A recent trip to the Isle of Skye revealed a whole new side of whiskies for me - the cask finished whiskies.
By law, all whiskies are aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. A select few also go on to be "finished" in special casks, which would impart additional flavours to the whisky. Majority of the casks were from sweet or fortified wines, giving the finished whisky a sweeter and fruitier note. Some, like Auchentoshan Three Wood, are even aged in three different types of casks.
I was in Skye for the unveiling of the Talisker Port Ruighe - the latest and permanent addition to the Talisker portfolio. Port Ruighe is the classic Talisker 10 finished in a port cask, a process which gave it a caramel hue, softened smoke and fruitier notes. Some might say, Talisker for the ladies.
But of course Talisker is not alone in their experimentation. In fact, a quick look on sites such as The Whisky Exchange revealed more than a few dozen options. The commonest one being sherry with styles ranging from Oloroso to Pedro Ximénez but there are also more interesting choices like Sauternes and Tokaji.
With so many options out there, here's a few that I think are worth exploring:
Lusciously golden Sauternes from Bordeaux is often regarded as the king of sweet wines not least because of the price it commands. If you can still get hold of it, Bruichladdich's Octomore 4.2 Comus is a winner. It's supposedly the world's most heavily peated whisky (think super smoky), but softened by the delicate honeyed notes from the Sauternes casks that it's finished in.
Sauternes' Hungarian counterpart is Tokaji, the wine which goes from dry all the way up to the sticky sweetness of six puttonyos. The 1995 vintage of Longrow 10 year old has a version which is finished in Tokaji casks. As the whisky spent two years in the cask, there's more than just a hint of sweetness.
Muscat is a grape variety which makes deliciously floral wines whether dry or sweet. Towards the higher end of the scale is a 39 year old whisky from the 1973 vintage of Glenglassaugh which is finished in a single muscat cask, adding just that touch of something extra. The cask came from the Massandra winery in Crimea which boasts more 110 years of wine making history.
A lesser known sweet wine is Quart-de-Chaume from the Loire Valley in France, made using only Chenin Blanc grapes. For the 1991 vintage of Caol Ila 17 year old, the Bourbon cask matured Caol Ila is finished in Quart-de-Chaume casks. The result is smoky, honeyed and lightly fruity.
Port is probably the second most popular style of cask used for finishing whisky and it's understandable. It easily stands up to the strength of the spirit but also mellows it. Talisker's Port Ruighe is a great example of this but there are also others likes the Cragganmore's Double Matured Port Cask Distiller's Edition that's worth considering.
Madeira is another popular choice for finishing as it boasts qualities that are not too dissimilar to port and sherry. Balvenie have a 17 year old Madeira cask finished whisky which boasts a rich and complex profile that offers a heady mix of fruit and vanilla.