I love wine. I love whiskey, too. But a recent mega-tasting for Wine Enthusiast tested those affections: Some of the least palatable were wine-finished whiskeys.
To be fair, as spirits reviewer for a wine magazine, I probably get more wine-finished samples than most. (“Finishing” here means matured whiskey is placed in a barrel that previously held another liquid— like wine—which can add nuanced flavor.)
Many have been outstanding: Finished in red wine casks from Bordeaux’s Pauillac region, peaty Port Charlotte Scotch took on lively dark chocolate and smoked chipotle. And Milam & Greene’s Port-finished rye was one of my favorites of 2022, layering peanut brittle and dried cherry tones.
But for every rave, I find myself with multiple wine-finished clunkers, like a Cab-finished bourbon that tasted like a stick of Big Red gum swirled in Robitussin.
What makes the difference?
“Experience,” says Milam & Greene CEO and master blender Heather Greene; that Port-finished rye I enjoyed was the culmination of years honing her palate and relentlessly tweaking the final blend, drawn from multiple barrels aged in various weather conditions. “A rookie would just throw it all in a port cask and wait.”
Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling & Whisky Creation, was a pioneer of finishing, starting in the 1990s; even he acknowledges the technique can be “tricky.”
Like any good wine pairing, understanding which complements a whiskey is integral to success, Lumsden notes. For example, he counts Ardbeg Black, aged in New Zealand Pinot Noir casks, as a particular success, since the assertive fruit stood up against the smoky Islay Scotch. By comparison, the softness of unpeated Glenmorangie plays better with a rich, sweet wine such as Sauternes (making Nectar d’Or bottling a honeyed delight).
When I told him that many of the bottlings I’d hoped—but failed—to love have been American whiskeys finished in casks that held wines from the same region, Lumsden offers a pithy diagnosis: lack of balance. “You wouldn’t have a red-hot Mexican chili con carne and eat it at the same time as you’re eating red-hot vindaloo curry,” he explains.
“You’d have cooling things on the side, like cucumber raita. It’s the same idea: big-flavored whiskey that has been matured in new oak, then finished in barrels from big, full-bodied, high-alcohol wines like Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t always work.”
Knowing how much forethought and expertise is needed, it’s easy to see why so many experiments miss the mark. But hear me out: Despite those wrong turns, wine-finished whiskeys have earned a place on any well-stocked bar cart. Chosen well, it can be one of the most satisfying pours around.
With that in mind, here are four wine-finished whiskeys that made the cut.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
4 Wine-Finished Whiskeys to Try
Rye Whiskey Finished in Port: Milam & Greene Port Finished Rye Whiskey
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Complex and enticing, this rich take on rye has a notably deep, ruddy hue, with toffee and red fruit aromas. The big, bold palate opens with dusty cocoa and mild cinnamon. Adding water brings out plush butterscotch and peanut brittle, finishing with a red fruit note and plenty of warming spice. Top 100 Spirits 2022 —K.N.
Scotch Whisky Finished in Sauternes: Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or
96 Points Wine Enthusiast
This 12-year-old single malt was finished in casks that previously held Sauternes, the golden sweet wine of Bordeaux. Smooth and elegant, look for a honey hue and notes of vanilla and lemon cream on the palate, finishing with baking spice and a puff of smoke. Adding water unleashes more creamy vanilla and citrus. Top 100 Spirits 2017 —K.N.
Bourbon Finished in Oregon Pinot Noir: Freeland Spirits Bourbon
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Finished in Pinot Noir barrels from Oregon’s Elk Cove, this bourbon shimmers with dark fruit and spice. Vanilla and caramel are layered with dark cherry, dried fig and fruit leather, finishing long with clove and black pepper. Top 100 Spirits 2022 —K.N.
Irish Whiskey Finished in Sherry and Marsala: Busker Irish Whiskey
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Billed as a triple cask whiskey, the liquid was finished in barrels that previously held Sherry, Bourbon and Marsala. The result is a cinnamon and faint floral aroma, and a palate that sizzles with baking spice. It eventually mellows into flavors of vanilla wafer, cocoa and dried fig, finishing with gingery zing. —K.N.