Distillery Diaries, by Zoe

Posted on March 09, 2016

For a bit of context, the reason whisky-types get so excited about casks (which, from the outside at least, look like a collection of almost-identical, slightly grubby and weathered wooden barrels that have seen better days) is because approximately 75% of the flavour of the whisky when it eventually emerges will be dependent on the maturation that has happened inside the cask. That maturation will vary enormously depending on a list of factors as long as your arm, but one of the most important is what the cask had in it before it held whisky. That liquid will have seeped deep into the wood, imbuing it with extra flavour, and even altering the structure of the wood itself.

To the uninitiated it might seem odd that within the hallowed traditions of whisky production such importance is placed on a part of the process that might not even involve whisky. Or if the presence of bourbon in the wood has such a brilliant effect on the whisky, then why not just mix some bourbon into your new make spirit and call it a day? Well, aside from the fact that you would face some fierce opposition from the whisky world, the reactions happening during cask maturation are actually a lot more complicated than just making your whisky taste a bit of bourbon. So, for example, the presence of sherry in the wood will bring deep, raisin notes to the whisky, but won't necessarily make it taste 'like a sherry' (unless of course you're enjoying our Spirited Sherry, in which case that's a whole other sherry-ish kettle of fish). Amazingly, the effect of the sherry on the wood has as much to do with its alcoholic structure as its flavours - the fact that sherry tends to be high in acidity but relatively low in alcohol strength (in comparison to spirits) means it will draw more water-soluble flavour compounds from the wood - wood flavours that can then be soaked up by the new make spirit when it's added to the cask. It's worth remembering that a lot of the 'sherry flavour' of the sherry came from the wood originally, so it makes sense that it's the wood again imparting those flavours into the whisky, rather than simply the sherry doing it.  

So how does all this play out for the Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky? Take this Moscatel cask being filled here by Leon. The Moscatel traces (which smelled FANTASTIC when we pulled the original bung out - we must have looked rather odd, taking turns to shove our noses into a hole in the top of a barrel) will impart deep flavours of ripe fruit, stewed pears, and a rich sweetness that should be tempered by lovely wood spice notes. It's quite unusual for a whisky to be matured fully in Moscatel casks - most will do the majority of their cask time in ex-bourbon and then be transferred to a Moscatel cask for 'finishing' for a few years. That's the standard practice for more unusual cask types. With our new selection of exotic casks, however, Dan decided to go straight for a full maturation and see how it ends up. The grand plan is to release them eventually as individual expressions, rather than mixing them with our other cask types. But as it’s quite unusual to put new make spirit into these barrels from the start, we don’t know much about how fast these casks will mature  - so I suppose we’ll just have to keep taking regular samples to check on how they’re progressing. It’s a burden, but someone’s got to do it…

Having an arsenal of exciting casks to be called on at later dates is a crucial part of being a fully-fledged whisky distillery, so we look forward to seeing what other bits and pieces Dan can find for us to experiment with. There are rumours of Madeira casks on their way...

 


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