By Helena Nicklin
There’s no drink that conjures up the spirit of cosy winter nights by the fire quite like whisky. Even for the many who don’t drink it, the aroma of whisky and wood smoke evokes warm memories of Christmases past with relatives, glass in hand, playing charades and stuffing their faces with Quality Street chocolates. I was one of those ‘many’ who remembered it rather than drank it until this year, when my head was turned by the headlines in drinks papers about the continual rise in popularity of whisky, not just from Scotland but all around the world. Whisky tourism has risen by 45% since 2010 according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and the value of certain collectible bottles has famously skyrocketed in much less time.
It was with zero hesitation then that when asked to co-present a TV travelogue through Scotland tasting whisky, I said yes. I was converted immediately upon arrival, of course. It’s hard not to be when tasting a product in the region where it’s made, especially while surrounded so deliciously by ancient castles, lochs, legends and wonderfully hairy cows. So this winter, I want to share with you a glorious discovery that has rocked my world of booze: whisky with a wine ‘finish’.
What is a whisky ‘finish’?
Single malt, blended whisky, Scotch, Bourbon, Rye, Irish… there are many styles of whisky from many regions, but it’s the way distillers choose to ‘finish’ their spirits that can give them such a unique personality. What is a finish? It’s when the spirit is matured in a cask from one particular origin before spending time in a different cask from another origin. Most often, the first cask is American oak that has previously held Bourbon. The second cask is used to add extra nuances of flavour and complexity and it is here that distillers can have some fun. You may also see on the label ‘wood-finished’ or ‘double matured’, but it’s the same thing.
Fine wine whisky finishes.
On my recent trip to Scotland with The Three Drinkers, I met a man who whisky buffs describe as the ‘rock star of distillers’. He is Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks at Glenmorangie in Tain. Fearless in his experiments (he has a scientific background) and with a wonderfully potty mouth, Lumsden is man who oozes passion and Scottish charm. He also has a penchant for seriously fine wine, which is why Glenmorangie have had some incredible, limited edition whiskies finished in barrels that have held extraordinary wines.
“Wine continues to inspire me, but it’s a tricky animal to use with Scotch whisky,” he says. “I’ve tasted as many terrible whiskies made with a wine barrels as I have good ones. It’s been fascinating to watch though how actually, with a wine finish, whisky can change in the bottle over time.”
Naturally, it would have been rude not to taste as many as I could get my hands on and my goodness, I loved them, for their perfume as much as anything else. Glenmorangie is famous for its fruity, spicy whiskies that have elegant aromatics, thanks their particularly tall copper stills (the tallest in Scotland). Add a wine finish to the mix and you get some seriously special drams. It is not just Glenmorangie who use wine finishes, however. The Macallan is famous for its christmas-cakey, sherry finishes and several other big names have been doing their own experimenting with sweet wines, fortified wines and dry, still wines.
Here are some wine-finished Scotch whiskies that are well worth seeking out this winter:
Sherry cask finish: Glenmorangie Lasanta 12 Year Old
The richness from Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry is a wonderful addition to whisky. If you like those baking spice, christmas cake flavours, a sherry finish is for you.
RRP £48 from Amazon and Master of Malt.
Sherry cask finish: The Macallan Gold Double Cask
Finished with American and European sherry-seasoned oak, this whisky is ripe and rich, with a spicy kick and notes of dark chocolate orange.
RRP £39.99 from Master of Malt and Amazon
French red wine finish: Glenmorangie Companta
Finished with 60% Burgundy wine casks from Clos de Tart and 40% Rhône Valley casks that previously held Rasteau, this limited edition whisky has a beautiful, cherry red colour with peppery fruit up front and earthiness on the finish. Outstanding.
RRP £161.50 from Amazon
South American red wine finish: Glenfiddich 19 Year Old Age of Discovery
The full-bodied red wine gives this 19 year old whisky a warm, comforting, dark fruit and spice flavour. This is the third release of the whisky that was initially created to commemorate Charles Darwin’s 1831 voyage in HMS Beagle.
RRP £125 from The Whisky Exchange
Sweet ice wine finish: Glenfiddich Winter Storm
Incredibly limited edition Scotch whisky finished in casks that previously held Canadian icewine. This whisky has tropical notes of rose petal and citrus peel with a refreshing, crisp finish that’s completely dry.
RRP £199.95 from Master of Malt and Amazon
Sauternes Finish: Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or
Nectar D’Or has the succulent, honeysuckle and and orange peel notes that you’d expect from Sauternes. It’s golden and glorious; one for wine lovers for sure and a little easier to get hold of.
RRP £54 from Amazon and Master of Malt
Port finish: The Balvenie 21 Year old Port Wood
Aged in port pipes that are over 30 years old, this whisky is brooding and dark, with powerful fruit and notes of woodsmoke. One for the end of the tasting!
RRP £136 from The Whisky Exchange
Port finish: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban.
This intensely flavoured whisky spent ten years in bourbon casks before being transferred into ruby port pipes from carefully selected Portuguese quintas (wine estates). It’s an intriguing mix of sweet and dry with a unique, silky, voluminous texture.
RRP £49.95 from Amazon and Master of Malt
Don’t forget to check out The Three Drinkers do Scotch Whisky now LIVE on Amazon Prime!
This piece was originally written for Savile Row Style Magazine in December 2018