Whisky finds new inspiration from within. PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).
Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along. Familiarity is fickle lens. Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you. Until you do. And even then it can be a while until it takes hold. The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently. It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long. Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future. That future was in fact the elemental past. The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.
There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”. The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer. These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time. More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.
The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale. This intuitively feels right. What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself? The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.
The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly. In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer. Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer. The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness. Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first. Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer. A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it. The flame is now starting to flare.
With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed. The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale. I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours). This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints. A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours. The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal. This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures. It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.
The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst. We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment. There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours. In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service. May the brew be with you.