Peter Ranscombe explores Cask 88’s new quarter cask series of whiskies finished in tiny barrels.
WANDER around enough distillery warehouses and the different sizes of wooden vessels used to age whisky will start to become familiar, from the standard 200-litre bourbon barrels through to the 250-litre hogsheads or “hoggies” and the giant 500-litre sherry butts.
Dotted around the floor, there could be a range of other weird and wonderful shapes, including Bordelaise barriques, port pipes and Madeira drums.
Then, tucked away in a corner, there just might be the most peculiar-looking barrel of all – the quarter cask.
As the name suggests, these tiny wooden gems are one quarter the size of standard bourbon barrels and so hold a modest 50 litres of spirit.
Here comes the science part – their small size means that a greater proportion of the liquid comes into contact with the wood, which results in a more intense flavour in the finished whisky.
That intensity tends to mean quarter casks are usually only used for “finishing” whisky; that brief period at the end of the liquid’s slumber when it might be transferred from the barrel or butt in which it’s spent 10 or 12 or more years ageing into a different vessel to impart some final flavours.
And that’s exactly what Cask 88 has done with its new quarter cask range.
The Edinburgh-based bottler and broker selected whiskies from four distilleries to be given the special treatment, with only 88 bottles of each being produced.
Creative whisky finishes are nothing new, from Bill Lumsden’s range of weird and wonderful concoctions at Glenmorangie to the ale cask finish from Grant’s that gave birth to oak-aged beer brand Innis & Gunn.
Yet it’s fascinating to see how bottlers like Cask 88 are continuing to innovate – and I can’t wait to see which barrels it will play with next.
Bladnoch 27 Year Old (£439)
Distilled in 1990 and placed into an ex-sherry hogshead, this whisky was finished in a single sherry quarter cask for nine months. A gorgeous caramel colour entices towards brown sugar, Christmas cake and cinder toffee on the nose, with lighter pine and citrusy lemon and lime notes. Lots of warmth from the 51.3% alcohol by volume (ABV) to wrap around Mars Bar-like flavours of caramel, milk chocolate and nougat, along with sultanas and malted brown bread.
Highland Park 14 Year Old (£189)
Highland Park’s hallmark balance of sweet, smoky, oily and floral shines through on the palate, with honey, caramel and smoky-TCP all in harmony. It gives away less than I would have expected on the nose – with some lemon notes in amongst the honey – but the flavours are really intense, with a salty twang on the finish. It also wears its 53.9% ABV relatively lightly. Seven months in a single sherry quarter cask followed a stretch in an ex-bourbon hogshead after distilling took place in 2003.
Caol Ila 9 Year Old (£189)
Never be fooled by its relatively-pale colour: a moment under the nostrils will confirm this is serious Scotch. Aromas of peat, heavily oak-smoked salmon and a warm leather armchair lead into a surprising freshness and liveliness on the palate, with the heavy smoke notes still allowing some green apple and toffee apple flavours to emerge. Lots of sweet honey too from nine months in a single sherry quarter cask following its distillation in 2008 and its years slumbering in a refill hogshead. Sweet and smoky on the finish.
Bunnahabhain 9 Year Old (£119)
A really distinctive – if slightly odd – nose featuring marzipan and a bit of rubber in amongst the caramel. Much more conventional on the tongue, with well-balanced milk chocolate, heather honey, spun sugar and earthy peat flavours. A refilled sherry butt was this spirit’s first home after it was distilled in 2008, with its final three months spent in a sherry quarter cask, adding those sweeter notes.