Whoever said, “it’s not how you start, but how you finish,” must surely have been a whiskey drinker. At the risk of ignoring the distillate itself, more than half of an aged spirit’s flavor profile is owed to cooperage. The significance of barrels, it follows, cannot be overstated. In expanding the proverbial spice rack at their disposal, whiskey-makers have long turned to barrel-specific finishes to impart wondrously unique liquid into the bottle. This abbreviated aging period sees the juice transferred from its primary aging vessel into secondary storage, for typically less than a year.
Single malt producers frequently introduce sherry butts and port pipes at this late stage of the game. American whiskey makers have followed suit, landing upon similar finishes for their ryes and bourbons. WhistlePig Old World a fine example of the former, Angel’s Envy, the latter. Tried and true, yes. But the modern drinker often demands new and next. To that end, a number of unexpected barrel finishes are emerging. Experimentation hardly guarantees success, however. If you’re in search of the best this subcategory has to offer, look no further than the following labels.
The Balvenie was one of the first brands to get funky with finishes when they released Caribbean Cask in 2009. The single malt Scotch sits in ex-Bourbon casks for 14 years before a final 4 month slumber in rum barrels. “Caribbean cask is all about unexpected flavors,” explains brand ambassador David Laird. “It has the classic Balvenie honey and vanilla notes, but also a tropical sweetness on the nose, spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. But for me it’s the dark cocoa and orange notes on the finish that really separate this whisky.”
Of course we must also mention Glenfiddich and their 21 Year Reserva Cask. Though it has undergone many name changes, it still retains its Caribbean rum finish. And we must also point out Tullamore D.E.W with their Caribbean Rum Cask release launched in October 2017. Keep an eye out for that one!
Finding similar flavors in an American whiskey is Yippee Ki-Yay out of High West Distillery. It’s a blend of high rye distillate aged for two years and finished in barrels previously devoted to Californian Vermouth and Syrah. Cinnamon and maple are instantly recognizable in the nose and on the tongue.
Dad’s Hat, a Pennsylvania distillery has also had success with their vermouth finished rye.
MAPLE SYRUP FINISHES
If those sound like your type of dram, you’d also appreciate the Maple Cask Rye from Hudson. This four year-old whiskey is finished in barrels that once held the brand’s bourbon, and, more recently, 100% pure Vermont maple syrup. Initially conceived as a seasonal release, 2016 saw the bottle added to Hudson’s starting lineup.
In 2016, we saw the eleventh annual release of Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection. The limited edition bottling affords master distiller Chris Morris the opportunity to tinker with his flagship bourbon in all sorts of surprising ways. That rendition was the first American whiskey to be finished in American brandy casks. An added two years in that cooperage — an exceptionally long finishing period — imbues the spirit with a ruby hue and a ton of toffee and stone fruit in the finish.
If there’s one newer style of finish trending above the rest, it’s got to be the beer barrel. The couple of years featured the release of a handful of notable examples. First was Caskmates Stout Edition—the first in a series of Jameson bottlings to be finished in craft beer barrels followed by an IPA edition. Glenfiddich took the same idea to Scotland, finishing their single malt for 3 months in IPA Casks.
Back in the States, Abraham Bowman surrendered their bourbon to 17 months in casks formerly reserved for gingerbread stout and an Imperial milk stout. The blended liquid flew off the shelves, hopefully inspiring the Virginia operation to explore similar experiments in the near future.
But when it comes to experimentation, few whiskey makers throw caution to the wind as forcefully as Seven Stills. These San Franciscans aren’t content to simply finish their whiskey in beer barrels. They often distill using the very beer that flavored those barrels to begin with. Stocking Stuffer, as an example, was a Christmas collaboration with Libertine Brewing Company. The distillate comes from a sour stout of the same name, using the same barrels to age both products.
If you’re skeptical as to how inventive barrelings affect the final product, a growing body of evidence is here to make you a believer. Novelties come and go, but curiously finished whiskey is here to stay.
Thirsty for more interesting whiskey barrel finishes?