Whisky: The Craft of the Cask

Whisky is one of those drinks where it’s easy to get your geek on. 

Yes, generally the flavour profiles are tighter together than with something like gin (the variation in botanicals makes this a no brainer) but the variety that can be created through ingredients, terroir and the all important ageing process, makes it a fascinating spirit. 

So many things have an input. From the type of grain you use – is it barley, rye or corn? Was it grown in winter or summer? Scottish whisky utilises barley, but in the Bourbon market there’s much more variation, and then of course, there’s your rye whiskies which offer a further profile. 

What type of yeast are you using? In Scotland the tendency is to utilise one of two yeasts. In the USA some brands use up to seven types as they believe that the yeast has a massive impact on flavour – much akin to brewers across the world. 

Then of course there’s the cask – is it a new virgin oak cask? Or is it a refill? If it’s a refill what was it filled with before? What type of oak was used? Was it even oak, or was it something different? Was it charred – if so, how much? Where was it stored? How long was it aged for? Was it blended with anything else before bottling?

Admittedly the above is merely a dip into the differences out there, but the influence of it all on the drink in your glass is astounding. And that was what Craft of the Cask was all about. A visit to The Whiskey Jar, and a little tasting on a dull grey Monday afternoon and a reminder of the impact that oak can have on flavour.

For the uninitiated or those who need a refresher, I’m going to pop this link here – it’s a great little video about how one whisky is made, if on a rather industrial scale. Many distillers still do a lot of the work by hand, but in three minutes, the BBC have put together a trip from start to finish.

Are you back? Good. So it’s field – barley – maltings – mash tun – distillation – ageing – glass. And believe it or not, Makers Mark will go through pretty much the same process as Famous Grouse, despite their difference in flavour and that’s where the skill of the master distiller comes in.

We started with new make spirit. This is what comes straight off the still and goes into the cask for ageing. In this case we had Maker’s Mark new make, diluted down to a comfortable 45% (it normally comes off far, far higher with ABVs easily over 70-97%). On the nose was a distinctive oily corn note, a creamness, hints of almonds. On the palate, lots of fresh notes, clean, with a little bitter almond finish.

This of course offered the perfect opportunity to taste the impact that wood has on the finished product. And whilst it’s not always possible to get your mitts on some Maker’s Mark, it is possible to do this at home. Companies such as Buffalo Trace do sell their new make (also known as white dog) – and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast the results. 

So of course the next step was Maker’s Mark the finished product. On the nose, it’s apple pie – soft sweet apple with a hint of cinnamon. On the palate it’s soft with toffee, apple, cereal and a cinnamon spice finish. 

So in this case the wood has softened the corn oiliness and turned it into a gentler cereal note, added in vanillas, and cinnamon, and a little spice. 

Maker’s Mark 46 takes this to another level. It’s aged for longer and in addition seared French oak staves are added to intensify the flavour profile (there’s a handy little video here showing you exactly what goes into the process). And I don’t mind admitting, I rather adored this. The nose is richer, deeper, and the wood is definitely stronger. Again, on the palate it’s deep, rich wood, vanilla, butter. It’s delicious. And I may need to add a bottle to my bar at home.

Jim Beam Double Oak takes that extra wood a step further. Matured in a barrel for four years, it’s then removed from that barrel and put into another one to intensify the flavour and the wood’s impact on the spirit. Nose is (as you’d expect) woody, nutty, hints of cereal, but flat. On the palate, it’s full of wood, hazelnuts, spice. Imagine licking a French polished table. 

It’s easy to see how much of an impact the wood has on taste and colour – and we’ve had a sample of what it can do for Bourbon. Time to head back over to the UK.

Naked Grouse is a sister whisky to the one we all know from the Christmas adverts (if not from our own shelves) Famous Grouse. Whereas Famous Grouse is a blended whisky, Naked Grouse is then matured in ex sherry casks. So whereas Famous Grouse is sweet, with fruit and citrus notes, Naked Grouse is a different animal. The nose is nutty, chocolate. On the palate, more nuts, citrus, green malt notes, cocoa nibs on the finish. 

So using a different barrel can have an enormous impact. 

And then again we can get a little more complex. Take The Macallan Fine Oak 12. Using a combination of European and American Oak seasoned with sherry, and American oak bourbon casks, this layers the flavours beautifully. On the nose there’s fruitcake, chocolate, cherry genoa cake. On the palate, it’s more fruit cake and cocoa. T’s smooth, and gently complex as it’s still quite light in both colour and flavour. 

Contrast that with it’s bigger sibling, the Sherry Cask 12. 

Using both sherry seasoned oak casks from the USA and Spain, it’s a bigger, richer, whisky. The nose bears a rubbery note in the background, but topped with marmalade, whisky soaked raisins and cocoa. On the palate there’s lots of wood, rich cocoa notes, syrupy mouth feel.

Ah whisky. Don’t let me take you for granted. 

The Whiskey Jar regularly offer whisky tastings, so even if you’re a newbie and want to know more, it’s a great place to learn. And once you’ve got your geek on, drop a line to Manchester Whisky Club. Pretty sure they’d like to say hello. 

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