The great author Jonathan Swift once wrote that “he was a bold man who first ate an oyster”. It is this sort of gastronomic experimentation which has given us such great delights as a human race, tickling our taste buds with incredible innovation.
I often wonder who it was that first invented the meringue; they must have been the Heston Blumenthal of their day, but probably didn’t get the fame their invention should have rewarded them with, let alone a Michelin star or even their own range of cookware.
And it is this need to create, to always push the boundaries, that man has been striving for ever since we had a sense of taste, a lust for flavour. Of course we all need to eat, drink and be merry. But the tastier the first two parts of that phrase, the greater the volume of merriment.
It’s a simple equation: Eat + Drink = Merry. Increasing the pleasure aspect of one, or both is like swapping the ‘plus’ symbol for a ‘multiply’ symbol. This is why we celebrate those who have the ability increase our pleasure, to change our +, to an x.
In the mix of master blender, the superstar bar tender (what an appropriate phrase to write with Tales of the Cocktail happening at the moment), the footballer-turned-whisky-maker... there is one person often forgotten, who is key to the final flavour of any aged spirit. And that is the cooper.
The origins of cask maturation have been long forgotten as the cask has, for centuries, been a fairly utilitarian tool for the transportation of goods. From coal and fish, to a variety of liquids, the barrel was the carrier bag of its day; developed into a sea container for special goods. But it is the people who first discovered maturation from a white spirit to a dark, delicious drink who should be celebrated as much as the man who first shucked and sucked an oyster. Long forgotten, these men are responsible for something very special, the ideal of the cask to cradle some of our most precious liquids from simple spirits to super single malts.
Already this year I have visited cooperages in Scotland, Spain and the USA and the results never fail to surprise me. Handmade, in the most part, casks are designed to absorb a small amount of their liquid contents, swapping spirit for spices, whiskey for wood influence. But not only do casks add flavour to their contents, they also breath; slowly letting air in and out, as if they are giant wooden lungs, taking in oxygen and breathing out lost spirit, a gift to the angels.
This conflicting purpose, to both store and give away, makes barrels almost biblical, following the guidance that the more you give away, the richer you will become; ergo, the more active the cask, the more condensed the liquid inside becomes, taking flavour from both the wood and the previous incumbent of the cask, and the richer the liquid gets. A truly spiritual experience.
In my journeys to see both sherry casks and bourbon barrels in production, to understand more about their role in maturation, I have learned a lot about the preparation that a cask must go through before it is allowed to mature Scotch whisky.
There are huge differences between American oak and European oak, between ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon barrels, between a hogshead and a puncheon. But all were, at some stage, the results of experiments by innovators, leaving a legacy for today and well beyond.
Thank you to those people, whoever you are.
Glenfiddich – 'Excellence' – 26 Years Old – Matured 100% American Oak – 43% abv - £350
Nose: The casks which this whisky has been matured in have delivered a first class aroma of sweet vanilla, custard cream biscuits, malted milk and crème brulee. There is a hint of oak spice, but only to give body and provide a platform for the developed Madagascan vanilla and white flowers to build on.
Palate: A richer mouthfeel than expected, this is a buttery dram with a hint of heather, yet again some spices to balance out the palate. It is clearly American oak, ex-bourbon and takes in the butterscotch aspects of well matured whisky from these styles of casks, but sprinkles a small amount of cinnamon on top.
Finish: A brilliant balance of sweet and spicy, with that rich vanilla giving a super landing to a great dram.
Overall: This whisky was designed to reflect the style of cask it has been matured in. American oak, ex-bourbon barrels filled in the last century, have marshalled a spirit through more than two decades, resulting in a whisky which is the perfect ambassador for this style of maturation.
If it hadn’t been for those great cooper-innovators, inventing the cask, maturing and re-maturing spirit in it, we wouldn’t have a whisky like this today. So, cheers to those forgotten folk for giving us all something so special which will echo through the ages.