Experiments have always played a role in whisky making, especially since the single malt boom took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With about a hundred distilleries in Scotland alone, it became neccessary to stand out from the crowd, if the ditstillery had higher goals than just to produce anonymous spirit for the blend industry. Turning a distillery name into a brand requires that the own products are perceived as different (and of course better) than the ones of the competitiors.
It All Started With Finishing
Until recently, most experiments were on the field of finishing which means refilling the whisky from its original maturation cask into another cask that previously been used to mature any other alcolholic drink for a relatively short period just before bottling. One of the pioneers in finishing were Glenmorangie whose early success was to be copied by many other distilleries and independent bottlers. Even American Bourbon distilleries now are more and more inclined to test the limits that restrictive US legislation sets to the maturation of bourbon whiskey.
The State of the Art
The last years have seen a broadening in the field of experimentation. Apart from the ever-popular finishing there are now
- Single Malts matured in fresh oak casks, like Bunnahabhain Darach Úr
- “Finishing” with heavily toasted cask components, like Compass Box Spice Tree
- Vattings of peated and unpeated malts of the same distillery, like Jura Superstition
- Smaller casks used for faster maturation, like Laphroaig Quarter Cask
- Releases of “underage” sprits and newmake, like from Glenglassaugh or Kilchoman
- Extreme “peat monsters” that push the phenol content to new levels, like Ardbeg Supernova or Bruichladdich Octomore
For some distilleries, notably Bruichladdich, this has led to a portfolio of bottlings that can only be described as “flamboyant”. But as long as the whisky lovers back up this trend by buying these experimental bottles, I see no reason not to take experimenting a step further.
Just as a side note, the diversification of product portfolios is absolutely not restricted to the whisky industry. I think it is a general global trend. Just recently I counted the number of different varieties of 100 g cocolate tablets from renowned Swiss manufacturer Lindt at our local supermarket. There were more than 50, not taking into account other Lindt products like variety boxes and other confectionery.
Ideas for the Future
With a bit of imagination, it is not difficult to come up with ideas for new experimets in whisky production.
1. Pushing the Limits
There are quite a few possibilities for exeriments that are compliant with the current regulations on making whisk(e)y, like for example:
- Why not try a peated single grain?
- Make a single blend from 50% pot still grain and 50% malt whisky and let it age for 12 years or more.
- A Scotch rye whisky from a sherry cask could be very intriguing (legal as long as there is also some malted barley involved).
- Let your cooperage rebuild casks with alternating staves from sherry and bourbon hogsheads for combined sherry/bourbon maturation.
- Use other fuels for malting like beech or wood from fruit trees.
- Americans could try hickory or mesquite smoked malted corn or barley in their mashes.
2. Beyond Whisky
For distilleries that are not afraid of not being allowed to label their spirit as “Whisky”, there are even more options:
- Use different types of wood for casks, like hickory, chestnut or cherry. Perhaps as additional staves in oak casks.
- Use 100% malted grain other than barley
- Re-distill your newmake after letting it infuse with botanicals or other ingredients (“Ginsky”)
- Make “whisky grappa” from the mash residue and let it mature like whisky
Of course none of these ideas is guaranteed to work, but hey, that’s why they are experiments.