Over recent months my accounts of procuring and enjoying spirits have almost turned into a kind of buyers’ guide, where I pick some criteria and evaluate what’s available before making a purchasing decision of my own. I’m doing that again this week, but this one was particularly taxing. How taxing? Well, let me tell you (slipping into Donald Trump there for a moment), so taxing that I nearly didn’t bother buying anything.
What are we looking for this week, then? Well, it’s going to be an Island malt and it has to be (at least partly) aged in an unusual kind of cask. So, what Island malts would we generally be looking at? Highland Park, Talisker, Arran, Scapa, Jura, Tobermory and Ledaig seems to cover it.
What do I mean by “unusual cask”? It needs to be something other than ex-bourbon and sherry. I mean, they’re all going to be partly aged in ex-bourbon casks I imagine, but sherry is just so yawn to me at the moment.
Now, on this occasion I’m looking to spend around forty to forty five quid, but I’ll exceed that if I see something that I absolutely have to have. But where do we start? I’m not looking for a Highland Park as I’ve tried quite a few of those, and they’re nearly all sherry cask whiskies. The 12 year old, as I always say is excellent, and the others [in my opinion] less so.
I also wasn’t looking for a Jura, since I haven’t been impressed previously with either the 10 year old or the Superstition. They’ve really done themselves no favours with those two as I can’t ever see myself being tempted to try any others. Had I been tempted (and willing to exceed £70) I might have gone for the 1996 Boutique Barrels which, while aged in ex-bourbon casks, was finished in a ‘Bourbon JN cask’. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds interesting now that it’s too late. It’s cask strength too – but still a bourbon cask.
Then there’s Tastival which has a shit name, but has been matured in ex-sparkling wine casks from Loire Valley’s Bouvet Ladubay. I’ve only just found that out, and if I’d given Jura a chance, I might have gone for that, but I suppose not at that price (80 quid).
Scapa only have one affordable expression, and that seems pretty standard, as does the 10 year old from Tobermory. Ledaig is an brand I’ve been impressed with before, but again, no cask finishes that are out of the ordinary.
Finally we get to a couple of distilleries that are offering options. Arran were offering reasonably priced varieties including Sauternes wine, madeira, port and amarone cask finishes. Master of Malt had a 2007 amarone cask finish at £90, while Amazon had a non-vintage one at £46. I think I found that all too confusing – why would one be well expensive and the other half the price? I didn’t want to wrestle with whether the cheaper one was going to be any good or not. I’ve tried a 14 year old single sherry cask Arran before and that was nice enough, though it hasn’t left a lasting impression.
So then you have Talisker. I like Talisker, having recently enjoyed the Skye expression and long been familiar with the 10 year old. In terms of cask finishes, Talisker were offering a Port Ruighe, so just port cask finish then.
I started looking for candidates a week or two before I was actually going to make a purchase, and those Arran expressions and the Talisker one made me optimistic, but when I started looking at user reviews, I wondered whether I wouldn’t be better directing my money toward something off-plan. So I ended up leaving it – only for a day or two, but finally I searched for independent blogger reviews, and it turned out that they were positive in their opinions of the Arran expressions. I didn’t get around to looking up the Talisker one for some reason, and finally, I went for the Arran Sauternes Cask at Master of Malt for £41.03, which for some reason qualified for free delivery. Why a wine cask finish instead of a port one? Well, I’m not a fan of port in general, and my all time favourite whisky so far has been the muscatel finished Caol IlaDistillers Edition, so I’m looking for something as special as that here.
So that’s what you’re looking at if you want an Island malt with a special cask finish.
So how is it?
At a generous 50 ABVs, I’ve found you need to add a couple of drops of water to soothe the burn on this one. I opened it when our friends Gav and Claire came round, and then accidentally left it outside on the deck all night, leading to an hilarious comedy panic when I went downstairs to feed the cat the following morning, and noticed my new whisky’s absence. I looked outside, but didn’t immediately see it. It was there, but it took a second search, and a few minutes of thinking, “goddamn it, the best part of fifty quid gone, and I can’t even remember what it tasted like”.
A few weeks later I accidentally doled out excessively generous measures to the participants in my Hero Quest night, that you’ll be able to read a bit more about in a few weeks.
Now, in spite of that interesting cask finish it doesn’t strike me as all that different to what I remember of the sherry cask finish that I mentioned earlier, and I’m afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it. It was nice enough, and it was decent value – better value in fact than that sherry cask one. You’d be looking at around £70 for a numbered, single sherry cask bottling, while it’s only around £40 for this one. At that price you’re not doing too badly, but that isn’t to say that you can’t get something more memorable for less – not something from the islands with an unusual finish for less, but what do you want? Do you want something memorable, or do you want to expand your horizons a little bit? I wanted to expand my horizons and I got a decent but not earth-shattering whisky for an acceptable price. Now go out and decide what kind of whisky you want to buy this month. I’ll be back next week to tell a story of a time I received excellent customer service.