When is a whisky ready to bottle?
One of the questions we are commonly asked is how we decide when a cask is ready to bottle, as well as how we go about finding ‘good’ casks in the first place. After all, it can be difficult to guess how a whisky might one day turn out when it is only a few years old; this is by no means an exact science. The fact that prices of casks have been on the rise only adds to the pressure. What if we were to wait just a couple more years? Might we get more ‘bang’ for our buck? Or could the spirit lose its ‘x-factor’, becoming dominated by overtones of oak and vanilla, or losing that peated edge that made it stand out in the first place?
The answer to this is kind of complicated, as there are a lot of things to consider. Since we’re most often asked at busy tasting events or whisky festivals, we thought this would be a good place to get into some detail.
As a general rule the quality of the final whisky is the top priority, though naturally there are certain practicalities to consider as well. To give an example, we had a cask of Ben Nevis a few years ago which, despite only being nineteen-years-old at the time, was reaching a dangerously low level in alcoholic strength. One of the many regulations in bottling Scotch whisky is that it must be kept above 40% alcohol-by-volume (otherwise it may not be labelled as Scotch at all). We expect the notorious ‘angels’ share’ to apply to every maturing cask, but this also is an imperfect science and will result in different degrees of evaporation in every cask (Scotland’s generally damp climate causes the alcohol within each cask to evaporate faster than the water, resulting in weaker whisky with each passing year). As this particular Ben Nevis was already approaching the 40%abv cut-off point, bottling it became a matter of priority. Fortunately, it was generally considered to have remained a tasty dram, so the Angels were forgiven, and we didn't have to find another home for the cask.
In most instances, though, quality of the liquid is the determining factor, rather than dates, costs, alcoholic strength and so on - it's simply a matter of biding our time. Since this is of course a matter of subjective opinion, each decision is a group effort. Our ‘cask review committee’ is as small as it is opinionated, as well as being distributed across a number of time zones.
Step one is to assemble some samples from each cask to be reviewed, which will usually be arranged by myself; as they say, it is a tough job but someone’s got to do it. One of the other regulations is that all Scotch whisky must be matured in Scotland, which has resulted in a huge number of casks being crammed into our wee nation. As the only member of the team permanently based in Scotland, it’s generally easiest if samples are catalogued by myself, a ‘shortlist’ then being sent on to the rest of the team for review.
Once we’ve all had a chance to take an evening sipping some drams and writing notes, what follows is a lively exchange of frank opinions by email, instant messengers and phone calls. Fortunately, we tend to agree more often than not, so decisions aren’t too difficult. We each have our preferences and ‘areas of expertise’; for example, I am a big fan of anything heavily peated but have never possessed much of a liking for first-fill sherry casks, which will be more closely analysed by other members of the team.
Another element of the process that makes things a little easier is our tendency to have multiple casks of the same age from the same distillery. This way we can measure their maturation over time and bottle a couple of different expressions for different outcomes. For example, we might bottle two sister casks together, providing an interesting comparison of how much impact a cask has on maturing spirit, or we can happily bottle one cask, knowing that we still have the chance to enjoy an older age statement in the future.
At the end of the day, we try to bottle what we as a group enjoy drinking – in the very worst case scenario in which nobody else agrees and we have an abundance of un-sold stock, we’ll at least have some whiskey to enjoy! Fortunately, it hasn’t come to this yet. Sticking to this philosophy we’ve been able to strike lucky with a number of expressions. I for one was a big fan of our first cask of Macduff, bottled in 2017 when the cask was nineteen years old. Numerous people have asked why we didn’t hold on to this one for just one more year, twenty being a nice round number. The truth is that I simply liked the heat that this scotch had at cask strength; being a 1st fill bourbon cask there was an intensity and sweetness matching the heavy fruitiness of the spirit. Any more time and that balance might have been lost.
Not much later we had to consider some younger whiskies; another cask from Glen Moray and our first ever cask of Royal Brackla, at just ten and eleven years, respectively. At that point we hadn’t bottled many casks at this age, not because there’s anything at all wrong with younger age statements, but simply because none had caught our attention as being exceptional. These two, however, were already so memorable that we wanted to preserve them exactly as we found them.
As it turns out, these three whiskies were all recently shortlisted for the final round by the Scottish Whisky Awards panel, which was a very nice surprise indeed! We have always maintained that it’s best to let a good whisky speak for itself and not be too distracted by age statements and the like.
All of our whiskies are bottled because we ourselves enjoy them, and we’ll continue to search for new favourites that we can bottle in the future, but it’s always reassuring when other whisky enthusiasts agree! We always enjoy discussing our drams with fellow whisky lovers at tastings, exhibitions and festivals, so be sure to say hello if you catch us at an event, or join the conversation on social media!