As Forrest Gump’s moma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.” This it seems is the dilemma facing the whisky industry’s customers at the moment, and one that has been progressively creeping up on us over the last 5-10 years. The quote may now read, “A distillery shop is like a box of chocolates, etc”.
Are we expected to make some kind of intellectual judgement on whether to buy, for example Cabernet Sauvignon, Pino Grigio, or Blue Nun finished spirit? There must have been some kind of consensus agreement about a decade ago amongst the Master Blenders, not by verbal agreement as they are unlikely to have shared their ideas on future marketing plans, but probably by a Jungian collective unconscious. To keep ahead of their rivals they would have travelled far and wide to source the finest non-Bourbon barrels, and not just a few, for all these experiments hundreds would be needed, and so the wine producers of the world cashed in on a rare bonanza for second hand wood. The sherry cask producers of Spain must have been shaking in their boots at the prospect of losing the business.
Now, a few years on, we the customers, are being teased, taunted, and possibly tricked into believing that their plan was a success, that every chocolate selected from the box will be a delight. But we are not fooled, are we? We know that there are always chocolates left in the selection box, ones that we all know no-one really likes. Sadly though someone is going to visit that distillery shop, look through the selection, read the labels, study the ingredients, and then buy a bottle, probably for over £50, and be disappointed. It makes me wonder whether this was the scene many years ago when sherry-finished whisky hit the headlines? There are still whiskies that I would have preferred not to have been finished in sherry casks, especially young bottlings where the influence is greater than the new make or the original Bourbon wood. If you like sherry, drink sherry – it’s a lot cheaper for a 30 year old.
Over the last year I have tasted whisky finished in casks that previously held South African red wine, Australian red wine, French red wine, French Bordeaux, French cognac, French Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian fortified cooking wine (Marsala), Italian dry red wine (Amarone), Spanish Pedro Ximenez sherry, Spanish Oloroso sherry, Spanish Matusalem Oloroso sherry, Spanish brandy, Portuguese Madiera, and Port. And to finish off this list I attended a tasting at the Dalmore distillery with The Nose himself, Richard Patterson, where amongst the lineup was the infamous ‘King Alexander III’, the sextuple-wood bottling matured in wine, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala, Kentucky bourbon and Port casks. Mr Patterson could distinguish the wood effects but could anyone else? I haven’t tasted the Dalmore Quintessence to savour the mixed flavours of California Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels – but then selling at £900 how many people have?
I recently attended a Deanston distillery sponsored tasting event where we sampled their spirit flavoured with essence of Masala, Madiera, virgin oak, Spanish oak (brandy), and Pedro Ximenez. All drinkable whiskies, however for me, the standard un-finished Deanston is what they do best and the 18yo is one of my favourite drams with a malty rounded palate.
From a quick internet search starting at ‘A’ in the ‘Selection Box of Whisky’ A-to-Z you find the Arran distillery with recent finishes consisting of the following breathtaking list: Amarone, Amontillado, Cognac, Cream Sherry Gonzalez Byass, Côte-Rôtie red wine, Fino Sherry, Fontalloro, Grand Cru Champagne, Madeira, Marsala, Moscatel, Oloroso, Pedro Ximenez, Premier Cru Sauternes, Premier Cru Vosne Romanée red wine, Pinot Noir, Pomerol Bordeaux, Port, Rum, Sassicaia, Sauternes (Bordeaux), Trebbiano d'Abruzzo wine, Tuscan wine, and Villa Gemma Montepulciano d'Abruzzo red wine. This must equate to tens-of-thousands of litres of purest Arran new make spirit that the Master Distiller James MacTaggart has crafted from the finest Scottish ingredients. Straight Arran single malt, in its new re-branded bottles, is a popular whisky and one that I have enjoyed. Pure, simple, single malt, and one where I can taste the terroir, the essence of place, and an identity. That’s all we need.
There is a very competitive marketplace at the moment and so each distillery has to find a way to sell more, whether it is re-branding, seasonal gift packs, miniatures, or different ABV strengths, but ‘flavouring’ the mature single malt? Is this what we want, or can we leave this to the gin drinkers…? I would suggest that the whisky ‘selection box’ could be filled with a fantastic array of pure single malts matured in ex-Bourbon or ex-sherry casks without any further ‘finished in’ flavour added. Let us enjoy the skill and craft of the makers and the uniqueness of the spirit and not worry about being let down when we pick a whisky to drink.
Please feel free to comment below with any thoughts on this topic.