Here’s an inexpensive illusion for a whisky brand to acquire more shelf presence. Purchase three barrels of whisky from a generic pool of ex-bourbon matured stocks. Re-rack a couple of these barrels into new barrels – a sherry cask, or maybe you’d like the name of a French chateau to add more gravitas to a label and pull another rabbit out of the hat? Give it a few weeks, then bottle each of them in turn.
Instead of one bottle on the shelf, you have three. You’ll more easily catch the eye of the whisky consumer as they walk by, pondering the nature of what ‘finishing’ actually means.
These days, the shelves of retailers and at airports are rammed with all sorts of fancy ‘finishes’ – which is to say a whisky that has been re-racked into another barrel and left to mature for a period of time; perhaps up to a couple of years, but usually just a few brief months.
Whisky finishing has become the short-hand hack par excellence for widening out a product range. It is an opportunity to create another press release to keep the brand name out there, to have something of interest to talk about at a tasting or whisky show, or simply to get drinkers to buy something else from an otherwise limited standard range. It may even be a way of staking proprietorship of a whisky that has been made elsewhere. With some very good exceptions, finishing remains a nifty tool favoured by those with an eye to marketing and accountancy; but it wasn’t always that way, and it isn’t the only reason that finishing occurs.
Usually the art of finishing is deployed when the spirit has lived in poor wood – a barrel that has already been used several times over and was no longer prepared to give anything to the whisky; a barrel fit only for a garden centre.
Barrels of fresh oak inside our warehouse at Ballygarran. One column, approximately 180-200 barrels, equates to one single farm’s annual crop in spirit.
Poor quality barrels – long-expired of life, but somehow still in use – were spawned from economic trends; these zombie barrels continued to stagger on for brands and bottlers to have to deal with today. A whisky industry already in the doldrums in the early Seventies – something that seems improbable in today’s feverish climate – was hit hard by the oil-induced recession. It led to wide spread closures and consolidations across the industry. Very few people cared about single malts – they were after all merely whisky flavour components of the global march of blended whisky category; almost all whisky at this time was produced for blending purposes. This led to cost savings, sloppiness in production, an exercise in corner-cutting.
And one of the consequences, ostensibly a straightforward economy, was the recycling of used casks. Each time a cask is used the oak effects are diminished, leached out by the spirit. Used once only in Kentucky, when shipped to Scotland and Ireland they would be used several times – each time residual oak tannins, lignin & vanillins that colour a spirit diminish: three strikes and you’re out as far as colour is concerned. The Seventies, washed out culturally, was even more so maturing whisky-wise.
But cunningly this seemingly self-defeating move was made knowing that E150 – a caramel colouring additive – would save blushes. So to speak.
The question for the distiller today is: what to do with a poorly made or poorly matured whisky, the legacy from another era entirely? It is possible that this enters the secondary market for independent bottlers to fight over, but a pale, two-decades-old spirit may not be the best advertisement for a brand. And (un)naturally dumping E150 caramel into the spirit will certainly cover up the visual flaws of a single malt – a proposition attractive to many producers, but abhorrent to those of us who want a truly natural whisky.
Finishing whisky has become the remedial act of choice.
In this context, it could be considered as the new E150, a new way to add colour with the added bonus that flavour might transfer to a relatively ‘silent’ spirit.
Natural colours derived from 2 years of full maturation in super-premium French oak.
THE ART OF FINISHING WELL
Like many aspects of whisky production, done well, finishing can be an intriguing proposition, an art form, in and of itself. There is a difference between ‘finishing’ – which has a final, end game feel – and positive, proactive oak management.
At the same time as compromised oak was being addressed in Scotland and Ireland with E150, French vignerons were experimenting with casks coopered not only from fresh oak with variable toastings, but oak from different forests which played a big part in the renaissance of French vineyards.
At Bruichladdich, having used all the best casks of the old matured stocks, we too ended up with some pretty tired, plain, featureless wood.
Using experience from the wine world, we introduced – or should I say re-introduced – French oak into the equation. At the time it was a decision ridiculed by the whisky talking heads with their cries of “too flavoursome”, “not traditional” or “disreputable”. What a Damascene conversion!
Judicious use of these oak casks, considered experimentation, subtly introduced fresh oak to tired spirit. Oversight was essential. At Bruichladdich it was a labour intensive, time-consuming, logistical nightmare. We called it Additional Cask Evolution to differentiate our subtle, creative work from clumsy finishing, the smash and grab marketing trend, that now dominates the industry. We became rather good at it. But one thing we learnt, to our considerable cost, was there is no short cut to proper maturation in decent oak.
As an entirely new operation we have not inherited a legacy of dodgy stock. We aren’t trying to persuade flavour-seeking drinkers that exhausted barrels allow more character to shine through. Neither are we frantically trying to ‘personalise’ ubiquitously-sourced whisky.
A blank slate presented us with the opportunity to do things properly from the outset, with full integrity at every stage.
We believe there is no short cut to a proper wood policy. It is an expensive business, both money and wisdom. A third of our cost of production, higher than probably any other distillery, is spent on our quality oak provisioning policy.
Bearing in mind the lengths we go to with our barley provenance, it would be short-sighted to compromise on the maturation. Zombie barrels simply do not allow spirit to ‘shine’, but fresh oak naturally integrates – over time – in harmony with the spirit’s evolving flavours. Each farm’s spirit provides a unique starting point, a baseline transformed and translated, ameliorated by fresh oak to allow the spirit to reach its fullest possible potential as a whisky.
The best barley in the world, distilled with respect, matured over time in the best possible barrels money can buy: there really is no short cut. No need to finish what we have painstakingly begun.
Real beauty, less lipstick on a pig.