The new normal

The new normal

Finishing whisky isn’t a new thing, it’s been around for the best part of forty years as a commercial activity

Taste | 14 Aug 2020 | Issue 169 | By Greg Dillon

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Pioneered in the 1980s, and often attributed to Sir David Stewart of The Balvenie, who experimented with finishes most prominently for The Balvenie Classic (now The Balvenie Double Wood), finishing is all about using a second cask to alter or enhance flavours within a whisky by giving that particular cask, batch or release a second maturation of sorts. 

Cask finishing is essentially moving the whisky from one cask to another, to allow it to finish maturing. The second cask will most likely have held something a bit more interesting than the original maturation cask, like red wine, champagne, beer or different sherry styles such as Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez or Palo Cortado. This second maturation period is all about the new cask imparting its unique flavour on the already mature malt or grain whisky.

The most important thing for blenders is that this technique affects the flavour in a positive way.

It’s all well and good finishing your whisky in a cognac cask, but unless that makes it taste better, there’s no point. Like with a lot of things in the whisky making process, it all comes down to the intricate chemistry of how the oak and spirit interact.

While it was pioneered by single malt producers, increasingly the Blended Scotch category is using cask finishing as a way to differentiate themselves in domestic and global markets – it allows a brand to alter the flavour profile of their volume products through limited-edition releases and charge around a 20 per cent premium, although sometimes much more. 

And it is an important part of the ever-growing whisky category, as it’s clear that brands need to innovate, need to expand their ranges and need to appeal to different consumers with vastly varying needs; even the same consumer will have a plethora of requirements at different times. 

Take me as a case in point. I obviously work in the whisky industry and am fortunate in that I get to try phenomenal whiskies as well as some less phenomenal ones. But my buying habits change depending on what mood I’m in: I have a collection of Blended Scotch whiskies from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, each not costing a great deal, and I also have some really low-end whiskies as they intrigue me (the geek in me tries to understand them and their consumer target as it helps me to do my job and connect with the whisky drinkers who buy these products).

That’s not to mention most of the Ardbeg Committee releases, but then I buy bottle-your-own whiskies each time they are available at distilleries. All are great in their own way, but each with a very different proposition, price point, design aesthetic and target consumer in mind. 

As one might expect, being that they also own and produce The Balvenie, Grant’s were amongst the first blended Scotch whiskies to extend their Family Reserve product into a finishing programme with the release of Grant’s Ale Cask and Grant’s Sherry Cask, with the Grant’s Rum Cask Finish subsequently being added in the recent brand refresh. 

Highlighting the Ale Cask finish, Grant’s explain that they asked a local Scottish brewery to season Bourbon casks with their ales – the first Blended Scotch to be extra-matured in casks that once held ale, resulting in a smooth, rich and creamy taste. Given that William Grant & Sons use rum casks quite heavily in their portfolio across The Balvenie, Glenfiddich 21 Year Old and Tullamore D. E. W., it’s no wonder they added in a rum cask finish as well when they had the opportunity to with the range refresh. A classic and useful tactic to entice whisky drinkers at the mass market end of their range to get intrigued by rum cask finishes, so that when they see that same finish on other WG&S products they know that is a quality marker. 

One brand that has taken the mantle of innovator on, in the quest to expand their range at the top end and the more entry level of their releases through several finishing programmes, is Dewar’s. Not known as well in the UK as they are in the US and Asia, the brand has released a couple of new ranges, notably the 8 Years Old Cask Series and the Double Double Series. 

For the Dewar’s Double Double series, each whisky has been finished in a different type of sherry cask; the 21 Years Old has been finished in Oloroso sherry casks, while the 27 Years Old has been finished in Palo Cortado sherry casks, and the 32 Years Old has been finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.

The notion of Double Double comes from the finishing process, described by the brand as being a “unique ‘double double’ four stage ageing process that allows the single grain and single malt in the whisky blend to fuse multiple times in their individual oak casks before being aged together.” 

Initially launched in Singapore duty free, and then the US before going to other key markets, the Dewar’s Double Double series has sold out its allocations the world over, showing quite conclusively that whisky drinkers love the new, want the new, and have a desire to experience unique products both for themselves, and to have them in their collections.

There was a story I heard of one guy who went through Changi Airport and, upon trying small samples of the range, bought five sets of all three to be delivered to his apartment for when he returned home. 

On a wider release is the 8 Years Old Cask Series, where Dewar’s are finishing a bespoke blend in interesting casks, which in one case has never been used in Scotch maturation before and is a true world first: their Mezcal cask finish, called ‘Ilegal Smooth’ after the ex-Ilegal Mezcal casks used for the finish. The other release in this range so far has been ‘Caribbean Smooth’ which, as you might imagine, was finished in ex-Rum casks. 

The point here is that they are innovating at an accessible price point with the 8 Years Old Cask Series, and at the super-premium price point. They are upping their relevance across the board, and in the hearts and minds of consumers who might not otherwise have considered buying into Dewar’s due to not knowing there were more options in the portfolio than just their most prolific product, Dewar’s White Label. And only a few weeks ago, Chivas upped their finishing programme too, with their Chivas Extra cask range that includes four new extensions to the Chivas Extra 13 Years Old product.
They now offer a 13 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Cask; a 13 Years Old Rum Cask; a 13 Years Old American Rye Cask; and a 13 Years Old Tequila Cask.

It is too soon to tell how these will be received, and the notes on the information about the tequila cask release telling us they are ‘selectively finished in Tequila Casks’ does ask the question as to how much influence the tequila will have on the product itself; but it is a really interesting example of a brand looking to extend a product to halo back to the core, ever-present release. Moreover, each new expression features artwork by renowned street artist Greg Gossel – a nice ‘blend’ of traditional whisky and modern flavour brought to life visually, as well as literally. 

Of course, Diageo already does this with their ‘Blender’s Batch’ range of limited-edition Johnnie Walker extensions that are found in different airports around the world, which rotate in and out depending on the seasonality of the release. This has been a great success for Johnnie Walker, as it has shown consumers that they can innovate and can do things differently, while producing enough options for people to be able to buy a few different releases depending on where they are travelling around the world. 

All in all, it is a wonderful time for blends, a category that accounts for around 92 per cent of global whisky volumes (depending on which report you happen to read) and with these extensions across the board, likely owing to the SWA relaxing its view on what a traditional maturation vessel for Scotch is, it is also truly an interesting time for whisky drinkers who are getting more choice, more flavour and more to share from the traditional Blended Scotch whisky brands. About time too!
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