Well, the 1st of April tomfoolery is now past…for another year anyhow. I was easily unmasked – yes, Chivas is still Regal. E-tailer Master of Malt had better success it seems (amongst the more gullible anyhow) with a story about putting a 105yo whisky on sale at £870k. The most expensive whisky in the world if it in fact existed would probably taste like a mouthful of sawdust.
With the silliness over on Friday it was time to get down to more serious duties. My government was turning 35 and we were hosting a G2G, so I had to gather up some decent whiskies to mark the occasion in fitting style. As it happened I had recently been given a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel by blogmeister and burgeoning media mogul Seth Rotherham, South Africa’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi (I mean that in the best possible way). It would do nicely. I might not be able to live the holiday (yet) but I could quaff some Big Jack and pretend.
For those of you who don’t know, the typical American whiskey (and whisky in general, including single malts) is bottled from a blending of multiple casks, often of different ages. This is done to ensure flavour consistency from one bottling to the next. More rarely, as in this case, there are expressions bottled from a single cask. Single casks – or in the American whiskey lexicon single barrels – are special whiskies, considered good enough to bottle as is. They are also vintages by definition, although Big Jack does not claim such. A single cask Scotch is usually a one-off. When another single cask is offered by a brand, it would be as a distinct offering, because it would be a different whisky; since wood is a living thing, each cask is different from another, thus having a varying impact on the whisky within. American whiskeys however appear to operate otherwise. Brands such as Jack, Blanton’s and others, offer a perpetuating single barrel variant, for which it’s not possible to accurately maintain a flavour from one bottling to the next. This is an unusual and interesting proposition – a branded product that changes from one day to the next – and indeed the Big Jack label states: “for unique flavour and character”.
Big Jack’s particular claim to fame is that the barrels are individually and specially selected – so you’re getting the much-loved Old no. 7 product (I believe aged 6 years rather than the usual 4, although in both cases there is no age claim), but the crème de la crème thereof. They’re chosen from what’s called the “Angel’s Roost”, the top of the warehouse, where these barrels are exposed to the widest temperature variations: contracting in the winter, and expanding in the summer to aggressively draw the whisky in and out of the wood, and intensify the impact of maturation.
This makes great marketing copy. However, ageing is a complex endeavour, and things may not be as straightforward. There is a body of thought which suggests that dunnage warehouses, short buildings in which 3 layers of barrels are stacked one on top of the other, are the optimal places in which to age malt whisky. Why? Because their thick brick or stone walls insulate the whisky from temperature variations. Big Jack is a grain whiskey but nevertheless, this opinion flies in the face of the basis for its existence. I personally don’t think there’s a right and a wrong answer either way. Many elements of this science are not precise, and some of the methods which created the flavours we love today were accidents of history that have subsequently become established practice more through sheer momentum than anything else. Pure pot still Irish whiskey for instance was only created because of a lower tax on unmalted barley. New experiments mean that conventional wisdom is being challenged and re-evaluated constantly. Take the case of Amrut Indian whisky which is aged at altitude in a hot, dry climate, resulting in 5yo whisky tasting like an 18yo. There is more than one way to skin a cat as they say, and sometimes things need to be evaluated on their merits rather than according to a particular fixed notion.
The bottom line is that Big Jack is a damn fine whiskey. Soft smoky nose, with an intense foresty freshness…pine rather than oak (?). It reminded me of my days as a cub-scout building forts in forests on the foothills of the Drakensberg. Great full mouthfeel. Smooth, balanced woody taste on the palate with traces of candy like-sweetness, perhaps a bit sherbety. Long, lingering finish with similar elements to the palate. It is what it makes itself out to be – an evolved version of its little brother. Thanks Seth, and thanks Dino at Brown Forman. You have my contact details – don’t be shy to send more samples.