Finishing Scotch in a secondary barrel that held something else, like sherry, port or rum, has been growing in popularity as a tool for whisky makers to add in layers of flavor. The Balvenie was one of the first to start using this process, pioneered by Malt Master David C. Stewart back in 1983.
As whisky makers continue to innovate, the secondary casks selected have become increasingly unique. Americans have long been interested in premium Scotch, and the popularity of high-end bottles has grown over time. After the lifting of retaliatory tariffs in 2021, luxury Scotch sales have soared 34 percent in the first quarter of 2022, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
This summer alone, there have been three releases that have caught my eye using rare casks to add a special touch.
While there have been some limited releases in recent years, the new French Oak 16-Year-Old is the first permanent extension of the Cask Finishes Range in nearly 10 years, which includes the DoubleWood 12-Year-Old, the incredibly popular Caribbean Cask 14-Year-Old and Portwood 21-Year-Old.
The 16-year-old ($175) fills in a gap in age statements not currently available in the Cask Finishes Range, said Neil Strachan, the west coast brand ambassador for The Balvenie.
“Some people think the perfect age for whisky is 16 to 18 years old, because it is has the balance of a pop of alcohol and the depth that age brings,” he said.
The casks chosen for this project previously held Pineau wine from French Charentes vineyards, the first time the distillery has used them. Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine made with unfermented grape juice and Cognac eau-de-vie. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif and is only produced in a small region in western France, and is mostly consumed locally. It comes in red and white varietals, but Balvenie used casks that held red. The casks impart citrus notes, like lemon and grapefruit, as well as subtle ginger spice and amps up the characteristic honey flavors in Balvenie. The result is a more delicate and bright influence than something like the rich sweetness of a Pedro Ximénez sherry cask.
Benriach has released single cask editions before, but this is the first time three of them have come to the United States. The whiskies, which are 12, 23, and 24 years old and finished in Pedro Ximenex, Marsala and Oloroso respectively, are each available in different areas of the country.
“Our ‘sleeping beauties’, as we often call these casks, continue to be sourced from all over the world, enabling us to creatively explore the full flavor possibilities of Speyside single malt,” said Master Blender Rachel Barrie. “Each cask will tell its own story of a journey of flavor where the spirit is married with oak, over years and through the seasons, to really create a unique moment in time never to be repeated again.”
The Marsala edition is a standout, and only 264 bottles are available ($330). Benriach is a sweet Speyside Scotch known for its orchard fruit character. Aging it in a Marsala cask adds additional stone fruit overtones and amps up the vanilla and maple notes.
Craigellachie is a Speyside malt, but it doesn’t adhere to the regions typical light and fruity style, frequently described as “muscular.”
For Craigellachie first release in a new Cask Collection series, Malt Master Stephanie Macleod picked Armagnac, the lesser-known cousin of Cognac, to finish the 13-year-old spirit that was first aged in former bourbon barrels.
“Craigellachie is a distinctly bold and brooding malt,” Macleod said. “Full-bodied and meaty so we are using these cask types to complement and elevate the signature character of the distillery, not mask it, to add an extra dimension of flavor and intrigue.”
Armagnac producers don’t make typical heads and tales cuts when making the spirit, so it ages with more volatile compounds, making it rougher at first but giving it more complexity as it gets older. But combining a meaty spirit with another formidable finishing barrel has a softening effect on the Craigellachie: the pineapple notes become more syrupy, and apple flavors get a baked cinnamon addition. At $65, it is great value.