We all know that the most important thing in the world of whisky production is the quality of casks used to mature the spirit. The big two, American oak casks and European oak casks, are often rolled out on whisky bottle labels to try, in some small part, to describe to the purchaser how the mature product inside the bottle has come to be: a small Curriculum Vitae of the liquid.
There are, of course, other casks which can be used for maturing whisky such as port pipes, sweet wine casks and French wine barriques (this week we’ll review the new Glenmorangie Private Edition which has been matured in red wine casks), but the main players are European oak and American white oak. But what does that mean?
|A Cooperage in Spain|
However, the words ‘American oak’ on a label should not automatically lead you to believe that these casks have held bourbon. It is fair to think so, but it should be noted that American oak is also used in the maturation of sherry and that some bodegas and Spanish cooperages focus only on the use of American oak, as we experienced on a recent fact finding trip to Jerez.
Much more telling is when a label tells you the lineage of the cask and what it has previously held. To illustrate this, let’s look at two different whiskies, from the same distillery, bottled at the same age but from different cask styles.
The first is Aberlour 12 Years Old, the standard range bottling which has been matured in two different types of casks. The label tells us that ‘traditional oak and Sherry oak casks’ have been used. There is no wider definition of what a ‘traditional oak cask’ is, save to say that the assumption is left to the drinker that it is an American oak cask, the number of refills left to the imagination.
Aberlour – 12 Years Old – Double Cask Matured – 70cl - 40% abv
**note: this was previously bottled at 42% abv**
Nose: Creamy vanilla gives way to crème brulee, heather honey and freshly baked bread. Sweetness rises up, giving hints of apricot jam and iced buns, with a hint of fresh mint at the back.
Palate: A big hit of candied orange peel, some light cinnamon and some basil notes. This whisky is fresh at first, but the richer tones of mandarin and anise develop over time. With water: the palate slows down with the apricot coming first followed by delicate pear drops with a spiced backdrop.
Finish: A shot of spice with a touch of apricot again. With water: a longer finish with less spice and more summer fruits.
Overall: A very drinkable Speyside 12 Years Old which gives a well produced balance between American oak vanilla and European oak inspired fruits.
The second is an Aberlour 12 years old, which has been matured only in sherry casks for the full term of the maturation. This edition was made available only at the distillery in 2013 to celebrate the bi-centenary of Aberlour village and is limited to 1812 bottles, the date which the distillery was founded.
Aberlour – 12 Years Old – Distillery Only Aberlour Village Bi-Centenary Edition – 1812 bottles - 70cl – 56.8% abv
Nose: Straight up at you with some punch, this hits the nose at a whopping 56.8% abv speed, delivering a very full and rich sherry aroma of blackcurrant, roasted strawberries drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar glaze, some menthol and the classic Christmas cake for which sherry casks are so famous. With water:
Palate: Warm spices from intense wood flavour deliver a drying but delicious dram which, to uncover more, demands the addition of water: once added, we find black forest gateaux (black cherry and cream), more blackcurrant, newly polished wood and a oaky hit. Sour cherry and cola cubes at the end.
Finish: Liquorice and red apple skins with a hint of white pepper.
Overall: Wowzer: a big, big flavoured whisky which delivers well in both balance and complexity. If you can get hold of a bottle of this, try it. It’s Aberlour A'bunadh with some additional maturity, so it seems.
The results: Well, here we have two whiskies from the same distillery, with two totally different profiles but a clear family resemblance. It is good evidences that, at the same age, two differently flavoured whiskies can be achieved from the simple use of different styles of oak.
The core range Aberlour 12 is very much an ‘every day’ drinker. Something perfect for the hiplflask or to keep pouring during a game of poker. The special edition 12 years old, with its big heavy sherry tones is just that: a special whisky, a sipping whisky, which should take you a lot longer to make your way through than the standard 12 years old ‘easy drinking’ option.
Either way, the two are clearly from the same mothership, showing how important the production processes at different single malt distilleries are to the overall flavour of a malt.