A special finish gives a superior malt whisky, aged for up to 10 years and then finished in used spirit or wine barrels for extra flavour, writes IAN WISNIEWSKI

IT was a revelation. Three malts, and I wanted more of the same. But then the point of the tasting, led by Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s head of distilleries and maturation, was to show just how special a special finish can be.

As part of a growing portfolio of malt whisky styles, including cask strength, single-barrel, vintage and longer-matured malts, special finishes are the most creative and comprehensive, yet Glenmorangie only pioneered this style as recently as 1994.

A special finish is applied to mature malt whisky (usually at least 10 years old) by transferring it into a specific type of cask for a finishing period (secondary maturation). The influence of this cask, during a period that may last between six months and two years, can be tailored either to add a ‘garnish’ of complementary notes to the malt, or attain a deeper integration, while retaining the malt’s original character.

This concept isn’t new. During the 19th and early 20th century, malt whisky was shipped to colonials around the British Empire in cask rather than bottle. Meanwhile, casks of fortified wine arriving at Scottish ports such as Leith were bottled locally, resulting in an abundance of empty casks. Re-using them was the obvious thing to do and, filled with malt whisky, they were dispatched back to Leith. As several months could easily pass between casks being filled with malt and being emptied at a distant port, malts gained additional characteristics en route.

Just how a malt evolves during a finishing period reflects various factors. Lighter malts show the influence of a finishing cask more than fuller-bodied or heavily peated malts. The skill lies in reaching an ‘appropriate’ influence, and a balance between the malt’s original character and notes from the cask.

Regulations stipulate that the choice of finishing casks must be ‘traditional’. As distilleries originally re-used casks in which various wines and spirits were shipped to the UK, this is hardly restrictive. Whatever the cask, it is usually a ‘first fill’, which refers to it being filled with malt whisky for the first time. For the main maturation period, casks previously used to age bourbon and sherry are the standard choice, typically filled (used) up to three or four times before being made redundant. The significance is that each ‘fill’ sees a correspondingly milder influence from the oak, and the cask’s previous incumbent.

Regulations stipulate that casks must be drained of any residual liquid before being filled with malt whisky, but the residual liquid ‘absorbed’ by the barrel staves is exempt from this. Up to 10 litres may be present in a 500l sherry butt. Technically ‘wood-extractive liquid’, as it contains flavours derived from the oak and traces of the previous incumbent (sherry, Madeira, port, or whatever), most of this is released into the malt whisky during the first fill, contributing a significant influence.

Glenmorangie’s inaugural port cask finish was released in 1994, followed by a Madeira and sherry cask finish in 1996, for malt matured for at least 10 years in bourbon barrels. Having a natural affinity with malt whisky, fortified wine casks led the category, though a comprehensive range has followed. This includes regularly available styles, while limited-edition bottlings create a ‘buy now or regret it’ frisson among the malt community.

Special finishes using wine casks span various regions and grape varieties, with Glen Moray’s varietal spin comprising a Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay finish. What can a cask that contained the world’s most popular grape variety add to malt whisky? ‘The main body is essentially Glen Moray, with a bit more fruit from the finishing cask, which comes through more in the aftertaste, with soft fruit, peach skins and a pleasant, grapey tang,’ says Lumsden.

Specific regions of Burgundy provided casks for Glenmorangie’s 1975 Côte de Nuits Wood Finish and the Côte de Beaune Wood Finish, while the 1981 Sauternes Wood Finish marked Glenmorangie’s inaugural use of dessert wine casks. This 20-year-old Glenmorangie spent its final two and a half years in casks that had held the most celebrated, premier grand cru white wine, from Bordeaux’s renowned Sauternes region. The result is a beautiful Scottish-French relationship.

Continental spirits

France has also provided spirit casks for finishing, with Gordon & MacPhail’s Private Collection series featuring a Cognac and a Calvados finish, each applied to two single malts, Caol Ila from Islay, and Imperial from Speyside, creating four permutations.

Cuban rum casks are behind The Glenfiddich Havana Reserve 21-year-old, while The Balvenie Islay Cask 17-year-old spends time in casks that previously matured an Islay malt. The resulting character comprises, ‘around 70–75% of The Balvenie, and maybe 25% is the effect of the finishing cask, giving a small hint of peat to The Balvenie which retains the classic vanilla, honey and fruitiness,’ says David Stewart, Wm Grant & Sons’ chief blender.

While new, unused oak casks are not appropriate for the main maturation period – new oak would overwhelm the spirit – the short timeframe of a special finish yields some highly desirable results.

The Glenlivet offers a trans-Atlantic experience with the 12-year-old available in an American oak finish and a French oak finish. As each is a different species of oak, quercus alba and quercus roba respectively, they offer individual influences.

‘The grain in European oak is softer and more porous, so it takes the spirit less time to interact than with American oak. It’s the degree of influence that matters, adding a layer of flavour that complements the whisky itself,’ says Jim Cryle, The Glenlivet’s master distiller.

The Glenlivet’s original character has vanilla, honeyed sweetness, soft fruit
(particularly peaches) and floral notes. The new American oak finish amplifies the vanilla character, and adds a balanced dry oakiness, while the new French oak finish, makes the palate a little drier and lends some tannin, which enhance The Glenlivet’s floral, spicy oak character.

How much more specialised special finishes become remains to be seen, though with a devoted following constantly asking ‘what’s next?’ the onus is on distillers to keep innovating. But however rarified this may become – an ‘organic single-vineyard late-harvest cask finish’, for instance – if they don’t deliver on the palate, then special finishes could find themselves finished rather than special.

Ian Wisniewski is a freelance spirits writer.

RECOMMENDED SPECIAL FINISH MALTS

Glenfiddich, Havana Reserve 21 year old
Vanilla pod grows on the nose with crème brûlée, toffee, gingerbread, cloves, rich dried fruit, honey, dark chocolate and orange zest. The palate has mellow toffee, crème caramel and vanilla followed by gingerbread, cloves, light oak, and rich fruit with vanilla custard. Fresh lime with a digestive biscuit note on the finish.
£49.98–59; Sai, WhC, WhE

Glenmorangie, 1981 Sauternes Wood Finish
On the nose, lusciously honeyed, vanilla, apples baked with cinnamon, tarte tatin and lemon meringue and marzipan. The palate is rich with balancing dryness, while retaining freshness. Honeyed, vanilla, tarte tatin, lemon meringue creaminess and coconut on the palate.
£125–150; Odd, WhE

Glenmorangie, Côte de Beaune Wood Finish
Initial toffee, fudge, cooked red fruit notes on the nose with plums, currants and underlying honeyed vanilla. Ripe plums, creamy toffee, cinnamon and brioche with fruit syrup embrace the palate. Hazelnut and a hint of clove in the finish.
£59–59.95; Odd, WhE

The Glenlivet, French Oak Finish, 12 year old
The nose has a rich fruit compote poached with vanilla, dried apricots and citrus zest, buttery fudge, with supple, lightly spicy oak. The palate is elegant with balanced spicy oak, and a medley of poached fruit with cloves, custard, gingerbread, fudge and crème brûlée, with dark chocolate and espresso emerging.
£24.99–26; Odd, Maj, WhC, WhE

The Balvenie, Islay Cask 17 year old
Beguiling partnership of light, wafting smoke and honey, accompanied by
vanilla pod, acacia honey, and ripe, dried apricot fill the nose, while the palate contains acacia honey and vanilla animated by gentle smoke, extending with poached fruit, and a hint of lemon. Lemon and dried fruit unite in the finish.
£59.99; WhC, WhE

Written by Ian Wisniewski