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Thursday, 8 March 2012

All The Way To The Finishing Line

What an incredible few months it's been. Unbelievably we now hit March and the rumbling of the jungle drums has begun in earnest, with the whisky business releasing a salvo of new releases upon us or urging us to revisit some classics of old.

Last month perfectly highlighted this premise, when I attended a superb whisky event in Helsinki. Uisge, now in its 2nd year was a rip roaring success and the organisers estimated that over two days, around 1,5oo people attended the event, held at the heart of the city. What is surprising is that despite the good will of the organisers, the brands attending- and of course the attendees, it is virtually impossible to do anything remotely exciting with whisky- and indeed- other spirits, due to the draconian rules imposed by the Finnish government and their state monopoly Alko, who control the sale of high strength alcohol. Uisge was a huge success, without any promotion, advertising or even an official website! Hell, the only thing you could find about the event was an 'unofficial' Facebook page and lots of chatter about it via Finnish whisky groups and societies.

Anyway, this isn't a piece on the state of Finnish drinking culture. What I wanted to highlight is that Finland, alongside its Scandinavian cousins is now a real serious hotbed of whisky knowledge and passion.

As part of my talk on cask finishes- the organiser presented me with a mystery whisky to discuss with the assembled group. It transpired that it was a cask strength Laphroaig, which have been re-casked into a smaller five litre vessel, which had previously been seasoned with Oloroso sherry for several weeks.

A debate ensued as to how long the whisky needed to develop extra complexity and depth- not that long is transpired - with a rich treacle like overcoat giving the powerful laphroaig an amazing additional personality. I was also fortunate enough to take home several samples of similar finishing experiments undertaken by one of Finland's keen collectors and whisky aficionados, Mika Hanka - including a wonderfully rich take on Ardbeg's Renaissance. Many thanks Mika!

Anyway, all this got me thinking about the nature of cask finishing. Some people hate it, some people, it seems, can't get enough of it. I think the problem largely lies in the fact that the majority of cask finishes of old were done to hide the undesirable characteristics of the base whisky, masking it in whatever sticky/tannic/fruity cloak available.

One series of cask finishes that changed the benchmark with their ability to highlight the synergy between a distillery's individual characteristics and the additional maturation in decent, complimentary casks was the Diageo Distillers Edition range. As we discussed last week, during the lagavulin tasting post, the Distillers Edition bottling Laga, highlighted that sherry and peat can happy play in the same sandpit, even growing up as childhood sweethearts. It still stands as one of my all time favourite Lagavulins, especially that each batch seems to differ slightly, but never disappoints.

Whilst in Helsinki, I had the opportunity to try the Talisker Distillers Edition and was shocked by how much the hot,peppery, salty peat consumed so well with the Amoroso casks used for the additional maturation, so all this got me thinking, wouldn't it be nice to demo a few of the others in the range, that you don't get to see every day?

So here is the first tranche of three, including the Oban, Clynelish and Caol Ila.

Oban - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1995 - bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Montilla Fino sherry oak - 43%

Nose: An initial note of cloudy apple juice kicks off the proceedings, followed by white grape fruitiness, some elderflower notes, floral/zesty candle wax and a slightly salty/briny note. Balanced and extremely inviting.

Palate: A big malty coating, followed by some orchard fruit sweetness, some hints of liquorice and then a wash of sea salt. It's big chewy and dominating.

Finish: Liquorice notes, a hint of anise and the sea salt all linger, as the palate dries out.

Overall: A proper mouthful of whisky. It is smooth, well balanced but bold and compelling. The fruit is harmonious the the character of the original whisky. What a great start.

Next up: Clynelish, in all its waxy glory...

Clynelish - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1993 - bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Oloroso Seco oak - 46%

Nose: Well, first things first - there's the wax. Big bold and beautiful floral candle wax, but this time, there is a distinctly sweet fruit note to contend with too. Almost fresh gooseberries, a bowl of over ripe strawberries and some malted breakfast cereal. Perhaps even a whiff of powder paint too.

Palate: Strawberries and fresh cream, all the way. A distinct malt note also develops, perhaps like rye bread but it balances the sweet fruit out nicely.

Finish: Lingering fruit, with a return of the classic Clynelish wax right at the end.

Overall: Another cracking example of putting the right whisky with the right cask. Lovely stuff.

Finally for this instalment - Caol Ila.

Caol Ila - Distillers Edition - Distilled in 1997 - Bottled in 2010 - Double matured in Moscatel oak - 43%

Nose: A very sweet, almost sickly smoke note, which has undertones of barbecued bananas, icing sugar and dessert wine. Surprisingly integrated, with the medicinal notes balancing well with the sweet fruit.

Palate: Very clean, with more sweet peat on the palate, but developing sugary notes, some ripe banana again and a little drizzle of lemon juice.

Finish: Lingering notes of the sweet medicinal peat, but a resurgence of some of the sweeter wine characteristics.

Overall: Perhaps the least 'immediate' from this batch of Distillers Eds, but nonetheless, inviting and drinkable. I think in terms of the peat monsters, Lagavulin certainly has the edge from this series.

We'll be introducing several of the other bottlings in the range in part two, but until then, let us know your thoughts on cask finishing - have you experimented at home? Tried a finish that was out of this world?? We want to hear from you....