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Cask Management and Whisky Quality

by Oliver Klimek on October 13, 2009

In my last post about bastard malts I touched the question how difficult it is to recognize the distillery of an undisclosed malt. Taking this thought a step further leads to an interesting conclusion about cask management.

Let me pick up and recapitulate that point on a broader basis: A distillery standard bottling gains its distinctive character by careful selection of the casks that are used for mixing the batches that are to be bottled. The distillery master blender might for example choose 20% refill oloroso sherry butts and 80% first fill bourbon hogsheads for their 12yo. If the distillery manages to maintain the supply of casks and to ensure continuity in their new spirit production, it should not be difficult to minimize batch variation over the years. All standard bottlings put together, this is what whisky drinkers will recognize as “distillery profile”.

Now every distillery has their own “recipes” for making their standard bottlings, which often leads to clearly discernible distillery profiles. For example it’s fairly easy to tell an Laphroaig 10 from an Ardbeg 10 or Caol Ila 12.

But as soon as random batches or single casks are sold to the independents and bottled as undisclosed malts, things are not so obvious anymore. Almost certainly a debate will evolve which distillery the malt might be from. This means nothing less than this: Whiskies from different distilleries whose basic production parameters differ not too much are to be considered equivalent.

Still we have some distilleries that are constantly rated higher than others on their original bottlings, Ardbeg and Caol Ila being a prime example for this. What is the reason for this?

In my opinion, cask management makes all the diference. Proper cask management is twofold: At first, it is about selecting the best possible casks for storage after distillation in the first place. The second aspect is selecting the best casks from the aged stock for bottling.

It is the second point that is most crucial for the final quality of the bottled whisky. A good selection makes or breaks it. Connected to this is also the decision which casks are to be sold to blenders or independent bottlers. With all due respect to the role of the master distiller, the job of a distillery master blender is just as important. And only god knows how many fabulous casks may have been drowned in blends because the contents often is only nosed and not tasted. John Hansell recently had an excellent blog post on that topic.

If both master distiller and master blender are good at their jobs, they team up to create a work of art called whisky.

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