Bourbon barrels are the most common cask used for Scotch whisky. Why? It’s all down to supply and demand. By law bourbon must be aged in new casks, meaning that after their first use they are generally surplus to requirements. They are also cheap compared with other types of cask, which leads to high demand from Scotland (and other distilleries around the world). The example used for the tasting was our exclusive Balblair 1997 from Gordon & MacPhail, which showed the classic sweet, fruity style that bourbon casks impart along with the trademark notes of coconut and vanilla.
Sherry casks (usually around 500 litres) are very popular, but are very expensive (up to 10 times the cost of a bourbon barrel), so many distilleries choose not to (or cannot afford to) use them on a regular basis. Casks used for all the main styles of sherry are used for ageing whisky, with the sweet Pedro Ximénez and rich oloroso the most common. We tried two sherried whiskies on the night: a refill butt from Signatory of Clynelish 1995 and Lagavulin 1995 Distillers Edition, which is finished in Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry casks. Theses added notes of chocolate, orange and dried fruits, with the smokiness of the Lagavulin adding an extra dimension.
The most common port casks used for whisky used to hold ruby port, although tawny or white are also used, the latter adding both richness and a refreshing dryness. Casks used for the red styles of port add notes of strawberry and raspberry. The example we tried was Benriach 21 Year Old Tawny Port Finish, from one of Chris’ favourite distilleries. It showed wonderful balance between dry spicy flavours – clove and nutmeg – and red fruits.
Distilling is said to have been practised at Balblair as long ago as 1749, but its formal history begins in 1790, when John Ross established a distillery at Balblair Farm, about half a mile from the current site.
A fortified wine from the eponymous island, these casks add extra spice and dark-fruit notes, along with dryness or sweetness depending on the style of Madeira. This year has seen a prominent release with the eighth edition of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition series: Bacalta, which was finished in sweet Malmsey Madeira casks.
Ongoing releases of Marsala-matured whiskies are rare, in fact we only have one in stock, the limited-edition Ledaig 19 Year Old. This rich, fortified wine from Sicily can be dry or sweet, in both cases adding extra complexity and extra spice.
Why not try a range of whiskies aged in different casks for yourself and see which style suits you?
It is 90 points in my book. Do you have to try this one before you die? Well, it is an impressive experience. Just like Elvin Bishop sings "Fooled Around And Fell In Love"