Fad Focus #2: Wood Finishes

Today I want to talk about the next part of my multi-part series on the notable fads in whiskey today. I started this series a couple of weeks ago talking about the growing levels of peat used in whiskey production. Today I want to talk about wood finishing.

What is wood finishing you ask? Wood finishing is the process of taking mature whiskey from its aging barrel and putting it into another barrel, hogshead, etc. to impart additional characteristics on the whiskey beyond its normal profile. Barrels that previously held different wines and other spirit are used to varying degrees of success to add some part or character of the barrel’s prior occupant to the new whiskey. Port barrels can add color. Rum barrels can add sweetness. Some of the previously seen variations include Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tokaji, sherry, port, rum, etc.

Glenmorangie was one of the first major pioneers of this technique. They originally came out with a range of 12 year old single malt scotches that included finishes in sherry, port, and burgundy wood among others. Many distilleries, mostly scotch distilleries picked up on this trend as a way to offer new and different varieties of their spirits in a relatively quick amount of time. Remember, for scotch most of their product doesn’t see the light of day for at least 10 years. That’s a long lead time for innovation. Whiskey can be wood finished for any amount of time from around 6 months to 6 years or more. Glenmorangie’s wood finished range spent 10 years as regular Glenmorangie and then spent another two years in wood finishing. Even in their case two years is a lot quicker turn around than ten.

How did all this innovation and creativity turn out? Originally, not too bad. There were and still are a number of products that really did well with wood finishing. One of my personal favorites is the 21 year old Glenfiddich Havana Reserve which was finished in Havana Rum casks. Mmm..tasty stuff. But as with most things, over proliferation leads towards some less than stellar examples. We’ve chided Glenmorangie on their Burgundy Wood finished whiskey and it really was pretty bad. “Was” being the appropriate word because they have since discontinued it. Another humorous example of how far this particular fad went was an attempt a number of years ago to finish scotch in used Tabasco barrels. The resulting product was an undrinkable concoction that was repackaged and sold as condiment called Hot Scotch. Jumping the shark a little? I think so.

So where is wood finishing now? It seems to be on the down swing. There are still a number of products out there, both good and bad that tout wood finishing. There continues to be a few new ones popping up from time to time. However, you may not recognize some of these newer ones. “Wood Finish” has become passé in the scotch industry. The new nomenclature? Glenmorangie, the granddaddy of all wood finishers now refers to their products as “Extra Matured”. My personal favorite is Bruichladdich. They refer to their program by the acronym “A.C.E”, meaning “Additional Cask Enhancement”. Wood finishes aren’t dead yet. This particular fad hasn’t quite played out. What will come in the future? Who knows? One particular bright spot seems to be Buffalo Trace. Bourbon wood finishing? Yep. They have a new line of very limited releases under their Experimental Collection. I have not had the opportunity to try any of these but I hear good things.

So what does all this mean? A wider variety of whiskey to enjoy. That’s never a bad thing. However, as with all whiskeys it is a good idea to try before you buy. Just because you love Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year old doesn’t mean the Burgundy Wood should be a staple of your home bar.

Drink wisely my friends.

– Richard

Taste of… The Collector’s Cabinet

Matt and I have discussed, at length the merits of offering reviews on whiskeys that are no longer available.  The argument against it is that if we review a dram that is out of this world then it would offer nothing to our readers but frustration at not being able to procure such a fine spirit.  This was our stance from the outset of Whisk(e)y Apostle.

As time went by we started thinking about this idea in a different light.  We realized that there is something to offer our readers by reviewing the occasional rare whiskey.  From a collector’s standpoint there are other resources available offering assistance in how collectable or valuable certain whiskeys are but rarely anything on taste. (As a general rule, we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle do not advocate the collecting of whiskey.  It is made to drink after all!)

So if you find a rare bottle of whiskey, how are you to know if it’s worth purchasing for the purpose of consumption?  That’s where we hope to offer what little assistance we can.  Matt and I aren’t exactly rolling in dough so this will not be a regular part of our reviews but we’ll do it whenever we get the opportunity.

To kick us off we thought we talk a wonderful whisky from Compass Box called The Spice Tree.  There is an unfortunate story behind why this great whisky is no longer in production.  I’m not going to reproduce the sad tale here but if you are interested further information can be found here (in the “Past Whiskies” section).

The Spice Tree

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Formerly produced by Compass Box Whisky Company
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky46% ABV/92 Proof
Discontinued

What the distillery says:

A natural, deep, gold-brown color and a rich nose with spices such as clove and nutmeg, and sweet stewed fruits. Palate is soft, sweet, deep and rich with a malt whisky fruitiness embellished by rich spice. Very long.

What Richard says:

Nose: Scotch rolled in a warm bourbon blanket?  If I didn’t know what this was it would really keep me guessing.  Water opens up the nose to honey and floral sweetness.  Quite lovely.
Palate: The wood is the first and last thing you taste but not in the way you might think.  It’s not the tired over wooded flavor of an over aged whiskey.  It’s more like carrying your dram on a walk through the forest.  It’s a fresher wood taste.  There is a minor honeyed sweetness that almost hides from you.  The spice there but much more understated than the name suggests.  There are a lot of nutty flavors and at the very end of the palate I swear I get a hint of spearmint.
Finish: Much smoother than I expected but that really is par for John Glasser’s work.  Spice, nut, and wood remain after the palate is emptied.  It’s almost like peppered walnut bark.
Comments: As unfortunate as it is, this is a discontinued product. If you happen across a bottle at a reasonable price I would highly recommend picking it up.  I can’t give it a “Must Buy” because of the scarcity but it really deserves top honors.
Rating: Must Try

What Matt says:
Nose: Fox glove honey, caramel, wildflowers, and cardamom.
Palate: Like drinking a nice cup of mulled cider by a fresh cut Christmas tree.  Wood, evergreen, mulling spices, cooked fruit (apples and apricots).  The ultimate ‘comfort’ whisky.  Complex without being uppity.
Finish: Oak, white pepper, and pecan husks linger with a touch of caramel sweetness.  This whisky is incredibly smooth with very little burn on the tongue or in the throat.
Comments: My official rating for this will be a “Must Try” for the reasons that Richard states above.  However, if you see a bottle of this, buy it.  If you see two, let me know.  I will buy the other one.  I love this whisky and lament it’s passing.  When the last drop falls from my bottle, I will shed a tear.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating:   Must Try

Closing Comments: A lot of discontinued whiskeys are phased out due unpleasant factors (Glenmorangie Burgundy Wood Finish) or diminished stocks (Ardbeg 17 Year) but the Spice Tree is the unfortunate victim of politics.  There is little lacking in this quality dram.  If you are fortunate enough to come across a bottle or dram, by all means drink up.

Slainte!

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey

46% ABV/92 Proof
Year ’08, Batch 6, Bottle 410
Available in the New York and California – around $45 for 375ml

What the distillery says:
Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey brings together the distinct characteristics of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. Each batch starts with 800 pounds of grain which is ground at the distillery, cooked and fermented, then distilled twice. It is aged in our signature small barrels (the barrels they use are about the size of a rugby ball, or slightly bigger that a football for those who have never traveled abroad -matt). Our Four Grain Bourbon is a rich full flavored spirit. The grains are perfectly suited one to the others so that the end result balances the soft richness of corn, the sharp peppery notes of rye, all the smooth subtlety of wheat and the sweetness of malted barley. Each bottle is hand numbered.

What Richard says:
Nose: I get the light odor of candied fruit with this one. It’s much lighter and more floral than a typical bourbon. This could be from the relative youth and short time spent in the barrel. The nose itself isn’t young per se, just delicate.
Palate: The palate is surprising and tells more of the whiskey’s age than the nose. There is no sweetness at all. The flavor profile less complex than I would have hoped and all I really get is a hint of licorice. There is not spice at all and the only other flavor or sensation is an alcohol burn if you hold it hold the palate.
Finish: Even sips leave a mellow finish that disappears all but for a lingering warmth at the back of the mouth. Little flavor hangs around. A larger sampling leaves an almost medicinal ending.
Comments: I applaud the effort made here. We should all try to support the inovation seen in the burgeoning craft distilling movement. That said, this whiskey just doesn’t move me. The nose promises something nice and different but the palate doesn’t deliver.
Rating: Average

What Matt says:
Nose: It smells somewhat sweet with hints of caramel and butterscotch. I can also smell the char from the barrel, but only very slightly.
Palate: This whiskey tastes young. Not that it’s harsh, because it’s not. However, it tastes like it has not come into it’s own yet. A slow and careful tasting can almost dissect this whiskey into it’s separate grains. A few more years in the barrel would help the flavors marry and develop into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Finish: This whiskey does not stick around long. It leaves a slight sweetness on the tongue and a burn along the edges that makes my mouth water. Perhaps this would be good as an aperitif?
Comments: I have tried most of what Tuthilltown Distillery (the makers of this whiskey) have to offer and this is not the best whiskey they make. I too applaud the effort, but it falls just shy of some of their other whiskeys. If you find yourself standing in front of a few bottles of Hudson Whiskey, I say try the Single Malt or Baby Bourbon. However, I’m giving this one a ‘Must Try’ because I think everyone should try these boutique whiskeys. They are at the forefront of whisk(e)y innovation. Additionally, I suggest trying this one with a little water. The water opens up the flavors a little, making this dram much more interesting.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating: If you were a fan of the Woodford Reserve Four Grain and were hoping to find a replacement, this is not your answer. I suggest writing Chris Morris (the Master Distiller) directly and begging him to make it a permanent part of the Woodford line. This is more like a smoother version of Michter’s American Whiskey. Good, drinkable, not a stand-out favorite. Average

Events In Your Area?

Well, we started off strong and now we seem to be slowing down. Things have been pretty hectic here at Whisk(e)y Apostle, but that is no excuse. We owe you some bloggage.

One of the best ways to get in a lot of tasting is to attend tasting events (pretty obvious, right?). Whether it is a small event held at a liquor store (like the Bourbon & Bacon Expo I recently attended) or a larger event (like WhiskyFest), tasting events give you the opportunity to try a large variety of whiskeys in a very short time.* At the larger events, you can sometimes try rare and very expensive whiskeys that may otherwise be unavailable to you. Furthermore, you can meet some of the Master Distillers and Blenders responsible for your favorite dram (I still get a little giddy around John Glaser of Compass Box). If there are no events in your area, organize your own. The selection at your event may not be as extensive as WhiskyFest, but I’m sure you will have a good time.

If you live in the New York/New Jersey area, The Whisky Guild is hosting ‘The Whisky Classic” (featuring over 100 single malts) on March 5. I probably will not be at this event because of the location, but it is bound to be great. Last fall, The Whisky Guild hosted “Whisky on the Hudson,” a booze cruise around Manhattan to celebrate the U.S. launch of Glenlivet XXV. Glenmorangie was there to introduce us to the Signet, which they paired with dark chocolate and cigars. You can try Glenmorangie’s newest incarnation, Astar, at “The Whisky Classic.”

The annual WhiskyFest (hosted by Malt Advocate) is always a blast, with great food and great whisky. If you talk to Richard and I long enough, you will discover how much respect we have for both Malt Advocate magazine and publisher/editor John Hansell. WhiskyFest has a lot to do with our love for Malt Advocate. It is a great event, with great food and more distilleries represented than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps the best thing about WhiskyFest is that it happens three times a year (annually in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York). Check it out if you are going to be in any of these places at the right time.

We will try to notify our readers of other upcoming events, but we need your help. If there is an event coming up in your area, send us an email and we will either post it or send it out in a newsletter to our registered users (didn’t think there was any point to registering, did you?). We’ll decide that later I guess. I hope to see you at the next tasting event.

*Please treat these events like wine tastings. Spitting is a must. Don’t be the guy who is falling down drunk after the first table. There is at least one every time.

Forty Creek Barrel Select

40% ABV/80 Proof
Available in the United States and Canada – $25

What the distillery says:
Forty Creek Barrel Select is distilled in small batches in our copper pot still and patiently aged in white oak barrels hand-picked for their unique characteristics. A selection of light, medium and heavy char barrels create a richness and toasted earthiness in the spirit. Vintage sherry casks impart a subtle complexity. This unique barrel selection process results in a whisky where aromas of honey, vanilla and apricot fuse with toasty oak, black walnut and spice. The flavour is rich & bold.

What Richard says:
Nose: There is a slightly caramelized nose of buttered fruit reminiscent of brandy. The smell brings to mind a cross between rye whiskey and cognac. The nose is much fruitier than other Canadian whiskies.
Palate: Not as sweet as the nose would suggest. The buttered flavor continues through the palate. There is very little viscosity in the mouth feel but it isn’t dry. I was expecting a chardonnay and got a cross between a chenin blanc and a pinot griggio. There is a slight lack of complexity in the flavor but it is more than made up for in the smoothness and ease of drinkability.
Finish: No noticeable burn at all. The whisky goes down the throat as smooth as the butter hinted at on the nose and palate suggest. The whisky clears the mouth very quickly, leaving little behind. Just a hint of spice and well worn old leather.
I was surprised to see the distillery say that the flavor is “bold” in their marketing. I don’t get bold at all. If anything this is surprisingly mellow. That’s not a bad thing. It makes for an incredibly drinkable whisky that stands out against other Canadian whiskies. A near-perfect “anytime” whisky.
Rating: Stands Out. Great Value.

What Matt says:
Nose: I get honey and (oddly enough) refrigerator pickles (fresh cucumber and dill). I don’t know. Maybe I am having a stroke. It has a crisp quality though.
Palate: Buckwheat honey (sweet but pungent), oak, slight spice, but no smoke for all the talk of barrel selection. I expected an astringent quality because of the cucumber aroma, but it had the viscosity of a high mineral water. It reminded me a little of home brewed mead, but only a little.
Finish: Clean finish. No lingering after taste. A good every day dram.
Rating: Stands Out. Great Value.

Overall Rating: If you are a completist and must have some of each type of whisk(e)y on your shelf, this is the Canadian whisky for you. The price is unbeatable and, while we may take issue with the use of ‘bold’ in the marketing, this is the closest thing to ‘bold’ you will find in an affordable Canadian whisky. The low proof and low price make Forty Creek Barrel Select infinitely drinkable. One caveat though, the low proof and subtle flavor means that this whisky will not stand up to any watering. Drink it neat. I know you would anyway. Stands Out. Great Value