OAK CASKS (Barrels)
Scotch whisky must be matured in an oak cask. Whisky casks are traditionally made from two types of oak: American White Oak (Quercus Alba) or European Oak (Quercus Robur – pictured left).
American Oak (Quercus Alba) is a fast-growing species, and in the USA this type of wood must be used to mature Bourbon and other American whiskey. It lends the whisky a vanilla and citrus flavour profile.
European Oak (Quercus Robur), is traditionally used for sherry casks, is slower growing and can give toffee and spice characteristics to whisky matured in them.
PORT CASKS(Pipes or Barriques)
Port is a fortified (typically red and sweet) wine that comes in a number of styles. It is produced in a demarcated region in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, inland from the eponymous city of Porto.
Full bodied, fruity red Ports are aged for a relatively short time in large oak vats. These can include Ruby Ports, usually aged in vat for two or three years, Reserve Ports which are generally of higher quality and aged for slightly longer and Late Bottled Vintage Ports which remain in vat for between four and six years.
Whiskies finished in old Port casks can have a soft, summer fruit palate and are darker naturally in colour.
Madeira wine comes from the Madeira islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean just off the North African Coast. It is a fortified Portuguese wine which dates back to the 15th century. The Malvasia grape has a distinctive sweet taste and is almost exclusively used for the production of Madeira.
Madeira is thought to be one of the key players in the evolution of the cask maturation process. Its remote location was perfect as a port for ships sailing to the colonies in the 15th century. Fortified wine producers discovered that the heat and the climate had a huge effect on the wine inside the cask.
A process called Estufagem cask maturation is used to make Madeira. It uses a special heat and moisture treatment which replicates the original journey of the casks on the ships of the 15th century. Madeira has to be matured in oak casks for at least 90 days at 55°C. This “cooking” process makes the wine undergo many reductive and oxidative stages, developing its rich colour and unique flavour.
Because of the Estufagem process, Madeira fortified wines have a deep colour and this results in a darkening of whisky finished in these casks. Some Madeira wines have a red colour and pass on corresponding burgundy tones to the whisky. Madeira casks also add subtle fruity notes, honey overtones and in some cases chocolate, caramel and cinnamon.
SHERRY CASKS(Butts or Puncheons)
The word “Sherry” is an anglicisation of Xeres (Jerez). Sherry was previously known as sack, from the Spanish saca, meaning “extraction” from the solera. Under Spanish law, all wine labelled as “Sherry” must legally come from the Sherry Triangle, an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
There are several different types of sherry from dry to sweet. These include Fino de Jerez, Manzanilla, Oloroso, Pedro Ximenez, and Amontillado.
Sherry has always been matured in oak casks for no less than three years, and these casks then sold on to the Scotch Whisky industry to finish maturing whiskies. Typical characteristics of whisky finished in these casks would be a palate of dates, walnuts and sultanas.
BANYULS CASKS(Barrels or Barriques)
Banyuls is traditionally a fortified sweet red wine and is sometimes referred to as the French cousin of Port although a white wine is also produced. The name Banyuls comes from the coastal town of ‘Banyuls Sur Mer’ in southern France, on the border with Spain. Their wines are always matured in oak casks for a minimum of 30 months before wine spirit is added.
Banyuls ‘Traditional’ wines: The most common, and a symbol of the region’s great tradition. They are rich-red, and matured in an oxidative environment for several years.
Banyuls Blanc wines: Bright yellow, with floral notes of citrus and white fruits.
Traditionally, the best Blanc cuvées are cask matured, yielding a golden wine called Banyuls Ambrés. There is also a small annual production of Rosé Banyuls wines.
A Banuyls cask finished scotch whisky picks up on the sweet floral notes, citrus and white fruits. It may be richly coloured, or it may be pale in colour if matured in a “Blanc” cask.
RIOJA CASKS(Barrels or Barriques)
Rioja is a wine region in North Central Spain, 120 Miles south of Bilbao. The wine region produces 280 to 300m litres of wine annually, the majority of which is red. Grapes used include: Tempranillo, and Garnacha.
The region benefits from a mix of Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean climates. Hot summers and cold winters, with relatively high rainfall, are perfect for producing the top quality grapes needed to make Rioja wines.
Rioja is almost always matured in American or European oak casks. Whisky which is matured or finished in a Rioja cask takes on the characteristics of the wine, usually through a deeper colour and a sweetness to the whisky, with red berries and plum notes.
SAUTERNES CASKS(Barrels or Barriques)
Sauternes wine comes from France, and is a subregion of the “Bordeaux” wine appelation.
The Sauternes region is very foggy. The moist air is perfect breeding ground for noble rot, which is vital to the grape production. The rot decreases the water content of the grape and increases the sugar content. Sauternes wine must be fortified to have at least 13% ABV (alcohol by volume) and a high sweetness.
Sauterne wine is matured in oak casks for 18 to 36 months. During this time the oak interacts with the wine, resulting in a more mature wine and a fruitier cask, which is good for our whisky later! It tends to give the whisky a sweetness similar to apricots or peaches and the whisky can take on an amber hue.
JURANCON CASKS(Barrels or Barriques)
Jurancon is a wine region in South West France in the foothills of the Pyrenees, around the village community of Jurancon. Vines are grown on steep mountain slopes using grape varieties such as Gros/Petit Manseng and Courbu. The region produces both a dry white wine and a more popular sweet wine with fruit aromas.
Whiskies which are given a Jurancon finish tend to pick up on the sweetness of the wine, giving them tropical fruit characteristics such as pineapple and mango.
Marsala is a fortified wine, dry or sweet, produced in the region surrounding the Italian city of Marsala in Sicily. It was made popular in the late 1700’s by John Woodhouse, when he landed in the port of Marsala and discovered the local wine which was aged in oak barrels and was similar to fortified Spanish and Portuguese wines.
It is produced predominantly using the Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino white grape varieties and contains about 15-20% alcohol by volume and ranges in sweetness and colour considerably from dark amber to light brown tones.
Single malt whisky matured in Marsala casks tends to take on a darker colour and a sweet, complex, spicy and sometimes nutty aroma. (As an aside, usually the spiciness and taste of the Marsala is used to make the famous Chicken Marsala).