At its simplest, ‘finishing’ a whisky is a second period of maturation in a different type of cask, usually (but not always) for a limited amount of time – from a few months to a few years. The aim is to bring complexity and new layers of flavour, adding character to the original without overpowering it.
It’s a relatively new but now hugely popular technique among distillers. Historically, the most commonly used ‘finish’ was to take a bourbon-matured whisky and put it into ex-Sherry wood, but the world of finishes has now expanded to encompass all kinds of casks, including wines of every type, Port, Madeira, Cognac, rum and even beer.
That makes it a complex and potentially confusing area for the whisky lover to navigate, but also a fascinating and richly rewarding one. Here are eight of the best whiskies finished in casks to consider.
Top cask finish whiskies to try
Aberfeldy 18 Year Old Finished in French red wine casks
After only a few months in red wine casks sourced from Pauillac, this has taken on coppery-red hints and a pronounced character of plush, fleshy red fruits in vanilla custard. There’s a floral element too – lily and rose petal – before dried fruit, black pepper and a tangy, oxidative edge. Mouthfilling and highly enjoyable. Alc 43%
Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood
There are arguments about who ‘invented’ finishing, but Balvenie’s David Stewart MBE was certainly one of the pioneers. This has been around for more than 25 years, and is firmly established as a classic, thanks to a heady mixture of rich red fruits, patisserie scents, praline and waves of honey and vanilla. Alc 40%
Compass Box Peat Monster Arcana
Is this technically a finish? Take Compass Box’s much-loved Peat Monster blended malt, leave it in French oak for two-plus years, then combine with Talisker, Miltonduff and Ardbeg. No matter – that French oak adds a touch of refinement to the mix of maritime and earthy smoke. A relatively polite and approachable monster. Alc 46%
This was the Highland distillery’s Private Edition bottling in 2017, and showcases the unparalleled skills of arch-experimenter Dr Bill Lumsden. Regular Glenmorangie was taken out of bourbon casks after about eight years, then spent a couple more in specially seasoned Malmsey Madeira wood. Warming black and blue fruit, an exotic, silky syrupiness and – the key to balance – some wood spice and walnut. Alc 46%
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Finish
Port casks are tricky beasts for distillers to play around with: all too often, the result is a pinkish, soupy concoction that shows neither cask nor whisky in their best light. This whisky from Taiwan, however, is an honourable exception, taking Kavalan’s top-notch distillate and spooning on layers of raspberry and red apple, with a pleasing counterpoint of honey, ginger and vanilla. Alc 40%
Talisker 8 Year Old Rum Finish (Special Releases 2020)
One of Diageo’s 2020 Special Releases, this island malt is an exercise in restraint: the rum cask (Jamaican pot still) adds texture, breadth and a little sweetness, but never detracts from Talisker’s unmistakable and superlative distillate. Smoky, saline, grassy, earthy, tarry, with a pinch of nose-prickling pepper. Enervating. Alc 57.9%
Teeling Stout Cask
Some casks can exert a huge influence in a small space of time, risking the sacrifice of balance for character. This Irish whiskey only spends a few months in Teeling casks used by the Galway Bay Brewery to mature its 200 Fathoms imperial stout, but that time adds pronounced notes of black cherry, prune and treacle to the blend’s honeyed cereal core. Alc 46%
Whisky Works Quartermaster 11 Year Old
Whisky Works is the experimental arm of Dalmore and Jura owner Whyte & Mackay, and this blend combines Highland grain, Speyside malts and four different maturation regimes. It’s a complicated way to arrive at an straightforwardly approachable, versatile whisky, filled with redcurrant and red apple notes, plenty of sweetness and a malty edge that evokes dusty books in an old library. Alc 46.4%