Wine finishes are a growing staple in the whiskey world as a way to add nuanced layers of fruit and spice to the spirit without artificial flavorings. Yet, the taste of a favorite wine can present very differently when it shows up in a whiskey glass. A telltale hint of dark chocolate can signal a Port-finished whiskey, while cherry-like notes may point to a Cabernet cask.
Here’s how to decode wine-finished whiskey.
What is a “wine finish”?
Producers age whiskey, and sometimes other spirits, in barrels that once held wine. After the wine is dumped out of the barrel, a small amount remains soaked into its wood. When the barrel is refilled with whiskey, the wine’s aromas and flavors release into the spirit over time. Usually, the process starts with already mature whiskey, which is allowed to rest for days, months or even years in the ex-wine cask, a process known as “finishing.”
“Our first exploration into wine finishes I did [was] with Cabernet, because that’s what I like to drink when I’m not drinking Bourbon.” —Trey Zoeller, founder, Jefferson’s Bourbon
Why do whiskey makers use wine barrels?
In general, the point of wine-finishing is to add subtle layers of flavor.
“Historically, [casks from] fortified wines and high residual sugar content wines have been used for finishing whiskey,” says Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery and WhistlePig. Sherry, Port and Madeira casks are all widely used as finishes.
Experiments with non-fortified wines, like those at Hillrock, which has released Cabernet Sauvignon– and Pinot Noir-finished Bourbons, are a more recent development. Pickerell says that wine finishes should “supplement the taste of the underlying whiskey, not supplant it.”
There are also practical reasons for using this technique. Some types of whiskey, like Scotch, are strictly regulated, which prevents or minimizes the addition of caramel or other flavorings. Wine finishes are one of the few permitted ways to play with flavor. It also helps that many liquor conglomerates own both distillery and winery properties, so the reuse of a Sherry barrel can save money.
“[Matching wine and whiskey is] a lot like a game of Clue…Colonel Mustard in the observatory with the lead pipe…Lail Cabernet in Hillrock Solera Bourbon for six weeks.” —Dave Pickerell, master distiller, Hillrock Estate Distillery and WhistlePig
How do whiskey producers decide which wine finishes to use?
Short answer: it involves a lot of trial and error.
Pickerell describes the process of matching wine and whiskey as “a lot like a game of Clue…Colonel Mustard in the observatory with the lead pipe…Lail Cabernet in Hillrock Solera Bourbon for six weeks.”
He’ll start with a glass of whiskey and a few drops of the proposed wine as a test. “Not all finishes work well,” he says. For example, Pickerell found that while Cabernet worked well with Bourbon, it was less successful with rye whiskey.
In addition, some whiskey makers turn to wine finishes as a way to combine two of their favorite sips.
“Our first exploration into wine finishes I did [was] with Cabernet, because that’s what I like to drink when I’m not drinking Bourbon,” says Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon. He’s zigzagged through California wine country to procure Cab barrels from Napa wineries like Groth and Pritchard Hill’s Chappellet.
“The Cab finishes were as different as the wines,” says Zoeller. However, he does point out that both barrels contributed distinct black cherry notes.
What do wine-finished whiskeys taste like?
That depends on the flavor of the base whiskey, whether it’s caramel-forward Bourbon, spicy rye, fruity Irish whiskey or complex Scotch. It’s also contingent on the type of wine used and how long the whiskey rests in the barrel. Fortified wines are a particularly popular finishing choice. Their flavors can be relatively pronounced and usually are harmonious with a wide range of distilled spirits.
A Fine Finish
Here are seven wine categories, fortified and otherwise, that whiskey producers are working with right now, and a guide to how their flavors affect a wine-finished whiskey.
Look for “berries, cherries and currants” in Cab-finished Bourbons, says Pickerell. As a result, some of these whiskeys taste almost like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned cocktail.
This fortified wine enriches whiskey with layers of honey and sweet spice or hints of stone fruit. It can produce a delicious spice cake-like effect.
Tullamore Dew Single Malt 18 Years Old; $110, 94 points. (finished in a quartet of casks: Bourbon, Sherry, Port and Madeira)
The Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Madeira Cask; $75, 91 points.
Grown in regions like France, Germany, California and Oregon, this wine tends to contribute subtle fruit and tannic structure to a whiskey’s finish, which makes its influence one of the harder to detect.
Although this finish can change depending on what style of Port is used, Pickerell points to tawny Port as a popular choice to add notes that can range from dark chocolate to lush “winter fruit.”
This finish of this French dessert wine is easy to identify, as it offers golden raisin, honey, stone fruit and orange blossom notes. Pickerell favors it as a rye whiskey finish, though it adds elegance to Highland Scotch as well.
You’ll find no shortage of Sherry-finished whiskeys. The practice has been in use for centuries, particularly to add nutty richness to Scotch, and it’s employed widely across all whiskey types. But what it adds to your dram depends on which style of Sherry was used.
Pickerell says: “Manzanilla Sherry adds a fun minerality as well as winter fruits to whiskey. Oloroso Sherry adds top notes of nuttiness and dry fruitiness. Pedro Ximénez adds a rich plum or fig note.”
Not seen very often as a whiskey finish, this complex, savory red can add a measure of earthy red fruit and peppery spice.