Monday, September 7, 2009

Bourbon Casks, Madeira Casks

Which casks to use? That's one of the pivotal questions facing Scotch producers. Unlike bourbon distillers, who must use a new cask made from a specific kind of wood and charred a particular way, Scotch makers have a fair number of options. It just needs to be oak. Some go for used Sherry casks. Many opt for used Bourbon casks. Less common choices are new oak, rum casks, port casks, beer casks and madeira casks.

The new Balvenie Madeira Cask 17-Year-Old was aged in (only one guess here, people)...Madeira casks. It's not that simple, however. It was first stashed in traditional whiskey oak barrels, then transferred for a final period to casks previously used for fortified Madeira wine. It's the latest in a series that has seen Balvenie release whiskey aged in Islay casks, new oak, Sherry casks, and Rum casks. The Madeira has a definite influence on the scotch here, lending it a silky, rich, honeyed texture and flavor. There's spice there, but it's tempered. Instead, the smooth caramel and orange flavors dominate. A relaxed, comfortably confident scotch.

The new Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph 1991, another new release, was aged mainly in Bourbon barrels. Every new whiskey these days is accompanied by a heavily embroidered story, but this booze's tale is more singular than most. A limited release of 1,500 cases, it is non-chill-filtered; all comes from one kind of barley, called "Triumph"; and all from casks filled back in 1991. Glenlivet doesn't grow Triumph anymore, so you won't see any more of this. According to Glenlivet, they were roaming around their 52 warehouses looking for something special to bottle when they stumbled upon the Triumph cache. (Doesn't it sometimes seem to you that liquid treasures are just lying everywere around the world's whiskey warehouses, just waiting to be rediscovered? Distillers sure are forgetful. It's like, "Oh, yeah, that! Forgot we had those 21-year-old barrels of priceless whiskey! Silly me. Well, let's bottle it."

This is a fine whiskey, savory, but ineffably light. It somehow floats in your mouth, somewhere between your tongue and your teeth. The nose is sweet and floral, with figs, raisins, vanilla and honey; complex, like a well-made pastry. Nutmeg, allspice, caramel and orange are on the palate. But, again, a little touch with every flavor.

The Glenlivet is priced at $80, the Balvenie is $120.

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