the whisky lounge - a journal tracking a whisky maturation project involving a newly-acquired oak cask and a significant amount of patience

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Quick Note from Above

Hi folks,

Barry Stein from Premium Bottlers, the makers of the Whisky Works kit that inspired this blog, posted a comment on the ageing speed and a couple other things. It's definitely worth a read, so if you're not in the habit of regularly checking the comments of this blog, here's a link:

Only a few more days until the first taste-test of the whisky!

A-quiver with excitement,


Monday, January 28, 2008

A Wrinkle In Time

So, in spite of my best efforts, I learned something over the last few days. It happened because I was curious to find out what the difference in the surface-area to volume ratio was between my 1-litre cask and a generic 200-litre cask. My goal was to figure out how long to leave the whisky in the cask to get ten years' worth of maturation.

Last Thursday, believe it or not, I went on a quest to find a mathematician. I happened to be fortunate enough to find Dr Jonathan Scott, a world-renowned topologist currently based here in Ottawa. ("Topologist," by the way, is fancy math-speak for someone who studies surfaces. Don't worry - I don't fully understand it either) I described the situation to the good doctor, and he said he'd have a think and write me back with an answer.

In the interim, reader Will wrote in with his own solution to the question and posted it in the comments of this blog. A couple days later, Dr Scott wrote me back and confirmed that Will has mad math skillz: they both got the same answer.

Their answer was that the increase in the surface-area to volume ratio was approximately fivefold in the smaller cask. This means that I can expect ten year's worth of maturation in about two years. Yes, that's right: years, not months.

Is this a problem? I don't know. I'm a very patient man, but I'm also a remarkably thirsty one.

So I had a think. I remembered that the purveyors of the Whisky Works kit I purchased suggested the whisky would be sufficiently matured after a few months. I also remembered the website that reader Alex pointed me at which claimed that one could expect 1 to 1.5 years' worth of maturation in 1 month when using a smaller cask.

Now, I'm no math whiz, but I do understand that ten years' ageing in two years is the same as five years' ageing per calendar year. Which is (5 virtual years divided by 12 calendar months) 0.4167 maturation years per month. I'm pretty sure that 1 to 1.5 years per month claimed by the barrel and whisky merchants is not the same as 0.4167 years per month calculated by our resident math geniuses.

So what in tarnation is going on here? I can only estimate that there are additional factors at play in the speed at which whisky matures: it cannot be solely barrel size or else the mathematicians and the coopers would be in agreement. But it didn't solve my problem: why can't anyone tell me how long to leave the whisky in the cask until it's at least as mature as a 10-year-old scotch?

And so, much like an ancient Athenian supplicating himself before the prophetess at Delphi, I found myself turning to the greatest source of wisdom our age has to offer: the Internet.

What I learned was this: the age of a whisky, while of interest, is also far too little information to really be of any real use. It's true. Here's why:

Some distillers will age their whisky in unmodified 55-gallon bourbon barrels. These are just over 208 litres. Some distillers will modify these barrels by adding extra staves to bring them up to 250 litres, which will have the effect of slowing down maturation due to the lower surface area to volume ratio. However, sometimes distillers will insert staves running right through the middle of the barrel, thereby increasing the ratio and accelerating maturation.

Whisky is also frequently aged in sherry butts which hold an astonishing 500 litres, and therefore make their contents mature very slowly. Also frequent is the use of hogsheads which are 250 litres, but a slightly different shape than the modified bourbon barrels.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, whisky is moved from barrel to barrel over its maturation. think of "sherry finish" whisky. It starts in a barrel that didn't hold sherry (most likely a bourbon barrel, modified or otherwise), then gets poured into a cask that did contain sherry, which might or might not be the same volume as its first cask.

With every distillery using their own maturation methods for their own ranges of products, it's not really feasible to declare that a 10-year-old scotch from distillery A is anywhere near the same maturity as a 10-year-old from distillery B. Unless you know the entire history of the spirit that ended up in your bottle, you can only use its age as an estimate of its maturity, not a concrete indicator.

The end result for me is that there isn't really a target date for the removal of the whisky in my cask. I will never be able to say that it's had the equivalent of 10, 15 or 18 years of maturation at any point because those numbers mean different things to different distillers (and even to different whiskies from the same distillery).

The way this shakes out is that my whisky will be ready to drink on whatever day I take out a sample, have a sip, and decide that it's so good it deserves another round.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Much Like a Zombie, I Want Your Brains

Fear not: I'm not interested in your brains for their tastiness. I said I was like a zombie, not that I was a zombie. I'm interested in your brains because they contain many interesting things that mine does not.

Take one reader, Will, who very kindly wrote in with a mathematical equation to calculate the surface-area to volume ratio (though this is for a cylinder, so it's a tad off, he says; I understand math scarcely at all, so I take his word for it):

A/V = 2(r+h)/rh = 2(4.5/2 + 6.5)/(4.5*6.5/2) = 17.5/14.625 = 1.197/inch, or 0.471/cm.

That's for a 1-litre cask. A 200 litre cask has a ratio of 0.233.../in, or 0.0919/cm, which is, as Will says, much smaller.

Or take my friends who are aficionados of making beer and cider at home. In speaking with them about the project, we got to wondering what it would be like to do things like brew a batch of beer (maybe an IPA) and oaking it, with hops tossed straight into the cask, or what cider would be like after maturation in a barrel. I think it would be like an apple jack or maybe a calvados, though I don't really know. Well worth trying, I think. One of my friends got a glint in his eye which only ever appears when he believes he has a cunning plan. I think we'll see a barrel or three at his place in the near future, hopefully filled with sweet, delicious beverages for the sharing...

The End, and The Beginning

"It's almost like a tawny port"

"Oh, that's stunning"

"You suck"

These are just some of the phrases tossed about the other night when I had a couple friends over for dinner. I decided to spread the joy and remove the sherry from the cask in the presence of some of my posse, amidst serving dinner and delivering a crushing defeat in a game of Scrabble. I think J was speaking of my use of the word QI when she piped up with "You suck." The other comments I'm pretty sure had to do with the sherry.

I've never had tawny port, so I don't know what it's like other than it's vaguely like the sherry I matured. The sherry was pretty much the same as when I'd tested it on Wednesday, so I don't think we need yet another description other than to say it was tasty and well-received. J noticed that it had nice legs. A denser body than the un-matured spirit.

In any case, this marks the glorious end of the sherry campaign of 2008. It also signals the beginning of the hopefully even more glorious whisky expedition. I'll start examining the whisky on weekends so you can expect a new experiment-related post each Sunday.

I hope that the remarkable and rapid transformation of the sherry is a harbinger of good things to come for the whisky.

With fingers crossed,


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Notes from Abroad

Yesterday, a reader from Vancouver wrote in to say that he was going to give an oak cask a shot as well. Unsure if he could find the Whisky Works kit that I got my hands on, he managed to find a solution I thought I'd pass on to you.

Thousand Oaks Barrel Co has several different cask sizes available, including 1-litre. I'd been able to find 2-litre and larger barrels in wine-making supply stores from a variety of manufacturers, but I've not found a 1-litre anywhere. The price of the cask, including shipping to Vancouver from the United States, was in the neighbourhood of $40. For comparison, the smallest cask I can get in Ottawa is a 2-litre barrel for $85 at a couple of wine-supply stores.

The website above had another few bits of information I think are useful:

Barrels need to be periodically cleaned. It makes sense, but it isn't something I'd thought about beforehand. The Thousand Oaks folks sell a special kit to do the job, but I wonder if it's just a mixture of common chemicals. Why buy a kit if it's just something like epsom salts and hydrogen peroxide?If I can find out the answer, I'll let you know.

They also suggest re-charring the barrel with a butane torch placed through the bung and / or spigot holes. Good to know. Now I just need to find a butane torch.

The ageing speed of a small barrel is not as rapid as I had thought. They suggest that a small barrel will provide the equivalent oaking of 1-1.5 years in a month. What I don't know is what they classify as a "small" barrel. I looked at a graph of the change in ratio of surface area to volume as containers change in size, but not shape. It's nearly a hyperbolic distribution, meaning that the difference in the ratio between a 1-litre and 2-litre cask is several orders of magnitude greater than the difference between a 200-litre and 201-litre cask. So perhaps they were basing their assessment of 1-1.5 years per month on a 2- or 3-litre cask. Who knows? If you happen to be skilled at math (I am remarkably inept at dealing with numbers) please let me know what the difference in ratio would be between a 1- and a 200-litre barrel: it would be useful to know.

Thanks to Alex Huang in Vancouver for pointing me in the direction of the above info. Good luck with your cask!

And to my readers in Germany: Guten Tag! Sorry I can't write in German for you, but my mastery of that language begins and ends with being able to ask someone's name and to tell them I have a beer belly. Sorely inadequate.



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Ides of Sherry

Apologies for the cheesy title, but I wanted something more creative than "The Sherry's taste and bouquet after fifteen days." If you have no idea what the title means, then read your Shakespeare.

Anyhow, have a look:

Notice anything?

Neither do I. Don't worry.

The sherry has not noticeably changed in appearance over the 15 days it's been in the cask. I suspect there's either a bit of caramel action going on, or that there comes a point where a cask will no longer affect the colour of its contents. This sherry started a lot darker than the water, which is the only other thing I've put in the cask yet, and maybe it can't get any darker.

Now, on to the important parts. First, the nose. It's a lot like last time, actually: smoky without being overly carbonized; fruity without being acidic. It smells rather cedar-like, actually. Had I a cedar plank and decided to rub some berries or cherries on it, it would smell like this, I think.

The taste is woodier than last time. The smoke and char is still there, but there's a sense of clean oak coming through, particularly on the finish. Remember how I said that the oak smelled like wine when I first poured hot water into the cask? That flavour is just beginning to come through in the sherry. It's a lost less bold than the raw sherry now, but in a very nice way. It's far more subdued, but it lingers. A caress rather than a slap. It's warming, with the acidity cut right down. There's a depth of flavour that the raw spirit clearly lacks. For the first time, I definitely prefer the aged sherry to the raw.

Right now, it's very tasty - far more palatable than the first five days, and more well-rounded than it was after ten. The most noticeable difference is the finish - it's longer, with the smoky cooked fruit giving way to oak then fading to rich honeyed fruit.

Overall, I think the sherry might have reached close to its optimum oaking time. The changes are much subtler than the first two trials, and the effects are along the lines of improved integration, again, with the wood elements coalescing with the smoke, fruit and honey, and a much-improved finish. I think I'll leave the sherry in the cask for just another couple of days, and get started on the whisky this weekend.

See you then,


Friday, January 18, 2008

Looking Far Into the Future

So, I'm thinking ahead. Shocking, I know, but unavoidable. I'm thinking of what next to do with the cask.

Yes, yes, I know that it's only a dozen days into being sherried, and it's got two to three months of Whisky Works whisky to come, but the cask will not cease to exist at that point. I'm thinking I'll put another whisky into it, but I'm not sure which.

Ideally, it would be cask strength, but it's rather impossible to find an immature cask strength whisky hereabouts. They're all already matured to a rather tasty age. Rather defeats the purpose.

It will certainly be a single malt. I have yet to find a blend that inspires me. There are plenty I enjoy, but most that I've had seem to have been blended for general balance, rather than for impact. There are many, many, bland blends out there.

I had been thinking of either the McClelland's Islay Single Malt, which has no age stated, or the Dun Bheagan Islay 8. I'll probably stick to Islay, but if anyone wants to sway me in a different direction, then go for it: now's your chance.

The McClelland's is rumoured to be a 5-year old Bowmore. I have enjoyed a number of different Bowmores in my day, and think this might be a good place to start. The price tag of a hair over thirty dollars is also an attraction.

I haven't been able to identify what the Dun Bheagan Islay is other than an independent bottling. I've heard Lagavulin and Caol Ila as likely candidates, though, and I really quite like those two single malts. Lagavulin 16 is probably my favourite, and Caol Ila is up there as well.

But like I said, I have plenty of time to decide. Does anyone have any suggestions?

The Sherry, Ten Days Later

Remind me to buy a coffee filter. I have a metal one that I use for the copious amount of coffee that I drink, but I fear it's been infused over the ages with an unavoidable essence of coffee goodness which, while delicious in its own right, is likely to make it useless for the present project.

Why a coffee filter? Simple: there are bits in the sherry. It was the same for the water. It'll be the same for the whisky, I'm certain. These bits are wee pieces of wood from the cask itself. They'll be harmless, as they're quite small, but they're not something I'd choose to have in my whisky. Drinks, generally, should be chunk-free. I make the single exception for orange juice which is insipid without pulp; other beverages should not, generally, have much in the way of texture. Ergo, I need a coffee filter to get the bits out of the sherry or whisky when I pour it out for good.

Speaking of sherry, there have been changes. Not in the colour, which was the same as last time, but in the flavour most of all. I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that since the sherry is already dark-ish, it's not going to be further bemurked by the cask. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm impatient. Likely both. Either way, here's a photo so you may judge for yourselves.

(click the photo to embiggen)

I've adequately described the nose and taste of the un-casked sherry elsewhere, so I'll not belabour it further. The nose of the casked sherry has continued its smoky evolution. The sledgehammer of char I described in the preceding post has been coated with velvet, however. It's no longer charcoal-ish. It's rather like smoked, cooked fruit. I bet if I threw cherries on a campfire, it would remind me of this.

Last time I said the taste was like a heavy layer of charcoal over a heavy layer of dried fruit and honey. That's changed for the better: the layers have begun to merge. The charcoal flavour, which was rather pronounced the last time, has turned to mere smokiness. I guess I'd describe the difference between this time and last as "less dusty." You know the smell of the shavings from a freshly sharpened pencil? That smell was present in the taste last week. I would guess it's the carbon in the graphite or the charred cask interior. I didn't think to use it last time because it made me think of charcoal instead. This time, I still sense charcoal, though greatly reduced and far less pencil-lead-ish.

Overall, the best phrase to describe the sherry after ten days (approximately 20 months in virtual mini-cask-world time) is "better integration." If I had money to spare and was the gambling type, I'd bet that that trend will have continued by the next time.

The next time will mark 15 days in the cask, and I may take it out and pour in the whisky at that time. Or I might leave it for another five days. We shall see. I want the integration of fruit, honey and charcoal to continue.

See you on Wednesday!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Five Days of Sherry

I don't know about you, but I've been really anticipating the first encounter with the sherry after a few days in the cask. I put it in on the 8th, and it's now the 13th. While math isn't my strong point, I'm pretty sure that's five days. I figured out in my head that 5 days works out to about 10 months in the cask, by the following means:

If my memory is correct and it's 10 years for 2 months of ageing, that means it's about 10 years in 60 days. (Curse the Globe and Mail, by the way, for making its archived articles paid-access only. I'm not paying $5 to answer the question of what some journalist wrote a few months ago)

If 10 years = 60 days (approximately) then 1 year = 6 days (approximately)

If 6 days = 1 year, then 5 days = 5/6 of a year, which is the same as 10/12ths of a year, which means 10 months.

So, after a roughly 10-month equivalence in the cask, what does the sherry look like? In short, it looks the same.
(click the photo to embiggen)

The glasses are peculiar for sherry, I admit, but they're the only two absolutely identical glasses I have. What can I say? I'm a bachelor. Matching glasses are not really high on my priority list. You should see my cutlery. In any case, the one on the left has been sitting in the cask for 5 days, the other has just been in the bottle. Sometimes I think there might be a wee difference, maybe that the casked one is a bit oranger and the uncasked one a bit redder, but they're still really close. If they aren't identical, the difference is so slight that is scarcely bears mentioning.

The smell and taste are an entirely different matter.

The raw sherry has a very powerful fruit-and-honey nose. Dried apricots, raisins, cherries...that sort of fruit - not fresh-picked, and not tart like apples or citrusy in any way. The casked sherry still has all that, but it's overlaid with a sledgehammer of char. The overall effect is close to burnt sugar. It's a strange combination of bouquets, I admit, but not unpleasant - just unusual and unexpected.

In a taste-off, the raw sherry is much like it smells: very fruity, with an apple-juice quality that I quite like. Honeyed apples with dried fruit. Macintosh apples, not granny smith. Rich, rather than tart. The casked sherry retains all the characteristics I just described in the raw sherry. The big difference is that there's a strong charcoal taste over the fruit and honey. I know that charcoal, fruit and honey sounds remarkably unappetizing, but it's not disturbing by any means. It works, though the char tastes unintegrated with the fruit and sweetness; it's as if there were two layers to the palate, one of sweetened fruit, the other of smoke.

Perhaps the strong charcoal taste is an unintended byproduct of barrel misappropriation. Sherry casks, called butts, are not charred as whisky barrels are - they're merely toasted according to the source of most of my wisdom about this sort of thing: Wikipedia. I'm not sure what the different between toasting and charring might be, but I expect it means that there's a significantly reduced amount of burnt wood in a proper sherry cask.

Sherry butts are also apparently a different size and shape, though I've not seen a photo of any for comparison.

So, after a virtual 10-month-ish ageing, the sherry is just really getting more charcoal-ish and not changing in colour terribly much. I'll leave it in for another 5 days and write another blurb about the changes, if any, and at that point we'll see if I'll age it any longer, or go straight for the whisky.

And if anyone out there knows what "toasting" is as opposed to "charring" I'd love to hear.



Friday, January 11, 2008

Sherry, Bourbon and Oak

I realize I went ahead and wrote about conditioning my new oak cask with sherry without going over the reasons for me doing so. Mea culpa.

Scotch is a delicate thing, believe it or not. Although it can have a very robust, strong taste, it is fundamentally fragile.

For whisky to officially be called "Scotch," whether a blend or a single malt, it must be created under a series of inviolable conditions. One of these is that it must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. But you can't use any old oak cask. Each cask must have been used at least once before to age a different spirit. The reason is the delicate quality of Scotch. It is believed that scotch has so many subtleties of flavour and bouquet that a new, unused oak cask would ruin the complexity and render a far inferior product. For this reason, Scotch producers will source casks from producers of Bourbon, sherry or port, or - less commonly - wine, beer or rum.

The Bourbon connection I find very interesting. I've sampled a very small number of American whiskies, and I tend to dislike them. They've all been too sweet for my palate. But Bourbon is still a whisky, or in this case, a whiskey. The interesting bit is that it is stipulated that for a whiskey to be called "Bourbon" is must be aged in new oak casks. This is of course the exact opposite of what Scotch producers insist upon, and I don't know why there's a difference. Would Scotch aged in new oak taste more like Bourbon and vice versa?

Now here's the rub: as far as I've been able to tell, the oak cask in the Whisky Works kit is new oak - making it in essence Bourbon-ready, but not Scotch-ready. This concerns me given the regulations of Scotch only being matured in second-use casks, but especially considering the whisky that came in the kit is 99% Scotch. This is why I elected to condition it with a different spirit before I pour in the whisky.

In any case, Bourbon casks seem to be the most common Scotch-ageing vessels of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Prior to this, though, it seems that sherry casks were very commonly used. I also understand that the idea of "finishing" a scotch in a cask from a different spirit for the last portion of its maturation is a recent phenomenon.

Since I'm an archaeologist-historian who likes to kick it old school, I thought I'd go with sherry rather than Bourbon to condition my new Whisky Works cask. I wrote to the company, Premium Bottlers, and asked them about it. Their reply was that many people have been thinking along these same lines, and the general trend has been for folks to leave the sherry in the cask for a couple of weeks, then pour it out and put in the whisky.

Tune in in another day or two to find out how the sherry is transforming in the cask.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


What you see in this photo is not in fact a giant glass of whisky. It is not white wine, sherry or juice.

It's water.

It isn't a surprise that the water would take on some of the qualities of the cask it has sat in for 3 days, but the difference in colour is rather more pronounced than I expected.

And the smell! It smells like a cold fireplace. Like burnt wood. Like matches without the sulphur. It smells, then, rather like the smokiness of a good whisky.

I had been led to believe that much of the smoke in a whisky comes from the peat over which the malt is dried. From this glass of water, it's very clear that smoke comes quite a bit from the cask as well. It's also clear that I can expect some significant changes in the colour of the whisky which will sit in the cask for 20-30 times longer than the water did.

As for the smokiness, I am now exceedingly curious to see how well it will integrate with the sherry I'm about to pour in. With the excessive sweet fruitiness of the sherry and the predominant smokiness of the water, I fear that the sherry will be utterly awful when it comes out. But who knows?

Here's a photo of the water between a Johnnie Walker Green and the Whisky Works bottles for comparison.

At this point, there's nothing left to do but pour in the sherry and wait a couple of weeks for magic - or at least science - to happen.

Let the games begin!

On the Near Impossibility of Finding Oloroso in Ottawa

Sherry comes from Spain, is somehow made from wine, and the kind of sherry casks used in scotch production are called Oloroso.

That is just about the full extent of what I know for certain about sherry and its relationship to whisky. As I've said elsewhere, I am not a sherry drinker, so I've never paid it any attention. So I did a bit of research and found out about the Oloroso connection (as opposed to Fino, Amontillado or other varieties) and decided to go grab a bottle.

I learned a few things in the process:

Sherry is shockingly cheap. Most of the bottles I found were under $10. It's cheaper than wine. I gather that there are some very nice, expensive sherries out there, but that brings me to the second thing I learned:

Apparently no one in Ottawa drinks the stuff. This is the only conclusion I can draw from the surprising dearth of the spirit on the shelves of the LCBO in this city. The expensive varieties are available in Toronto, but not here. In fact, at my local store there wasn't a single Spanish sherry available at all: Canadian, Australian and South African were my only options.

I also had thought that "Sherry" was a protected name like "Bordeaux" or "Champagne." I guess new-world types can still get away with producing fortified wine and calling it Sherry. Maybe the Spanish are too laid back to really care.

In any case, I discovered that sherry can be dry or sweet, very pale (Fino is quite pale) or dark (the Oloroso cream sherry I found is almost the same colour as Talisker 10). I would very much have preferred a straight Oloroso rather than an Oloroso cream sherry since cream sherries are sweeter, but it will have to do. I felt that it was more important to get as close to the right type of sherry than the right sweetness, since I can't tell how much of the sugar will get into the oak. It'll be an interesting experiment either way.

The sherry I purchased for this experiment is from Australia, and goes by the name of Emu Oloroso Australian Cream Sherry. Like I said, it's about the same colour as Talisker 10, and is very, very fruity. It's specifically a dried-fruit kind of smell and taste rather than fresh or unripe fruit. It is quite pleasant, actually: tangy and refreshing.

I'm already curious as to what will happen to it in the cask. If it turns out to be undrinkable, then I've only wasted a little money on it.

Like I said, sherry is shockingly cheap.

Nosing Around

I admit that sampling the bouquet of whisky from a bottle is less than ideal, but I'm out of clean glasses.

The bottle of very young whisky that came with the cask is just that: very young. It smells quite mild. Depending on what I've smelled recently, different features stand out. There is a small amount of smoke, and a lot of sweetness. When I pop the cork and take a whiff, it's like smokey honey, with a slight fruitiness, but very, very mild. I felt that the best way to describe it would be to compare to the other whiskies in my collection:

There is a lot more fruit in Johnnie Walker Green. It has a smoother, more buttery bouquet, with the sweetness divided evenly between ripe cherries and toffee or butterscotch. In comparison, the Whisky Works bottle smells smokier, with the sweetness very understated. No fruit whatsoever. It's also slightly salty in this comparison.

The noses of the Whisky Works and Highland Park 12 are more similar: The Highland Park has a definite mealy, grainy nose that really stands out in comparison to the Whisky Works. The sweetness in the Highland Park isn't from fruit, it's from the malt. The smoke in the Whisky Works stands out a lot less against the Highland Park, and the nose is generally more balanced than it seemed against the Johnnie Walker Green. The proportions of smoke to salt to sweet to fruit are more even when compared with the Whisky Works.

An interesting note of green apple appeared when I compared the Whisky Works to the Talisker 10. Talisker has a good amount of smoke in it, at least in the taste. Not so much in the nose, but remember: these are all in bottles at the moment. The Whisky Works has an acidic odour against the Talisker, reminiscent of malt vinegar. The Talisker carries notes of dried fruit and even chocolate against the Whisky Works. The smoke in the Whisky Works smells almost separate, like it hasn't merged with the rest of the bouquet.

Oban 14 is one of my favourite whiskies. I find it has a very nice balance of peat, smoke and sweetness, saltiness and malt. Unsurprisingly, then, the Whisky Works smells very immature in comparison. The Oban has an almost floral quality. The malt vinegar aroma in the Whisky Works is more apparent here than against the Talisker. Strangely, the Oban negates the sweetness in the Whisky Works' bouquet almost entirely.

Now, you might be concerned at this point: I've described the Whisky Works bottle as immature, vinegary, acidic, with a poor integration of smoke and the rest of the bouquet. Don't get me wrong - it smells quite nice, but the overall impression with which I am left is that it is young and needs time to have all the flavours and aromas blend. And this is exactly the case, and precisely the point of this exercise. It will have an entirely different bouquet when it's matured.

Two more comparisons of potential interest for you:

Against an Emu Australian Oloroso Cream Sherry (more on that in another post), the smoke is more noticeable again, and the sugars are obviously not fruity, rather they're malty or caramel-ish. The sherry is like a wall of fruit: apples, ripe berries, grapes. There's honey there as well. While the whisky still retains sweetness, it can't compare.

Against a glass of water (again, more on that in another post), there is a very surprising lack of smoke. I detect fruit which wasn't noticeable before, quite a bit actually. It predominates. The water, in case you were wondering, has just come out of the cask, and has been strongly affected by its few days therein. You can read about that elsewhere.

The final verdict is that this whisky is just what it claims to be: young. It should very much benefit from a few months in a cask.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Wee Cask

My new cask from the Whisky Works kit is many things. It's small, only 16cm long by 11.5cm wide (that's 6.25" by 4.5" for you imperialists out there). It's also fragrant, as I've discussed elsewhere. It is, I hope, mighty. Here are a couple of photos so you can get better acquainted:

(click the photos to embiggen)

What you can't see from the photos is the inside of the cask. It's presently filled with water, and even if it weren't, there's no good way to photograph through a 1cm hole. The interior is "toasted to a medium char" according to the producer. By peering in and shining a flashlight into the other hole, I assure you that just about the whole interior is black. I'm no expert on grades of charring, but there's a good amount of it in there. I'm curious to see what the water will look like when it comes out.

Other things of note:

The bung is rubber, silicone or some similar material under the wooden handle.

The spigot is mostly wood, but the bit that you turn to open it has a metal pipe with a hole drilled through it. Whatever is in the cask enters the drilled hole, then comes out the bottom of the pipe. I haven't a clue what kind of metal it is.

The spigot was attached just by pushing (and a bit of very gentle hammering which might not have been necessary), and there's no rubber or anything else sealing it, just wood that expands when it's wet.

You will notice several dark splotches in the first photo, around the edges of the lid where it connects with the staves. These weren't there when I bought it and are the result of the cask being filled with water. A bit oozed through before the wood could expand to seal itself. I imagine it's normal. I hope it's normal. :-)

Tomorrow, time permitting, I'll be emptying the cask of water and refilling it with sherry. Unfortunately, there seems to be a remarkable dearth of Oloroso sherry here in Ottawa, so I'll have to make do with an Amontillado it appears. I'll let you know.


As promised: a photograph!

(click the photo to embiggen)

Here are a few of my bottles of scotch for comparison. They are, left to right:

Oban 14
Highland Park 12
Johnnie Walker Green
Talisker 10
Whisky Works

You'll notice one thing right away: they're all a rich orange-brown other than the Whisky Works bottle. In person, the difference is stark: the Whisky Works bottle is very pale, only slightly darker than white wine.

Admittedly, the reddish colours in the other bottles might very well be the result of caramel. The Whisky Works bottle says in a lovely italic font that it is free of artificial colouring, so it's safe to assume that that is the colour it's supposed to be.

I won't bother photographing the whisky again until it's been in the cask a little while. But remember: I'm going to keep a little of it back so that I'll always have some un-matured whisky to compare.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I admit that I'm generally the type of person who doesn't spend much time smelling trees. I know conifers have a distinct fragrance, and the smell of autumn leaves is something I can recall from my earliest childhood. But I had always thought about trees as something to look at rather than smell.

The first step in getting my new cask ready to mature some whisky is filling it with hot water. In the process, I realized something: oak has a very lovely fragrance. I must have come across oak in sawdust or freshly-cut form before, but I never remember thinking about what it smelled like. What's interesting to me is that as soon as I dampened the cask, the smell hit my nose and I instantly thought "this smells like wine."

But it doesn't, or at least not entirely - if anything, it's the other way around: wine smells like oak. It's remarkably sweet, and utterly unlike the sharp, tangy scent of a pine or spruce. It makes me think that oak syrup would be as tasty as maple. Nutty. A slight hint of the complexity of cedar, but not nearly as strong and overlaid with the nutty sweetness. If I were better at parsing scents, I'd have a better description for you.

In any case, now that I know what oak smells like, I understand where these flavours and aromas come from when I find them in whisky or wine. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how the young bottle matures in its cask.



Friday, January 4, 2008

The Heavenly Combination of Whisky and Geekdom

This is entirely Jim's fault.

Don't get me wrong - Jim's a good guy and all, but if he hadn't told me about a newly-available kit to mature your own whisky, I'd not have gone out and bought one, nor told all my friends, nor started a blog.

The aforementioned kit is a new product called Whisky Works. It's made by Premium Bottlers and contains a small oak barrel complete with bung, spigot and stand, and a bottle of pale whisky. At your friendly neighbourhood LCBO it runs for $90. The point of it all is for you to pour the whisky into the cask and let it do its thing for a couple of months. Afterwards, due to the significantly higher surface-area to volume ratio, the whisky has had the equivalent of several years of oaking. I read in an article (I believe it was in the Globe and Mail) that it's ten years' worth of ageing in two months, which works out to five years per month if my math is right.

Well, I have the kit now, and have just begun to cure the cask with water. The oak absorbs some of the water, expanding in the process and thereby sealing the cask from any leakage at the seams between the staves or ends. After the water, the real fun begins.

I've decided to go wild and crazy and condition the barrel with sherry after I pour the water out. I'll explain why in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I want to explain why I started this blog.

Rather than just stuff the cask in my closet and tell all my friends about it when it was all over, I thought it might be more rewarding to keep track of the progress of the whisky as it matures. I'll be using this blog to do just that. I will take a few photos of the components of the kit in the better light of the morning to let you see everything. I will reserve a small amount of the whisky so that each week I can tap the cask, pour out a dram and compare the maturing spirit to its original condition. I'll do side-by-side photos each week so you can see what I'm talking about.

In any case, as the cask contains merely water at this point and it's getting late in the evening, I'll call it a day. The next few posts will be just first impressions and the like, followed by talk about the sherry I choose and how it fares in the cask. That'll take up about 2-3 weeks, then the whisky bottle will be opened, and the experiment will begin in earnest.

I'll open up the comments as well, so if you have any suggestions - particularly about sherry-conditioning the cask as I know essentially nothing about sherry - please pipe up.

Talk soon,