Casks & Whisky: 101

Single Cask. Double Cask. French Oak Cask. Caribbean Cask. Sherry Cask. Et cetera… 

The permutations of ages & cask types are endless. Furthermore, they’re often at the forefront of product branding, subtly suggesting a superior Whisky lie within. So let’s make sense of the most common casks types and see how it affects the golden liquid inside, shall we?

casks

First of all, in order for Scotch to be Scotch, it needs to be aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of 3 years. And although all casks are oak, they are incredibly varied and subtle changes have big impacts on the end product. In order to give you an idea, I will defer to none other than Scotch connoisseur, Charlie MacLean, to put provide an overview:

I’m going to reiterate and build on a couple key points here:

  • All Scotch casks are made from European or American oak
  • European oak imparts a spicy, somewhat bitter flavour and darker colour, whereas American oak delivers a mellow tone tinged with vanilla & caramel and a golden colour
  • Nearly all of Scotch casks were previously used to mature a different liquor. European casks typically matured fortified wine while American casks were used mostly for Bourbon. All this to say, the casks’ original contents have a huge influence on the resulting colour and taste of the Scotch.

Now that we have the basics down, let’s explore some common terms brands are displaying on shelves. May I present to you The Scotch Journal’s very own Scotch Cask Glossary:

Quarter Cask – If a Scotch is matured in a quarter cask, it’s simply referring to the fact that the distiller is making use of a smaller barrel. Why do this? Smaller casks increase the surface contact the Whisky has with the wood, thus creating a more intense aging process. By this math, a 6 year old quarter cask is equivalent to a standard 12 year and priced as such. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is the best example of this.

Single Cask – Single cask means that the Scotch in the bottle comes from one distinct cask. Generally, a distillery will mix together Whisky from other casks to bottle a more consistent Scotch. However, sometimes distillers present a premium offering in which you can have the Whisky as it tastes from a singular barrel. The result is impossible to generalize, but it will likely have a different profile from the standard Scotch as product consistency is only achieved through the blending casks. This Macallan is a rather tempting example of a single cask product.

Double Cask – Again, Balvenie is most associated with this in which they’ve famously coined the term “Double Wood”. This simply means that the Whisky has been matured in two separate styles of casks. Of course, if you chance upon a Triple Cask Scotch, it follows in the same logic. In the case of Balvenie Double Wood, they’ve chosen to mature the Whisky in American Bourbon casks for 10 years and then “finish” in Sherry casks for 2 years. Speaking of Sherry casks…

Sherry Cask – Sherry is a Spanish fortified wine, meaning that it is wine with a heightened alcohol content via brandy (originally done so for the purpose of preservation). Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to how a Sherry cask will affect Scotch since Sherry is incredibly diverse. Generally speaking, Sherry casks will add some sweetness (although sometimes dryness), dark fruity notes and a dark colour. Bowmore 1964 is a great example of a Single Cask Scotch aged in a Sherry cask. Bowmore 1964 used Oloroso Sherry casks; Oloroso Sherry imparts a very rich colour with nutty and dark fruit flavours. Complicated isn’t it!

Cask Strength – Cask strength refers to the alcohol by volume of the Scotch. When Whisky is placed into barrels for maturation, it starts as a clear liquid with a very high ABV. As it matures, alcohol evaporates to the heavens (the evaporated portion is referred to as “the angels share”) and the ABV comes down through time. Typically when a Scotch is bottled, it is diluted from a higher ABV to 40%, however, some folks value the Whisky remaining undiluted, otherwise referred to as cask strength. The final ABV’s of cask strength Scotch vary across brands & products, but to give you an example, this Glengoyne bottle comes in at an impressive 58.2%.

French Oak Cask – Glenlivet’s 15 Year Old is one of the most popular Whisky’s using French Oak. What is the impact on the French oak on the Whisky? Expect more spices, floral notes and an overall drier Whisky.

Caribbean Cask – Balvenie in particular is making use of rum casks to influence their Whisky profiles. These casks are impart an island influence on the Whisky resulting in a syrupy sweetness, highlighted vanilla tones and tropical fruits in some cases.

Virgin Cask – These Scotches are unique in that they are matured in first-fill casks. The result is a flavour imparted wholly by the wood itself. Expect the usual notes but also a heightened flavour of oak itself. Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Rich Oak is a compelling example as it uses both European and American virgin casks.

There you have it, some common cask terms to help you navigate the world of Scotch. Now get out there and impress some people with your mundane knowledge of wood!

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