Last week I scrounged a back-door invitation to a GlenDronach tasting. It was hosted by the Bascule, and after I’d arrived it gradually dawned on me that I had kind-of gate-crashed a get-together of their whisky club. I felt bad about it, but sometimes these things need to be done in pursuit of a higher purpose.
It turned out to be well worth the momentary embarrassment. During a tasting that was expertly led by the amicable, Scottish-accented (which always lends a certain authenticity) David Wyllie, we were served a sextet of exquisite drams from a stable renowned for their sherried whiskies. I’m a big fan of sherry-casked whisky – you could say that I’m the sherry equivalent of a peat-freak – so this was quite a treat, and also the motivation for my dubious presence at the event.
We tasted the 12, 15 and 18 YO’s from the core range, a 14YO finished in Sauternes casks, a 1992 Single Cask bottled exclusively for the South African market, and, last but not least, a whisky about which we were asked not to publicise details. This was a special bottling, supposedly not authorised for public consumption. It’s widely known that a whisky lover relishes nothing more than the opportunity to taste something exclusive and uncommon, so I’m pretty sure that the GlenDronach guys were blowing a bit of smoke up our arses – but I appreciated the sentiment and the whisky regardless.
Interestingly the 14YO, which is sadly not available in SA, was made from a stock of virgin-casked whisky (European oak) which was then re-racked into a variety of casks for finishing. I found this Saturnes version interesting if somewhat overly woody. Taste can be suggestible though and I wonder if I would have come to this same conclusion had I not known its provenance. I suggest that you try it if you get the chance. Virgin casks are blended into bottlings occasionally, although perhaps with increasing regularity in recent years, but whisky which is made primarily from virgin casks is exceedingly rare. In fact this style is probably limited to the few available organic whiskies.
Amongst the core range the 15YO stood out, at least for me – the signature sherry flavours were offset by the freshness and vibrancy of a pine forest. It also has a spectacular nose which drew oohs and aahs from the audience, myself included. The other whiskies were similarly impressive – only enhancing my affinity for this distillery and its creations.
I was struck by a final observation before heading home, which reinforced to me why I’m passionate about whisky rather than other potential candidates – i.e. why I’m not spending my time writing about chocolates, or teas, or bicycles, or somesuch. There is artistry and skill required for all of these and hundreds of others, but whisky has a certain uncommon magic. The 1992 and the mystery bottle were both from Oloroso casks, probably sourced from the same bodega. The latter was significantly older. And yet the 1992 was considerably darker and its sherry flavours more pronounced. In fact the mystery whisky has citrus notes, which are unusual in sherry casks. This is the enigma of wood. It contributes a visceral organicity to whisky which sets it apart from other industrial production, and gives it the constant ability to surprise and to astound.
Really interesting post – I’m glad you went to this event too! Perhaps I’m overstating the obvious (or perhaps my coffee hasn’t quite kicked in as it’s still early over here in the US) but am I correct in assuming you’re referring to “new” or “unused” barrels when you say “virgin casks” or is there something else (perhaps the age of the wood for the barrel?) to which “virgin casks” is referring?
If the former is the case, then I’m curious to know more about your thoughts behind this sentence:
“but whisky which is made primarily from virgin casks is exceedingly rare”
Whiskies aged in new oak are not something I personally have noticed becoming harder to find. Bourbon, for example, being an entire category that must, by law, start in new American oak. That said, I’m intrigued by your thoughts and excited to learn more!
Thanks for piquing my interest!
Hey WW – apologies, I’ve betrayed my Euro-centricity. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify. I was referring to Scotch whisky, although this would also apply to Irish to a large extent. As you rightfully point out American straight whiskeys are aged in new wood by law. Scotch though has no such stipulations and conventionally is aged almost exclusively in refill casks. Some virgin casks have been used over the years, but usually as a minor component. It’s very rare to have virgin casks playing a major role in anything other than an organic Scotch whisky.