As we’ve established, when you add 100 Scotch bonnet chilli peppers to a cask of whisky, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regulations declare that you can no longer refer to the contents of the cask using the W word. In this feature from Unfiltered issue 44 in August 2019, Tom Bruce-Gardyne investigated why some casks are allowed for maturation, and why others are strictly taboo
MAIN PHOTO: JEREMY SUTTON-HIBBERT
The architect Sir Richard Rogers enjoys reminding critics of modern architecture, such as Prince Charles, about the story of St Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren’s designs apparently so scandalised his contemporaries in early 18th century London, the famous dome had to be hidden from view during its construction. Before long, it was a national treasure, much like the Eiffel Tower, whose critics dismissed it as ‘a truly tragic street lamp’ when completed in 1889. The moral is simple; don’t rush to judgement and never forget that everything was once a novelty.
This is no less true of Scotch whisky and the casks used to mature it.
“At what point does tradition start?”
asks Brian Kinsman, William Grant & Sons’ master blender.
“If you go way back, bourbon barrels were never traditional, and then became so.”
It was thanks to America’s Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 which ruled that bourbon had to be aged in new oak. The move was reportedly in response to lobbying by the coopers’ unions, to safeguard jobs during the Great Depression. An unforeseen consequence was to give those thrifty Scots a whole new source of cheap wood for their whisky. Barely a barrel would have made it from Kentucky to Scotland before then, whereas today the Scotch industry relies on this source for 95 per cent of its needs. Were the law on bourbon maturation to change, its biggest rival would be in dire straits, but let’s not give anyone ideas.
ABOVE: Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons
ABOVE: traditional casks mature in a dunnage warehouse
A TRADITION IS BORN
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) wasn’t around to challenge the non-traditional use of bourbon barrels in 1935. The Association was founded seven years later and Alan Park, its current legal director, explains: “What is allowed in law becomes traditional through common usage over time. ‘Traditionally’ as defined in EU law is what is long-standing and has been in continuous use.”
In terms of cask maturation for Scotch, he says that means “oak casks which were previously used to mature still wine, fortified wine, beer, whisky, grape brandy and rum”.
The relevant EU regulations, which date from 1989, appear to have set those traditions in stone. Like the ban on bendy bananas and other EU myths, it’s enough to make a Brexiteer’s blood boil. (Just for the record; EC regulation 2257/94 never mentioned the word ‘straight’, and merely stated that bananas should be ‘free from malformation or abnormal curvature’.)
Back to casks, where the SWA is constantly questioned about what is allowed. To help clarify the matter, it drafted an amendment after consulting its members last autumn followed by a public consultation in May. Among other things, casks that had held anything fermented or distilled from stone fruits are taboo. Nor can you invent a tradition for a spirit not typically wood-aged, as Alan Park explains: “You can’t decide ‘I’m going to make ouzo in a cask so I can then use it to mature Scotch’.”
The amendment’s final clause states:
“Regardless of the type of cask used, the resulting product must have the traditional colour, taste and aroma characteristics of Scotch whisky.”
ABOVE: Alan Park from the Scotch Whisky Association
ABOVE: Brian inspects a Glenfiddich cask
In January 2018, a breathless report in The Wall Street Journal revealed a ‘top-secret plot by a multinational company to challenge hundreds of years of tradition’.
The company was Diageo and the ‘plot’ was to age its whisky in tequila casks. The scoop was regurgitated by the UK press, with The Daily Mail provoking dark comments about ‘tequila whisky’, and The Times screaming: ‘Whisky purists slam tequila barrel recipe to entice younger drinkers’. Years ago, I wrote an article on whisky’s appeal to a younger generation of Spaniards. It appeared beneath some hardy perennial headline like ‘Scotch on the Rocks’, beside a picture of an old, morose-looking Scotsman nursing a dram on his own in a backstreet boozer.
This disconnect that happens in newspapers is mirrored by the gap that can exist between production and marketing in Scotch whisky. Brian Kinsman feels fortunate to work for William Grant’s, where he says: “The ops team who make the whisky are really in charge of the liquid.”
He puts this down to the firm’s family-ownership, and though he sees examples of the marketing tail wagging the dog in other firms, he has faith in the consumer. “I think people buying Scotch whisky probably aren’t taken in by the more PR-centric products,” he says.
ABOVE: Iain McAlister, Glen Scotia
SCOPE FOR INNOVATION
It seems that the new proposed amendment from the SWA will allow casks like tequila or calvados, though such whiskies will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Brian has no issue with their use so long as it is done in good faith. “If it’s purely a gimmick and to generate a bit of press, that can’t be good for the category. But if the whisky’s enhanced – what’s the problem with that?”
Down in Campbeltown, Glen Scotia’s manager Iain McAlister agrees. “I’m quite open-minded,” he says.
“There are certain rules and regulations that should be followed, but as casks go, I think why not?”, adding that maybe it would be best to introduce such innovation slowly.
Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Dr Jim Beveridge OBE, believes that within the rules: “There has to be room for some degree of innovation,” and that “Scotch can’t afford to sit still.”
But he goes on to say: “The Scotch whisky industry is very clear; we mustn’t be seen to be flavouring whisky. For me, cask finishing is always best thought of as what the previous fill does in terms of conditioning the wood.
“If it’s a port cask, it’s not the port but what the port did to the wood. I think it’s really important as producers we take that line. To infer that we’re adding the flavours of port to whisky is a very dangerous place to be.”
ABOVE: Dr Jim Beveridge OBE
Brian agrees that the focus should be on the wood itself and says: “I’m totally in the camp that it’s 100 per cent about the oak – the previous contents are almost negligible.”
However, Ron Welsh, Beam Suntory’s master blender who helped draft the new rules, takes issue with that last point. In his view: “The previous contents have quite a large part to play in the enhancement of flavours in Scotch whisky.”
As proof he says you can detect subtle differences in the same whisky depending on whether the casks used came from one bourbon distillery or another.
The previous fill is certainly the way many malts promote themselves, with labels that shout ‘sherry’, ‘port’, ‘sauternes’ or whatever is the flavour of the month.
ABOVE: Ron Welsh, Beam Suntory
It will be interesting to see how the first tequila cask whiskies are marketed when they appear. Any brand that slips a cactus or sombrero onto to its label is liable to be laughed off the shelf, but hopefully no-one will be that crass.
Ron Welsh is confident that the industry will behave responsibly and not be too radical when it comes to wood. By contrast he points to the George Dickel bourbon finished in a Tabasco barrel. Far worse is Fishky – a single cask Bruichladdich that its German owners finished in an ex-herring cask.
“The taste reveals all,” wrote Mark Gillespie of whiskycast.com “with sour butyric baby vomit, brine and stomach acid.” It’s safe to say that is one novelty unlikely to become a tradition.
This article first appeared in Unfiltered issue 44 in August 2019, all titles and information correct at the original time of publication