The Society’s mission to provide our members with interesting and unusual whiskies has led us to consider how the cask can provide endless opportunities to pursue different flavours and expressions. Julien Willems finds out more about our history of pushing the boundaries, and changing preconceptions along the way
Working behind the bars at both The Vaults and Queen Street in 2016, I got my first taste from the other side of the counter, having already been a member for a couple of years.
I remember some remarks about mildly boring Outturns, when the only sources of peat was a monthly release from distilleries 3, 29 and many older refill barrels and hogsheads. The lesson is to enjoy and appreciate what is available while you can, or at least lay down some stocks for the future during times of plenty. There will come a time when you’ll congratulate yourself for planning ahead.
For others, the single casks on offer were too often from the same types of casks, and they were not wrong. Little did they know that very truth had already hit home years before, but as is the rule with whisky, any change of direction takes years, if not decades, to implement. If you want to do things well, it takes time, and there’s no way around that.
Around September 2016, a first batch of HTMC (standing for heavy toast, medium char) extra maturations landed on the Society’s shelves. The reception was split to say the least. The explorers and the curious among Society members found this new experience fun and flavoursome and gave the Society credit for breaking the perceived monotony. Others swore the Society had decided to cheapen everything out and make second rate whisky. Time would vindicate the former, with top awards piling up since 2017 for extra-matured whiskies, at some of the most prominent spirits competitions.
How did this all start? When did the experimental approach take root? What influenced it? Who spearheaded the effort? What lies ahead?
We can of course tie the Society’s cask experiments to the hard work of Euan Campbell and Kai Ivalo over the last decade.
Euan joined Kai on the Spirits Team in April 2013 and this is what he has to say about the origins of the Society’s experimental casks: “In 2014, as the Society was preparing for its new-found independence, we filled a batch of new make spirit into re-toasted former white wine barriques, toasted to our specification at Speyside cooperage. That was my first step into trying something a bit different. Ideas often came from chatting with distillers and whisky makers about different flavour profiles and how they would go about creating them. The HTMC range of casks came from those early chats.
ABOVE: Julien at The Vaults bar
“In 2017, we visited Seguin Moreau cooperage in France to learn about their approach, toasting levels, stave selection and everything in between.”
“By mid-2015, we’d received our first batch of casks and the first bottlings of this style were released in the later part of 2016. We’re constantly thinking outside the box to create new flavours. In 2017, we visited Seguin Moreau cooperage in France to learn about their approach, toasting levels, stave selection and everything in between.”
That visit was the starting point of deeper research into various oaks and their heat treatment. The Society had already bottled casks that provided some great markers of quality. As Euan explains: “In 2014, I was already aware of some delightful 1994 vintage toasted oak casks from distillery 35. They had a thick and fatty texture and decadent flavours of Tunnock’s snowballs and marshmallows.
“After tasting a few experimental proprietary drams from distilleries 11 and 15, Kai and I started discussing a concept that we referred to as ‘zebra casks’, imagining alternating staves of American and European oak forming a zebra pattern. In practice that’s not how they are coopered (and oak looks like oak, so there would be no pattern at all), but it was a nice image to explain the idea.
“We managed to create casks that harnessed the soft vanilla, coconut and banana flavours from the American oak and the more tannic, spicy and nutty flavours from European oak. A little bit like a sherry or fortified wine cask, but with a twist and more oak character.”
ABOVE: Seguin Moreau cooperage in France
Euan explains it’s all about “staying open-minded when looking for new profiles, but it has to be about flavour every time.”
The team went on to experiment with chinkapin oak after a visit at Raasay distillery where they tested an impressive sample from that type of cask. Other successful experiments were carried out with Caucasian oak and hand-selected high lactone oak supplied by the Seguin Moreau cooperage to help create Clementine Confit (small batch no 12). The list goes on.
Sometimes it’s also a matter of using different cask volumes to balance the activity of the wood. And if you get it just right, the results can be unforgettable.
Using a new European oak puncheon with a heavy toast and a medium char treatment, Cask No. 35.204: A squirrel’s dream has wowed quite a few members and sits at the top of Euan’s favourite experimental drams.
ABOVE: Cask No. 35.204: A squirrel’s dream captured by SMWS member Karsten Kirschner
As for future experiments, despite my direct line of questioning on the subject, leaving no doubt I was inquiring about specifics, Euan concludes: “The SMWS is a member of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, so we learn from their experiments too. We are always trying to push boundaries, and for me, the best way to do that is to start with extra maturation and use different spirit styles. Let’s see what we can do that’s a bit different. Go with the science? Yes, but ultimately follow your nose!”
A diplomatic reply, yes, certainly. But a wise one too. And I think it’s just as well. After all, whisky is always a matter of time, sometimes decades, so maybe allowing just a bit of mystery is exactly what we need to keep the fires of passion and curiosity burning.
It’s all about “staying open-minded when looking for new profiles, but it has to be about flavour every time”