Finishing whiskey in a secondary cask after initial maturation has been around for years, at least in the scotch whisky world. The Balvenie was one of the first distilleries to do this when malt master David Stewart MBE started the practice in the early ‘80s, culminating in the release of the flagship DoubleWood 12 expression in 1993. It’s a pretty common technique now, employed by distilleries in nearly every whiskey-making region, from Scotland to Ireland to the States. Though bourbon is a firmly defined category, it can be finished in secondary casks, as well as rye and other whiskeys. The TTB—the federal agency that regulates alcohol—has made changes over the years about how cask-finished whiskey should be categorized, from Whiskey Specialty or Distilled Spirit Specialty in the past to, most recently, whiskey or a blend of whiskeys. And recently, the rules were modified so that the secondary maturation can be included as part of the whiskey’s age statement, as long as it’s differentiated (for example, four years in new charred oak and one year in a sherry cask).
Leonid Yangarber, founder of Coalition Whiskey, says that he appreciates any push for transparency. “Any time you can provide clarity for a consumer so they have full confidence in what they are buying, that’s a good thing,” he told Robb Report. “Now, do I think most folks truly care about how long something is finished versus how long the whiskey was originally aged? Probably not. They are likely more interested in the aging that makes up the original spirit, based on government regulations for the production of that spirit (ie: bourbon).”
Sagamore Spirit’s director of operations Ryan Norwood and distillery operations manager Max Hames have a slightly different take. “Whiskey labels are notoriously cryptic and anything that helps the consumer get a clearer picture of what’s exactly in the bottle is a good thing,” they wrote. “Finished whiskey is technically older, and being able to include the cask finish in the age statement only helps the consumer better understand what they’re drinking.”
So what exactly is the point of cask finishing a whiskey, particularly a bourbon or a rye? Critics argue that it’s a pointless process that affects the flavor in a negative way, altering the true character of the liquid in order to cover up flaws or imperfections. And sometimes they may have a point here, as a finish can become overpowering or even unpalatable when it isn’t done right. The team at Ireland’s Waterford Distillery are particularly vocal about their views on finishing often being used as a crutch or a correction to a poorly made whiskey. However, there are plenty of drinkers and distillers that love the process and consider it a way of opening up new worlds of flavor.
“Ultimately, we always look for casks and processes that enhance different aspects of our whiskey, rather than overpowering them,” said Norwood and Hames regarding their rye whiskeys. “The hope and intent when finishing our whiskey in a secondary cask is that [it] will take on positive flavors and aromas from both the barrel and the liquid that was previously in the barrel.” Sometimes they are surprised by the results, with experiments surpassing expectations. They start by actually adding some of the liquid that was aged in the finishing barrel into the whiskey to taste it, and then build different blends and put them into trial barrels which are monitored closely. If the results are good, the whiskey can be scaled up for a larger release.
While Sagamore Spirit uses a variety of different cask types to finish their special edition releases, Coalition is entirely focused on using wine barrels from Bordeaux. According to Yangarber, the process of selecting barrels is overseen by Ludwig Vanneron, “a world-renowned, accredited oenologist from esteemed Faculte d’oenologie de Bordeaux.” Barrels are chosen from top chateaus based on how they will complement the whiskey in terms of taste, smell, mouthfeel, texture and structure. “[The first goal is to] delicately enhance the whiskey with the flavors and aromas of the original wine,” said Yangarber. “You must be very careful not to let these flavors become too pronounced, thus changing the product completely. The second is to bring out characteristics in the whiskey that didn’t previously exist… In the end, we are looking to add complexity that enhances the drinker’s experience, not alter it beyond recognition.”
Clearly, there’s a lot more to consider when creating a cask-finished whiskey than just dumping your juice into another barrel. As more distilleries and producers employ this process here in America, it can be hard to choose what to try. Here’s a guide to point you in the right direction so you can explore some of the standouts in the field of cask-finished American whiskey.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon
Angel’s Envy is one of the best known and widely available cask-finished American whiskey brands you can find. The core expression is a four to six-year-old bourbon finished in port wine barrels for up to half a year, giving the whiskey a dark color and syrupy notes of candied fruit. There’s an annual cask strength expression of this bourbon as well, which is released in limited numbers (the 2020 release was bottled at a strong but not overpowering 120.4 proof), as well as a rum cask-finished rye whiskey. This past fall, Angel’s Envy commemorated ten years since filling its first port barrel with the special Mizunara Cask release, a blend of four and nine-year-old bourbon finished in Japanese oak for an additional two years. This is a unique addition to the Angel’s Envy lineup, bringing soft incense and spice flavors to the palate.
Coalition Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Coalition Whiskey’s lineup of cask-finished rye whiskeys are intensely flavored, which seems to be the point here. There are three expressions to try, each with a different wine barrel finish – Pauillac, Sauternes and Margaux. Each is a 100 percent rye whiskey (10 percent malted rye) made at Kentucky Artisan Distillers and aged for at least five years before being finished in a Bordeaux wine barrel for up to nine months. The brand has also released a barrel-proof version of the whiskey that isn’t cask finished, so you can try it to see how it stands up against the others. There are really prominent tannin, fruit and spice flavors present in these whiskeys, tasting notes that will surely appeal to some more than others. But the intentions are loud and clear here, so anyone interested in exploring the world of powerful cask finishes should give these a try.
Penelope Bourbon Rosé Cask Finish
In the world of cask-finished whiskey, and bourbon in particular, rosé wine hasn’t had much of a presence. Penelope saw this void as an opportunity to release something different from what is already available and decided to procure French Grenache rosé casks to finish this MGP-distilled bourbon. Interestingly, the brand suggests serving this chilled as you would rosé wine, which is worth trying alongside a room temperature neat pour to see how the flavors compare. It’s bottled at 94 proof, which certainly enhances the vanilla, floral and fruit flavors that are present on the palate. Another Rose Cask Finish release should be available this June, as well as an Oloroso + Cognac Double Cask Finish Limited Release due out in the next few months.
Jefferson’s Rye Cognac Cask Finish
This new rye from Jefferson’s is only the second time the brand has released this type of whiskey (the first was a 10-year-old rye sourced from Canada). This time around, the whiskey is American and was finished for a minimum of nine months in cognac casks sourced from France (the brand has released wine and rum cask-finished bourbons before). The effects here are subtle but tangible, with a bit of citrus, nutmeg and extra caramel present to round out the classic rye flavors, along with strong hints of cherry and grape. I suspect this is a younger rye than the original 10-year-old, but the backbone of the whiskey is strong and vibrant.
Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 2021 Limited Release: FAE-01
This new whiskey from Maker’s Mark is a bit of an outlier here—and not just because of how long its name is. This is the third release in Makers’ series of specially finished bourbons, but the process does not involve putting the whiskey into a wine or sherry barrel. Instead, cask strength Maker’s is dumped into a special barrel containing proprietary wood staves that are custom cooked to bring out particular flavors. In the case of FAE-01, the staves are made of American oak and, according to the distillery, “seared on one side and left raw on the other to amplify some of the signature dried fruit and oak flavors that Maker’s Mark is known for.” According to Jane Bowie, Director of Innovation at Maker’s, the taste is supposed to evoke the smell that envelopes you when you enter a rickhouse. There will be another release, FAE-02, that will come out in the fall and showcase different flavors.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Phifer Pavitt Collaborative Series
Bardstown Bourbon Company is a modern distillery located in quiet Bardstown, Kentucky, the epicenter of all things bourbon. The distillery’s team is hard at work making whiskey in-house, but also contract distills for other brands and sources whiskey from other distilleries and blends and sometimes finishes them for its own series of releases. This latest entry in the Collaborative Series is a truly excellent effort, a 10-year-old Tennessee whiskey that was finished for 18 months in Phifer Pavitt California cabernet sauvignon barrels. The result is an artful example of how a whiskey can be finished in high-quality wine barrels resulting in something that retains its core character while picking up enough flavor to really become something new.
Thomas S. Moore Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Casks
This bourbon, along with two other finishes (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon), were released this past winter from Barton 1792 Distillery. The distillery refers to them as “extended cask finished” bourbons, because the high-rye is aged for five to seven years, then spends an additional two to five years in each secondary barrel type and bottled between 95 and 99 proof. This is, indeed, a lengthy secondary maturation. The flavors vary by expression, with notes ranging from dry tannins and berries on the cabernet sauvignon finish to syrup and spice picked up in the port casks.
Sagamore Spirit Distiller’s Select Tequila Finish
There have been a few other tequila barrel-finished American whiskeys released in the past year or two, but I would argue that Sagamore Spirit’s new rye is the most successful of these. The rye whiskey, which is contract distilled for Sagamore and is a blend of high and low rye mash bills, was finished in extra anejo tequila barrels for eight months. The extra añejo designation means that the tequila was aged for at least three years, but in this case it actually spent seven years in the barrel, so this lengthy period of time allowed for plenty of interaction between spirit and wood. That relationship rears its head when sipping this whiskey, and thankfully so. Notes of sweet agave immediately jump out, followed by lemon, vanilla and some spice.
Westward Pinot Noir Cask
Westward is a Pacific Northwest single malt distillery that is sort of an OG on the scene, having gotten its start in 2004 when the category of American single malt whiskey was not yet on most people’s radar. This cask-finished expression is the latest to join the core lineup, bringing it to a trio of whiskeys. The distillery takes its original, mature American single malt and fills French oak Pinot Noir barrels from Willamette Valley wineries like Bergstrom Wines and Suzor Wine for up to two years, allowing the flavors to mingle and blossom. This pairing makes sense, as the region is now almost as well known for its whiskey as it has been for its excellent wine over the years.
Barrell Craft Spirits is a favorite of many American whiskey drinkers due to the company’s meticulous barrel selection process and high quality whiskeys. The team sources casks from a variety of different distilleries and blends them into different batches, mostly focusing on bourbon but with some rye and malt in the mix as well. Armida came out this past fall, an interesting blend of cask-finished whiskey that is unlike anything else currently on the market. Founder Joe Beatrice chose to blend three different bourbons for this release, each finished in a different cask type: pear brandy, Jamaican rum and Sicilian amaro. This mix combines notes of brown sugar, ripe fruit and cinnamon with the familiar vanilla and oak notes of the bourbon. Armida was bottled at cask strength of close to 114 proof, so a few drops of water go a long way here.
Belle Meade Madeira Cask Finish Bourbon
The team behind Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey is also responsible for Belle Meade, a brand of high-rye bourbon sourced from MPG in Indiana. In addition to the Classic, Reserve and Single Barrel expressions, there are several cask-finished options to choose from. The Madeira Cask is a standout. It’s finished in Malmsey Madeira casks, a particularly sweet version of the fortified wine, deepening the bourbon’s palate with spice, fruit and candied citrus notes. There are also cognac and sherry-finished bourbons, as well as a new Spanish brandy finish that is part of the Craftsman Cask Collection available at the distillery gift shop. That release came from two barrels, with a total of 42 months of secondary maturation to really infuse the whiskey with flavor.