Single malt Scotch has always been the refuge of the purist. Even in eras when connoisseurs overwhelmingly preferred wine over liquor, single malts were objects of desire: they were hyper-local spirits made by distillers with generations of family experience, crafted according to ancient recipes.
When the most recent explosion of the cocktail culture occurred in the 1990s, however, things began to change. The new wave of mixologists looked for bold, dramatic flavors with which to make a statement, and single malt Scotch seemed tame alongside bourbon and rye. As the consumption of spirits soared and prices achieved unheard-of levels, Scotch seemed more and more like your grandfather’s drink.
Little wonder that Highland distillers are increasingly turning to the process of cask finishing to enhance the flavor of their whisky. The spirit is removed from its original aging barrel and placed in a different one for six months or less prior to bottling. The practice was first used in 1982 when The Balvenie released a malt that had rested in Sherry casks. Today it’s not unusual for single malts to be finished in casks that once held wine, Port, Cognac, Madeira and American rye or bourbon, as well as barrels that have been heavily toasted or charred. How common is it? Costco sells 18 -Year Kirkland Speyside Sherry Cask Finish ($33), and Trader Joe’s has jumped on the trend with their Highland Malt Bourbon Cask Finish ($18).
Experimentation is also flourishing at the upper end of the scale. Case in point is the Bowmore 27 Year Old Port Cask Finish ($415), part of the Vintners Trilogy series from the historic distillery on the island of Islay. This exceptional malt spends 13 years in bourbon barrels followed by 14 years in Port pipes, resulting in a dramatic reddish-mahogany color. You might mistake it for bourbon at first whiff, were it not for the earthy scent of peat poking up through the sweetness. That sensation of sweetness hits the palate first, followed by saline flavors and caramel notes. The finish is long, rich and meaty, with a salty tang.
Across the Irish Sea, single malt Irish whiskey is finally getting the respect it deserves—also aided by the use of Sherry, Port and Madeira casks. At The Tyrconnell, a venerable distillery dating to 1876, they use all three in different age-dated expressions. Their 15 Year Old Madeira Cask Finish ($110) has a light amber color and a nose redolent of crushed hazelnuts and salt air. In the mouth, flavors of mocha and caramel intertwine with red fruits and butterscotch. The malt’s light and elegant texture is nicely enhanced by the sweetness from the Madeira barrels, making it the perfect accompaniment for a rainy night by the fire.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, is available on Amazon; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in the spring.