Leisure: Top of the Barrel
Lined up along one wall of the Glenmorangie warehouse in the Scottish Highland town of Tain, Ross-shire, are a number of barrels with heads (the whisky-making parlance for lids) that have been painted blue. The barrels represent the distillery’s attempts to create new tastes for its single-malt whiskies by employing novel finishing techniques. “These are experimental,” Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s global brands ambassador and master distiller, says matter-of-factly. “I can’t talk about them.” Then, with a smile, he adds, “If I told you what they were, I would either have to kill you or resign. But I can tell you that I currently have about 20 or so barrels aging right now, half of which are in their infancy. But four or five of them are coming along nicely, and I haven’t limited myself just to barrels from France.”
The French barrels that Glenmorangie used for one of its recent offerings previously held Château Margaux, one of Bordeaux’s premier grand crus. The 1987 Margaux Cask Finish single malt, which arrived in the United States this past autumn, is an 181¼2-year-old whisky that Glenmorangie aged in bourbon barrels for 16 years and then transferred to Margaux French oak casks, in which the whisky aged for another two and a half years.
Lumsden explains that Glenmorangie bottled the whisky at a higher, 92 proof (compared to the 86 proof of most of Glenmorangie’s offerings) to capture the flavors from the cask finishing more effectively. The flavors, like those of the wine itself, are subtle, yet you can detect essences of toffee, peach, spicy ale, and even aromatic pipe tobacco. The Margaux Cask Finish is an extremely limited offering: Out of the 3,588 bottles that Glenmorangie produced, it has allocated only 720 for the United States. Each one, bearing a serial number and Lumsden’s signature, is priced at about $400.
“I didn’t expect this whisky to be ready after being finished for only two years in the Château Margaux casks,” says Lumsden, “but a lot of character had built up in that time from the oak. Actually, although I check on the barrels at least once every three months, I’m never 100 percent sure how they will turn out. In the case of the Margaux Cask Finish, for the last six months I’d been thinking, ‘This is where I hoped it would be.’ And finally, I thought, ‘I’d better bottle it now.’ ”
Few, if any, distilled spirits have as vast a range of nuances and variations as single-malt Scotch. No two are alike, and of the hundreds of single malts on the market, one of the most complex is Glenmorangie. A French perfume house once identified 22 different fragrances in Glenmorangie’s flagship Ten Years Old single malt—a fruity, floral whisky that is one of the two top-selling single malts in the United Kingdom (along with Glenfiddich) and the fourth most popular single malt in the United States.
Glenmorangie’s stills, which, at nearly 17 feet, are the tallest in Scotland, are credited primarily for the whisky’s elegance, but Scotch whiskies’ variances in flavors also can be attributed to the origin of the water used to make them, the type of barley employed for malting, the geographic location of the distillery, and, perhaps most dramatically, the barrels in which the whiskies are aged. Traditionally these were bourbon or sherry barrels, or, to a lesser extent, grain whisky barrels.
At one time, whisky makers gave little thought to the effects that various barrels have on the flavors of the whiskies being aged in them. However, distillers eventually learned that certain woods help give whiskies additional character during the maturation process. They discovered that bourbon barrels, which are made of charred, American oak, impart a light, floral character to the spirit; sherry barrels, constructed of European oak, produce a spicier offering with a heavier character; and grain whisky barrels, for the most part, have a minimal effect on the whisky.
For more than a century, these guidelines for cask finishing directed malt-whisky production in Scotland. Then in 1994, Glenmorangie, which has been distilling whisky on the same site since 1893, altered those wood-to-whisky formulas to determine how other types of barrels—and their prior contents—would affect the flavors of whiskies. Although a few distilleries had experimented with finishing barrels that once held beverages other than bourbon, sherry, or grain whisky, Glenmorangie was the first to do so on a large scale.
Lumsden, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and distillery manager Graham Eunson took Glenmorangie’s flagship Ten Years Old and aged it for three additional years in casks that once held ruby port. In one sense, this finishing technique represented a natural progression, for in 1990 Glenmorangie had finished 20 percent of its 10-year-old bourbon-aged whisky in sherry casks—or pipes, as they are called in the wine world—for a second maturation of eight years. The finishing process resulted in a deeper, spicier 18 Year Old single malt, which Glenmorangie continues to produce.
The port-wood offering, released in 1997, was notably different from the one that would result from the bourbon-sherry barrel aging techniques. However, the rich, plummy nuances of the port proved to be a natural pairing with Glenmorangie’s lightly peated whisky. When Glenmorangie introduced its Port Wood Finish, the cherry-chocolate, tannin-coated single malt immediately gained favor with whisky drinkers. The response from the whisky industry was divided: Some members decried the Port Wood Finish as a marketing ploy; others began searching their inventories for whiskies to finish in port barrels.
Later that year, Glenmorangie released two more wood finishes, Oloroso Sherry and Madeira, and in 1998, it debuted Fino Sherry Wood, a 13-year-old offering in which the sweet dryness of the Palomino grape played off the light, sweet oak of the charred bourbon barrels.
By this time, Glenmorangie had established its Wood Management Programme, with Lumsden serving as its director. In 2001, Glenmorangie offered a Côte de Nuits Wood Finish that was limited to only 500 bottles in the United States. This release marked the distillery’s first use of French oak, which lent a vanillin undercurrent to the single malt. A U.S. release of 1,100 bottles of Claret Wood soon followed. In 2002, Glenmorangie produced a 21-year-old Sauternes Wood Finish, made from an 18-year-old single malt that had been aged in Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey barrels and then finished for three additional years in French oak barrels from Château d’Yquem. Lumsden says he felt that the fuller, sweeter flavor from the charcoal-mellowed American whiskey would have more body to complement the fuller-flavored wine. The distillery sent only 260 bottles of the Sauternes Wood Finish to the United States.
Glenmorangie, which had been owned, at least in part, by the Macdonald family since 1893, now belongs to the LVMH luxury conglomerate, which acquired the distillery in 2004 for approximately $580 million. As part of a portfolio that includes the Hennessy, Cheval des Andes, and Cloudy Bay brands, Glenmorangie perhaps may consider finishing whiskies in barrels that once held Cognac or Argentinean or New Zealand wines.
Of course, not all of Glenmorangie’s cask-finishing experiments prove successful, and there are some that Lumsden would not even try. “It’s difficult to say without actually trying the casks,” Lumsden once said, “but there are some spirits, such as grappa, which would not, I believe, give much in the way of complementary extra flavor. The main qualities I look for [in barrels] are flavors that will complement our existing house style and not completely drown it out.”