A lot goes into determining the character and flavor profile of a whisky, and as much as every component right from the ingredients to the shape and size of the stills play a part in it, perhaps the most crucial role is played by the barrels.
When it comes to a barrel, there are two ways in which a barrel of whisky imparts a unique character to a whisky. First, the kind of wood that the barrel is made of and; Second, whether the barrel is first-fill, or has been used to mature a different alcoholic beverage.
Let us discuss the massive impact that a barrel has on a whisky, and how the wood, size, number of uses and the nature of the barrels infuse their very own character in the whisky.
Typically, Sherry barrels come from Spain, a country renowned for its wine production. Ex-Sherry barrels are known to be expensive and whiskies matured in these barrels are generally priced at a premium. Sherry barrels are made of Oak, and can be European or American Oak.
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso is an excellent example of a single malt Scotch whisky finished in Oloroso Sherry barrels, infused with the rich flavors of dried fruit and spiciness. The Nadurra Oloroso is finished in first-fill barrels and this helps it really absorb the breathtaking flavors from the barrel.
Japanese Oak Barrels
A unique, and extremely highly priced type of Oak, the Japanese Oak trees yield a disproportionate amount of wood capable of being used to make barrels. Additionally, Japanese Oak trees take about 200 years to grow to a size that can be used to fashion barrels out of, making it an exceptionally arduous and expensive activity to obtain Japanese Oak barrels.
The Chivas Regal Mizunara is a terrific example of a blended Scotch whisky that contains a sizeable proportion of whisky finished in Japanese Oak barrels. The Oak, also called Mizunara which the expression is named after, is known for its porous nature, allowing the whisky to generously borrow the traits of this rare Oak barrels.
Cognac is a type of brandy named after the eponymous region in France, and as per the legal requirements for it to be called ‘Cognac’, this drink must be matured in Limousin Oak barrels for a period of two years or more. The use of ex-Cognac French Limousin barrels is a great way to add an intense depth of flavor to the whisky.
The Chivas Regal XV is one of the latest and most appreciated Scotch whisky brands to have used Grande Champagne Cognac barrels to finish their whisky. Carrying an age-statement of 15 years, this blended Scotch whisky from the iconic Chivas Regal brand is a triumph in modern whisky making.
The most common type of barrels used to mature Scotch whiskies, ex-Bourbon barrels are used widely in the industry due to their relatively affordable prices and easy availability. Since the law dictates for Bourbon whiskies to always legally be aged in new Oak barrels, the number of discarded ex-Bourbon barrels is high.
The Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve is a prime example of a single malt Scotch whisky finished exclusively in ex-Bourbon barrels. The brand claims their intentions were to bring together the magic of Scotland and Kentucky, and delivering a product that is rich and complex.
Stout is a form of dark beer that is both different in strength and nature as compared to other forms of beer. Stout beers are made from roasted malt, is darker in color, stronger than other beers but are still technically described as an ‘Ale’. It is a highly popular type of beer in Ireland which has produced iconic stout brands such as Guinness, and Murphy’s.
Jameson, perhaps the most popular and bestselling Irish whiskey brand across the world released the Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition, adding a truly unique variation to their inventory. The Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition is aged in ex-Stout barrels that adds a new repertoire of flavors to the whiskey with notes of cocoa, coffee and butterscotch left behind into the barrels by the Cork’s Franciscan Well brewery’s stout.
Distilled from molasses, a byproduct of sugarcane pressing, Rum is typically associated with the Caribbean and countries such as Cuba although it is produced in many other countries and regions worldwide. The use of ex-Rum barrels to age whisky is a practice that is not very common, but some brands are giving it a shot nevertheless. Caribbean rums are traditionally dark in color, stronger and more flavorful, therefore making them ideal choices for finishing whiskies.
The Glenfiddich 21 Year Old was a successful introduction from the brand that was infused with tantalizing flavors, adding a new spicy, and citrusy twist to the Speyside single malt’s floral sweetness. The Balvenie 12 Year Old is another excellent example of a whisky finished in ex-rum barrels from the Caribbean.
Other types of barrels used to finish whiskies are ex-Wine barrels, ex-Madeira barrels, and ex-Port barrels although these practices are sparse and not widely undertaken. These new experimental pursuits by whisky makers is a good sign as it presents whisky drinkers with fresh new flavors without having to give up on their beloved drink.