Buffalo Trace manager Kris Comstock began a series of experiments in his quest to create “the holy grail of Bourbon.” He experimented with the mash bill (the “recipe” of grains and corn in the distillate), aging times and of course, different types of barrels, including some which previously held Cabernet, Zinfandel or Chardonnay.

“What we got was a nice balance of wood and the corn-rye-malted barley mash bill, but with an influx of fruitiness,” Comstock recalls. In particular, “the Cabernet gave it some earthiness and fruitiness, but it wasn’t too sweet, either.” Meanwhile, aging the Bourbon in Chardonnay resulted in pronounced vanilla tones, while a Zinfandel finish imparted spiciness, particularly clove, and citrus flavors. Further, the wine cask-aging created “velvetiness” and depth in the whiskey.

By a wide margin, whiskey is the spirit most likely to be cask-finished, but distillers are experimenting with other spirits as well, such as Tequila.

Consider, for example, Gran Patrón Burdeos, a limited-edition aged Patrón Tequila finished in Bordeaux barrels—the final result of a side-by-side comparison by Patrón’s master distiller, Francisco Alcaraz, who also tried out Port and Madeira finishes.
Meanwhile, Excellia Tequila is made in Jalisco, Mexico, but is finished in Cognac barrels (Excellia’s parent company, EuroWineGate, is based in Cognac, France) and Sauternes barrels. The two batches are then blended, creating a surprisingly gentle, delicate Tequila.

A diminishing supply of wine casks
If you’ve found a cask-finished spirit that you love, savor it; many are available only in limited supply. Part of that is due to the fact that distillers are still perfecting the art of cask-finishing; although it is a technique with historical pedigree, apparently it has become something of a lost art.

“There is nothing written or any established method to develop new products like Gran Patrón Burdeos,” laments Alcaraz, who spent five years developing the bottling. “It’s really more of a feeling or inspiration to know what will work best—and a lot of trial and error to get it right!”

“I never read about it, and no one ever told me about it,” says Del Maguey’s Cooper about his cask-finishing learning curve. As a result, some lessons were learned the hard way, such as the discovery that “the flavor changes over time,” Cooper explains. He learned by tasting during the finishing process that the spirit can inexplicably turn bitter, but later can smooth out again.

Another potential complication: the availability and expense of barrels. While some distillers resort to limited-edition releases when they can’t source a consistent supply of barrels, others, particularly larger houses, want to ensure ongoing availability and consistent quality of a popular product.

Despite the popularity of Port and Sherry finishes, distillers say it has become harder to find good, affordable Port and Sherry casks. Sauternes may be the next to see a shortage, some predict.

In general, “Sauternes casks tend to give a lovely rounded, almost buttery texture to the whiskey along with citrus lemon notes,” says Glenmorangie’s Cox. The dried fruit and honey characteristics of Sauternes is a versatile match for the vanilla-oak tones of many aged spirits, which puts it in high demand.What else is on the horizon? In addition to wine cask-finished spirits, look for more cross-spirit finishes on the horizon. The array of options is such that it’s now possible to make a game of drawing a direct line from Tequila aged in Scotch casks (Chinaco Reposado) to Scotch finished in rum casks (Old Malt Cask Ardbeg) to rum finished in Cognac casks (Plantation Rum). Luckily, that’s our kind of drinking game.

Top Picks for Wine Cask-Finished Spirits

Angel’s Envy Bourbon. Port-barrel finishing yields a seductively rich aroma of raisin and dried cherry and a big finish with vanilla, bitter chocolate and espresso tones. It’s easy to see why this Bourbon brought Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson out of retirement. Really delicious.

Canadian Club Sherry Cask. Blended Canadian whisky double matured in Spanish Sherry casks, aged at least eight years. Mellow, silky and refined with warm flavors of dark chocolate, Guinness stout and hazelnuts.Dos Maderas PX Rum. A velvety, aromatic rum aged in multiple Sherry casks.

Eades Small Batch Double Malt Whisky – Speyside. A spicy whisky with a honeyed, lightly smoky finish. The unusual finishing approach will appeal those who appreciate robust reds: half of the whisky is finished in a Zinfandel cask; the other in a Callejo (Tempranillo) vessel.

Excellia Tequila. An unusually delicate, fruity Tequila finished in Cognac and Sauternes barrels. Try the reposado version, which also has light vanilla notes.

Glenmorangie Extremely Rare 18 Years Old. A special-occasion Highland single malt, finished in Oloroso Sherry casks. The Sherry influence is definitely evident in the rich fragrance and honeyed, faintly peaty finish.

For more Wine Cask-Finished Spirits, click here.

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