Distillers Channel Their Inner Vintners with New Wave of Wine Cask Finished Whiskies

8/6/2018

 

A growing number of distilleries are choosing to rest their spirits in wooden casks previously used to age wine. Through a process known as “finishing,” distillers of rum, tequila and even Cognac are experimenting with former wine casks, using them to add fruit-forward flavors and complexity to their spirits. Perhaps no spirit category has embraced its inner vintner more so than the whisk(e)y industry.

Scotch distilleries are no strangers to finishing their whiskies in wine casks. For more than two decades, many Scotch distillers have rested their spirits in spent sherry casks, a type of fortified wine from Spain. Since then, the use of casks that once held wine - both fortified and non-fortified - has grown and spread into a global trend. Madeira, port, sauternes, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel are just a few of the finishes now available in the market, which for even the most knowledgeable whisky consumer is an intimidating amount of variety. 

So, to help you answer any questions your customers might have about these innovate wine-finished whiskies, we created a quick reference guide breaking down a few of the more common wine cask finishes out there.

 

Port

What It Is: Aside from sherry, port is the most common varietal of wine used to finish whiskies. Port is a type of red, sweet fortified wine from Portugal. As a fortified wine, port does not go through complete fermentation, but instead is ”fortified” by the addition of a spirit – in this case, brandy – which creates an environment that is too high in alcohol for the yeast to survive. 

Port is often aged for a minimum of two years in large oak bolseiros and smaller oak pipas. During the aging time, the port wine develops rich, chocolate, berry and nutty flavors. 

Flavors from the Cask: Port-finished whiskies are layered and complex, with notes of berries, red currant and cinnamon spice. The port cask also mellows out much of a whisky’s grainy character, and instead replaces it with a juiciness  that brings the whisky’s natural sweetness and vanilla notes to the front of the palate. 

 

Madeira

What It Is: Madeira is a type of fortified wine named after the Portuguese island of Madeira. These wines can range from dry to sweet, and it has a unique flavor that is the result of repeatedly heating the wine during the production process. The heating creates a viscus  wine with flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee. 

Flavors from the Cask: Whiskies finished in Madeira casks are known to take on many of the wines more warming flavors, such as dried fruits, figs, clove and baking spice.

 

Sauternes 

What It Is: Sauternes is Bordeaux’s famous sweet, white fortified dessert wine. The wine is made primarily from Sémillon grapes with small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle mixed in as well.  Sauternes are very, very sweet, with anywhere from 120–220 grams of residual sugar per one liter of wine. As a result, the wine is best served chilled.

Flavors from the Cask: Whiskies that spend time in sauternes casks are generally brighter and move lively than other wine cask finished whiskies. The sauternes casks adds flavors of stone fruits, honey and nuts to the finished spirit.

 

Non-Fortified Red Wines

What It Is: There are far too many non-fortified red wine varietals to list out in great details, and since many of these wines produce the same flavors on a whisky rested in its case, we decided to group them all together into one broader category. That said, there are two red wine varietals that distilleries are using more than others: cabernet and zinfandel. 

Flavors from the Cask: Oak casks that previously held red wines are known to give whiskies big, juicy fruit notes such as strawberry, cherry and plum, as well as an herbal, almost licorice spice. These whiskies are rich but mellow, making them a great choice to not just drink neat, but to stir into a cocktail as well.



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