Additional maturation: Trick or treat?
The Society’s creativity in moving the contents of one cask to another to impart additional layers of flavour isn’t by any means a recent innovation. The Society’s Julien Willems reports on our history of additional maturation and what it means to members seeking an ever-increasing range of flavours
Night time is creeping early across the sky. Trees stretch their bare branches to the night, with forests of gnarly hands reaching up to pluck out the stars as if to drag them down and drown them in the mist and storm clouds. But for all its night-fuelled sorcery, autumn also brings forth a bountiful harvest of fruits, with late apples, wine and ranges of spices that complement and pair with those treats. This season, more than any other, presents a dual personality and is perceived through a different lens, depending on your inclinations. This brings to mind something that, very much like autumn, is often under-appreciated. So, this month we will be addressing the Society’s take on additional maturation.
It is probably worthwhile reviewing the difference between finishing and additional maturation. The Society’s method is generally called extra- or additional maturation, a term that we coined to distance ourselves from the vagueness inherent to the concept of ‘finishing’.
ABOVE: The Society’s work with additional maturation dates back to when Anne Dana was managing director in the 1980s
ABOVE: Euan and Kai in the Spirits Team compare tasting notes
We wanted members to understand that if ‘finishing’ is, as its detractors would have it, a relatively cheap quick win, the Society then obeys a different set of rules, and that required a different name. So here it is, additional maturation is a process that currently lasts at least two years, and often much longer. For some casks, however, we find that three years may be too long, but that is a different story.
While working at the Society’s Queen Street bar in 2016, I was introduced to the first ‘new wave’ of Society openly additionally-matured casks. This is about the time that the letters ‘HTMC’ for ‘high toast medium char’ started appearing on Society labels. And for many members this seemed to be quite a shock to the system. Reactions were split, as ever, into those who were stunned by a new level a flavour intensity and were keen to break with monotony, and those who took a bit longer to adopt the new flavours. In any case, this new type of monster suddenly seemingly popping out of the warehouse certainly got the conversation going.
A HISTORY OF INNOVATION
It is worth noting, however, that these additional maturations didn’t just appear on a whim, and they were far from the first additionally matured whiskies presented to Society members. As Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan reported when the Society was celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2018: “Bottling lists from as early as 1991 describe ‘an experiment’ with Cask No. 39.7 being decanted after 12 years in a second-fill fino cask into a really good oloroso cask, where it remained for two years. The result was described as ‘a very good whisky indeed’”.
ABOVE: Rachel Barrie provided her expertise on additional maturation to the Society
Then during the Society’s Glenmorangie years, SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo recalls that the then master blender, Rachel Barrie, and head of distilling and whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden, provided much expertise regarding extra maturation:
“Rachel would identify batches of casks for this and then select from a range of top-quality wood that Glenmorangie was buying for its own ‘extra matured range’”.
My personal favourite SMWS bottling, Cask No. 3.228: A Deep Brooding Masterpiece released in 2014, was in fact an additional maturation made during that period, a fact I only discovered only recently.
Back in my Queen Street bartender days, like today, I have heard it said ad nauseam that ‘finishing’ whisky is about putting bad whisky into an active cask to make it acceptable, second-rate whisky. But there is no more truth to that than in saying that single cask is always best. Blanket statements do not apply to this type of process. Indeed, in whisky maturation (additional or not) the results entirely depend on how things are done (the quality of spirit and cask) and why… and of course on a fair bit of luck. But isn’t that always the case? But why is it that extra/additional maturation is required? Let’s explore a few reasons why we choose to transfer a whisky to a new vessel.
LAYERS OF FLAVOUR
A whisky might be good on its own, but we have a lot of very similar casks. This is quite a common case as casks are often acquired in parcels rather than individually. For instance, if we buy 100 casks from the same vintage of the same make, in the same type of cask (and sherry casks are a rare find), it’s always good to plan for a bit of variety for members to enjoy. As Euan Campbell, head of whisky creation, explains: “Additional maturation allows us to get the best of multiple worlds. A distiller wanting a different product can change any number of factors such as recipe and distillation. We do not have this luxury as we work with maturing stocks. So, transferring a whisky to a different cask allows us to apply another layer of flavours, something that could otherwise only be achieved through blending.”
As serious as we are about additional maturation, it has also become a fun learning opportunity, we may choose to try out a new experimental cask to see how it impacts different whiskies. This provides a kind of proof of concept which lets us know if it’s worth committing to filling into this type of cask from the get-go. It also contributes to offering a wider variety of flavours to our members.
But can this be a trick? Is additional maturation used to hide flawed whisky? Well, no. If a whisky is clearly flawed or tainted you could use a dozen fresh casks on it, you’d only be wasting a dozen good casks for a result that would never be right. These casks would likely not be re-usable, carrying the same off notes as the flawed whisky. A well coopered barrel, hogshead or butt is an increasingly precious resource, and we do not like to waste.
A treat then? Since 2017, additional maturations from the Society have gone on to win no less than 123 awards (out of a total of 295) at some of the most renowned blind tasting whisky competitions out there, with 80 of the winning expressions striking gold medals or top awards. So, no shortage of quality or good flavours there. But like everything the Society has ever done, additional maturation has always ruffled a few feathers. To borrow a phrase from Kai Ivalo:
“Though you may try, you can never please everyone all the time.” While there is much truth to that, we’ll just keep trying!