Whisky Round Table #11 – April 2011 – @ Holy Land
This month’s Round Table arrives finally to Israel, and we’re pleased to have all the fellow knights aboard. April is my Birth month, so i am delighted to be the host on this special month ;). The single cask issues is really something that interests me, and this is why i chose this as the topic. All the knights were asked the same question:
The Single Cask. A distinct point in time, A unique combination, of a cask, maturation climate, location, and magic. the whisky world’s version of a “singularity”. No two casks are ever the same, and once finished, only a memory is left”.
- What was the best single cask bottling you have had the pleasure of sampling . Where did you try it, did you own the bottle, and what made it so good?
- Did you ever come by a single cask bottling which was really bad?
- What’s your take on Vatting two extraordinary casks together? is a Quasi single cask vatting better than a “classic” single Cask?
I was really eager to hear what each and everyone had to contribute, and here they arrive .
Chris Bunting (nonjatta)
The combination of one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history in Japan on March 11 and the birth of a son amid all the chaos have have made both my personal and professional life so busy that what time I do have to myself is spent on my back sipping whatever comes to hand: single cask, single malt, blended, beer, chu-hi (syrupy cans of cocktails), happoshu (imitation beer) but definitely not the radioactive water!
For what it is worth, I think single casks are interesting and very appealing but often find the greater flexibility that a single malt drawing on several casks affords to the makers produces phenomenal drinks (not sure I want to really make that a comparison because I don’t have enough experience to draw on). The same, theoretically, goes for vatted malts and blends if they are done with a focus solely on quality rather than manufacturers’ convenience. The vatting of two casks (a “double barrel”?) is just another step along that creative range. It is like the range of musical options available to a classical composer: a solo, a chamber piece, an orchestral composition. There is excitement in all of them. I fondly remember an Ichiro’s Malt Single Cask 2000 sipped at home near the start of my Japanese whisky ride. It was only 5 years old but I can still taste its powerful but smooth nut-and-raisin flavours. The more recent Karuizawa Single Cask 1995 (#5004) from Number One Drinks’s Noh Whisky series was also a masterpiece (from my notes: “leather chairs and smelly fires”).
Mark Connelly (Glasghow Whisky & Ale)
Single cask bottlings are one of the great things about the world of whisky. No two are ever the same. Even two casks sitting beside each other for the same number of years holding the same spirit will not be identical. In fact, often they are very different. I can imagine an independent bottler going through many cask samples and one day coming across that one superb sample that puts all the others in the shade. At that moment he or she knows that they have a gem on their hands. The thrill must be immense.
I have tried many single casks that I adored, but also many that I found puzzling that they were ever bottled in the first place. I think that’s the beauty of them: you never know what you’ll get until you try. And then, as you say, it will all be gone. For me the one single cask that sticks in my mind was a bottle of Dallas Dhu that we got for our whisky club. If I remember it was around 24yo and was a sublime, sherry monster. It had the sort of nose that I could enjoy for hours without taking a sip; the kind of nose you only get on an older sherried whisky where things like worn, leather sofas and polished wood come through with all the spices and dried fruits. Nasal heaven. And thankfully the taste lived up to the nose.
As I said before I have come across several bad bottlings but I won’t name names. I suppose that perhaps sometimes finances come into play and a cask has to be bottled to keep the cash flow going but perhaps I’m just making excuses for them. I certainly will now think twice about buying from these bottlers based on these bad experiences so I suppose it’s a false economy in the long run.
Which brings us neatly on to vatting two or more casks. Perhaps that’s what should have been done with the bad ones mentioned in the last paragraph, although I am very suspicious of any ‘double’ cask bottlings, as I’m sure others are, by thinking that one of them must be a dud. Still, if the end result tastes good then maybe more of these should appear on the market to hide poor casks and keep the small guys in business.
Neil & Joel (Caskstrength.net)
Amazing the idiosyncrasies of single cask bottlings- identical wood, filled the same day, side by side for 20 years and yet the whisky ends up completely different.
One of our favourite bottlings would have to be a Whisky Exchange Single Malts Of Scotland bottling of 14yo Rosebank. Un-repeatable stuff, 304 bottles of perfectly floral, fruity, yet buttery liquid history. You know when a bottle is that special, when you buy 3- 2 to drink and one to save, that inevitably ends up being consumed quicker than you expected. We’ve also had some incredible single casks bottlings from the SMWS; each one challenging the perception of ‘distillery character’. Sometimes massively enhancing it, sometimes doing something radically different, but unique and brilliant at the same time.
In terms of a real duffer, we bought a Chieftan’s Brora bottling from an ex Cream Sherry butt. Cheaper than the Brora’s and oh boy, it showed why- far more miss than hit, simply a trade on the name of a great lost distillery. A few of the Port Ellen bottlings of late have also been extremely disappointing and not worthy to carry the level of prestige they do.
Vatting 2 single casks together to achieve a greater net result seems like a bizarre concept to us- why do it unless, neither can singularly offer perfection? That said, Berry Bros’ Blue Hanger bottlings are sensational vattings or several single casks and give a synergy, probably greater than the individual parts.
Right, off to find that Rosebank. Spring has sprung here…
Matt & Karen (Whisky for everyone)
What a question! The Whisky Israel guys are taking us beyond our comfort zone and asking us to switch in to ‘whisky geek’ mode. We try not to flick this switch too often, but here goes … we will try our best!
The best single cask whisky that we ever tried was a Benriach 18 years old finished in Gaja Barolo red wine barrels. We were lucky enough to taste this straight from the cask as it was being prepared for bottling, while we were on a tour of the distillery. It was not actually released as a single cask bottling but as a limited release of just 3,600 bottles. It was also bottled at a lower ABV strength than when we tried it from the cask. However, we did buy a bottle and it remains one of our favourite ever whisky purchases – it is lovely, rich, fruity and spicy with a great combination of sweetness and dryness. But how much of the high esteem that we hold this whisky in comes from the fact that we tasted it in its ‘raw state’ at the distillery, in the company of the distillery manager and surrounded by the sounds and smells of the Benriach distillery? It must naturally have something to do with it!
People have the tendency to think that the ‘single cask’ is the pinnacle of whisky drinking. This can be the true, where the whiskies have been matured in exceptional casks and selected for bottling in their prime. However, we have tasted a number of highly disappointing ‘single casks’ that in our opinion have been clearly been matured in knackered casks that impart little or no colour or flavour, or have been left too long or not long enough, or both. The ‘single cask’ should be the pinnacle of whisky drinking but with the diversity of quality, the question then becomes, why are some of these whiskies released as ‘single casks’ and not added to a blend or vatting? The variable quality can lead to you getting great value for money for your ‘single cask’ purchase or paying well over the odds for something that is very average.
It is difficult for us to comment on the ‘vatting’ v ‘single cask’ argument, as we have not really tried many examples of vatted malts. All we will add to the above is that a ‘single cask’ whisky is a snapshot of time that can never be repeated. Even if the same single malt or grain whisky is matured for the same time and in the same type of casks, then the results will always show nuance of difference. This is what creates the exclusive nature and the romance, desirability and collectability of these whisky releases. But as mentioned before, it is also what creates the variance in quality….
Joshua Hatton (The JSMWS)
What was the best single cask bottling you have had the pleasure of sampling . Where did you try it, did you own the bottle, and what made it so good? This is an easy one for me. I think the best single cask bottling I’ve had to date was an SMWS bottling of a 13yo Macallan 24.111. For me, it challenged everything I knew about The Macallan and I think that’s one of the best things about a single cask whisky, it forces you challenge your perceptions and preconceived notions. I bought the bottle based on the suggestion of Alan Shayne who is the President of the SMWSA – it was his top dram for that months’ outturn.
Did you ever come by a single cask bottling which was really bad? A bad single cask is bound to happen, sadly… And yes, I have had some that were bad but one in particular was just plain putrid: Nikka Yoichi 5yo Single Cask #400862 My guess (or one of my guesses) is that it was just not ready to be bottled. I’ve had older Nikka Yoichi single casks that were nothing short of magical. I’m not sure of the reasons a bad cask is given the OK to be bottled. Heck, maybe the people who did so actually liked it! Or perhaps, after them tasting this whisky at 5 years, they knew it would not mature to be something very special so why not bottle it now to free up some warehouse space?
What’s your take on Vatting two extraordinary casks together? is a Quasi single cask vatting better than a “classic” single Cask? I have absolutely no issue in mixing two different casks if the end result is a damn good cask strength whisky. I’d hope that a 50/50 taste test is performed prior to bottling to assure the results were positive. Though, we could not call it a single cask or a quasi-single cask. If the whiskies came from the same distillery it’d be a single malt marriage (or a marriage of two single casks). If the whiskies were from two different distilleries (like the Double Barrel series) then the combination of these two whiskies would be a blend (100% malt or no, the SWA says we need to call it a blend).
Chris & Lucas (The Edinburgh whisky blog)
I always feel that Single Cask whisky is taking whisky to the extremes. Extreme flavours (good and bad), extreme alcohol content, extreme rarity. They are an exquisite extra dimension to a fascinating industry. It takes you to the most traditional way of drinking whisky. Straight from the cask, into the glass.
I think single cask whisky needs time to understand and appreciate. The familiar house styles of distilleries that you perceive from standard bottlings matter less. The relationship the whisky has with water, due to the extreme alcohol content, matters more. It is a case of learning again how you enjoy whisky and how much water (if any) you need to have. The flavours are stronger, they take it to extremes.
I am sat in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Leith, as I consider this one of the modern day homes of singles cask whisky and an unparalleled venue for sampling Single Cask whisky. On to the question, as I have rambled enough.
The best Single Cask bottling I have ever had was an official bottling. It was a Virgin American Oak, 1977 Ben Riach . I tasted it at the bar at the Scotch Whisky Experience and I’ll be surprised if they have any left, since I tried that whisky quite a few times.
Pecan pastries, pralines, bananas and cream on the nose and dark liquer chocolates, slight oakiness and maltiness on the palate.
I have been really impressed by all of the Ben Riach Single Casks I have tried so far. They seem to have excellent cask selection. Some of the SMWS bottlings came close to my favourite, especially some of the older single cask Grain Whiskies (eg SMWS G5.1)they have bottled and some of the Arran’s.
I don’t think I have ever had single cask whisky that has been horrendous. I am not a big fan of North British Grain Whisky single cask (SMWS G 1.6) so that sticks in my mind. Harsh metallic grain whisky that didn’t seem to change with age, even though it had been aged for 18 years.
I think the worst kind of single cask whiskies, are the ones that leave you underwhelmed. Single cask whisky should grab you by the lapels and slap you about, not disappear with a whimper. One that comes to mind was The Glenlivet Feith Musach 13 year Old. Not a massive deviation from the standard range. Not big enough, different enough or crazy enough.
The final part of the question is my thoughts on vatting two different single casks together. I can’t say I have tried many but I do wonder what the motivation is to vat two casks together. Perhaps the whiskies weren’t good enough to release separately, maybe it’s easier to sell whisky that has Macallan and Laphroag (as an example)on the label. Maybe the blender felt that one of the whiskies lacked something. Or maybe it is purely experimentation. My only hope is that whatever the distillery or independent bottlers release, that they make sure it tastes good! And I would hope as well that if these vattings are released, that it isn’t for marketing purposes.
Mike Connery (WhiskyParty)
The best single cask bottling I have had the pleasure of sampling was an 11 year old Laphroaig from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS 29.71 – Tasting Notes Here :). It was called a “Wrestler’s Armpit of a Dram”. I had bought a few subscriptions for friends to the SMWSA and this was the bottle that came with it. I had it on the night of my graduation from graduate school, it was a friend’s bottle, and it was just pure fire. Tarry, lemony with the medicine so strong that it was the first time that I realized why bandages could taste good in a whisky. Interestingly, Mike C. had a bottle and though he liked it, it wasn’t his favourite. Mike F. and I really enjoyed it, though. Reading the comments of Mike C.’s tasting notes brings back memories of how people can have such different reactions.
I’ve never come across a single cask bottling that was really bad, only ones that were “interesting”. Usually it’s single casks that are finished in something (like a first growth wine). I’ve found that though the whiskies are interesting, they aren’t balanced at all (and though this is sometimes good, it’s not good here), and the flavours of the finishes tend to be more strident than complementary.
I’m all for experimenting with vatting. However, a quasi single cask vatting is just different than a classic single cask. The lure of the single cask is to get the pure unadultered, unblended flavour of that distillery and that cask. It might not be as balanced, but it’s great. Vatting would seem to defeat those purposes.
Keith Wood (The Whisky Emporium)
The 8th finest whisky I have tried was a single cask, specifically a Millburn 1969, 36y bottled by Douglas Laing.
Does this really mean that single casks are the pinnacle and magic? Yes they can be good, very good, but so can normal bottlings which are technically vattings from the distillery. In fact, this goes for the seven ‘better’ whiskies than the Millburn that I have tried.
Ruben Luyten (WhiskyNotes.be)
Last month, of around 25 whiskies published on my blog, only 2 were not single casks. I guess you could call me a single cask man – I just love the diversity and the fact that I’m trying something that will never come back. Single casks can surprise you more as they’re not limited to the ‘trademark profile’ distilleries are trying to achieve in large batch releases. Other than that, I don’t see a point in separating them from the large batch releases: single casks are not necessarily better or worse than large batch releases. Single cask Bowmore from the 1980’s were just as bad as the large batches I’ve tried from that era. Vice versa, the yearly releases from Port Ellen and Brora are clearly better than a lot of the single casks.
Vatting two casks can be very interesting, and if done properly 1+1 can be more than 2. Read my story on the Glenfarclas 1968 (cask #5240 and #702) for example . These two casks had a different and slightly extreme character, but together they form a wonderfully balanced and very complex couple. Two other fine examples are Compass Box Lady Luck and Duncan Taylor’s 70th Anniversary malt
Jason Johnstone-Yellin (Guid scotch drink)
I’ve been very lucky to have had so many great experiences tasting single casks. I’ve purchased casks directly from distilleries, I’ve tasted from casks in warehouses, and, of course, I’ve purchased a number of single cask bottlings. It’s impossible for me to identify the best I’ve tasted so let me paint a picture of one of my most recent enjoyable tastings.
I’ve heard amazing things about Lagavulin’s warehouse tour but I’ve never managed to find out if what I hear about it is true because it’s only run on Tuesdays and Thursdays and, for whatever reason, I never find myself on Islay on those days! One Friday last November I stopped by the distillery to purchase a few distillery-only bottles when the always lovely Ruth asked if I’d like to sample a little Lagavulin since I was there. You just have to love Islay hospitality! I, of course, answered in the affirmative and got comfy in the tasting lounge with a little cask strength 12 Year Old and a little distiller’s edition (thankfully my friend Matthew Slater was in attendance in order to make sure I wasn’t imbibing alone this Friday morning). Just as we were sitting there discussing the contents of our glasses and marveling over life on Islay one of the distillery chaps happened to pass by. After sharing a few words about the spirits we were enjoying he nipped off to get something “that we might enjoy” — these are words that never fail to send a shiver up this whisky anorak’s spine! He quickly returned with a generously filled glass of shimmering liquid. It was darker than most offerings from Lagavulin, it had a delightful double ring of bubbles around the edge of the spirit, and it smelled remarkable (rich and succulent). I asked if it was sherry matured and received a wee chuckle as a reply. It was a 17 year old, single cask Lagavulin aged exclusively in first fill bourbon. That must have been one hell of a loaded bourbon barrel in 1993. The mouthfeel was luscious while the flavors were rich and deep with classic Lagavulin smoke. How can you go wrong? Absolutely delicious and you can bet I’ll be enjoying the warehouse tour later this year!
Not to belabor the point, but I’m told there’s 42 Year Old Lagavulin available during the warehouse tour in order to demonstrate that that’s too old for Lagavulin. If that becomes the worst single cask I’ve tried I’ll be a very happy lad!
I’d be interested in trying the “quasi single cask” that was thought to be an improvement over the two “classic single casks.” I’d also like to see the size of the cojones on the distillery manager or master blender who ordered the vatting!
Peter Lemon (The Casks)
Knowing full well that the rest of these Knights of the Whisky Roundtable have had far more interesting experiences with single casks and independent bottlings than I have, I’ll keep this one short and sweet so you can move on quickly to their more exotic explorations. I loved a recent Chieftain’s Port Ellen bottling, but then again I’ve only tried a few Port Ellens, so I don’t have much to compare to (if you find this appalling, please feel free to contribute to my Port Ellen Fun). As for a bad single cask, I guess that’s where my lack of exposure comes in handy, I can’t say I’ve had a bad one. I’ve had a few that I didn’t really care for, but none that I would say was flat-out “bad”. As for vatting two casks together, If they were two extraordinary casks to begin with, I’d think that was a bit of waste, but if they were two casks where the sum would be greater than the parts, why not?
Well, I guess it’s my turn to give your my 2 cents worth… So, Single casks indeed are amazing , and I’ve had quite a few, but not as many as I’d like to. We tend to remember the recent great casks, and in my case it’s a wee Karuizawa cask #4592 that captured my heart. Why? because it’s brilliant. Have i ever had a bad single cask? well, not yet i have to admit, and probably because most are good, and I’ve had only so and so. As for vatting two casks, I think usually this is done because a cask is too weak in %ABV, or not perfect, and it’s a shame to waste, with its brilliant sister cask, it may shine, but will it shine as well as if the sister casks had been bottled by itself? That’s a tough one.
I am always fascinated by the abilitiy of some bottlers and experts to pick a perfect cask, and i hope that on day, even distant, i will have the pleasure of doing just that (with success of course).
Slainte! and greetings from Israel.