Call +44 203 150 1218 to speak to a Specialist

Irish Whiskies Cask Conundrum- A Reply

Irish Whiskies Cask Conundrum- A Reply

In this deeply insightful article by Kristiane Sherry she discusses whether or not the creative freedom allowed in the Irish whiskey technical file with its scope of permissible cask types is a positive or negative for Irish whiskey maturation. She asks whether it offers differentiation or if the wide selections of options are a fad.

I think that an important piece of background to establish when asking this question is; where the use of casks came from? understanding of the process of whiskey maturation is a fairly recent development. Originally, casks were just the standard way that liquids were stored and transported. Building a brand new cask is fairly expensive, so the common practice for distilleries was to buy casks from wine merchants or breweries that no longer needed them. This means that historically, distilleries had access to a wide range of cask types, and sizes, with a multitude of previous fillings. This practice fell out of favour with the dominance of blends, where consistency and low costs are king, and the loss of the practice of importing wines and spirits in casks for bottling within the United Kingdom. So, I would argue that the practice of using all these cask types is not as new, or faddy, as assumed. Although I will grant that there is a lot more range on offer now than may have been possible previously.

The article continues to emphasise the growth and success Irish Whiskey has enjoyed, and highlights that despite a difficult 2023 trading year, the industry enjoyed remarkable growth in the EU and UK.

We are then reminded that Ireland has one of the widest and most permissive technical files for whiskey-making globally. Irish distillers are allowed to use any cask as long as it is made of wood, and if the cask has been previously filled, that filling must have been an alcoholic beverage. Scotland on the other hand has a notoriously strict and slightly nonsensical technical file. Firstly, in Scotland, the cask must be made from new or used oak. So far so sensible, oak has a proven track record in structure and flavour development. They miss out on some unique flavour profiles other wood types can provide, but for the scale of the industry this doesn’t stifle them too much. The part of their file that causes me some consternation is that whisky can only be matured or finished in casks that have traditionally been used to mature whisky, with a bit more freedom added to allow for casks that have previously held distilled spirits. On the surface this seems reasonable, but I would argue that casks that held cider or stone fruit brandy are far more likely to have been used traditionally than tequila or awamori casks- Just a thought.

Dave McCabe Brings up an interesting point, highlighting that the cask is even more important when the spirit you are working with is triple distilled. The higher rectification results in a purer but slightly more neutral spirit, and so the impact of the cask will be accentuated. Dave highlights the importance of selecting the best casks for the very best flavours. Perhaps, a part of this spirit of experimentation (if you’ll pardon the pun) that Irish distillers have, is the relative youth of most distilleries in Ireland. Which means that the timescale to know what the best casks for getting the best out of the spirit hasn’t yet been discovered. Maybe as these distilleries find themselves to be more established, and learn how their spirit develops in different casks, they will rely on fewer cask types and focus more on age statements to showcase the quality and development of their product.

Jameson’s core range is relatively conservative in its use of cask types, in keeping with their age and tradition. But the company does run a micro distillery called method and madness which is totally dedicated to experimentation, both with mash bills and cask types. This, perhaps, is the model that will be adopted by other distilleries that achieve a certain size in the future. The key brand is kept simple and then a cadet brand is established to exercise creativity.

Many of the distillers interviewed agree that the top priority is ensuring quality and balance so that the final product is a successful whiskey. A sensible approach for a business that makes and sells whiskey…

Obviously there is an economic consideration due to the timescale required to experiment with whiskey casks, but for the sake of learning lessons and keeping an industry creative and vibrant, maybe it is a risk that worth taking.

I think one of the most compelling arguments made in the article is from Alex Thomas, master blender at Bushmills. She compares making whiskey to cooking and asks “how many flavours can you put together to make a meal?” And I think that is what this boils down to. Sometimes a meal can be as simple as you like, a perfectly seasoned steak, but sometimes a meal is a mix of lots of ingredients working in harmony to create something far greater than the individual aspects.

At Caskcap; while we support innovation, we believe that when offering casks to private clients, we should stick with what we know best, so only offer the highest quality bourbon and sherry casks on the market. If you are interested in adding some to your portfolio book a consultation with our experts here:

Read the original article here: