August 11, 2023

Whisky Finishing in a Nutshell

In this article we dive into the process of whisky finishing, looking at what it is, why distillers finish whisky, and some examples of whisky finishes.

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What is Whisky Finishing?

Whisky finishing, also known as extra maturation, refers to the process of ageing whisky in a secondary cask after initial ageing in traditional oak barrels. This extra step allows distillers to impart different flavours and aromas to their spirits that complement or enhance the original whisky.

Why Do Distilleries Finish Their Whiskies?

There are a few key reasons distilleries utilise finishing techniques:

  • To Add Complexity: Finishing layers additional flavours on top of the distillery's core whisky flavour profile. This added complexity appeals to enthusiasts looking for unique tasting experiences.
  • To Soften the Whisky: Some whiskies can be quite harsh when newly distilled. Finishing mellows out the whisky and makes it more approachable.
  • To Experiment: Finishing gives innovative distillers an outlet to experiment and differentiate their products in an increasingly competitive market.
  • To Increase Value: Finished whiskies can, in some instances, command a higher price tag and interest from collectors. The additional production effort adds appeal.

The Whisky Finishing Process

The whisky finishing process involves placing an already aged spirit into a secondary cask or barrel for additional maturation. Typically, the whisky spends its initial ageing time in traditional oak barrels, usually previously used bourbon or sherry casks.

Image: Ian Branch, Unsplash

Once the desired base flavour is achieved, the spirit is then transferred into the finishing cask, which could be a wine barrel, beer keg, rum barrel, or specialty wood barrel.

The whisky finishes its ageing in the secondary cask, often for 6 months to 3 years. The distillery blenders will sample the whisky periodically to determine optimal finishing time for the desired flavour profile. This extra maturation allows the whisky to extract new aromas and tastes from the freshly emptied barrel, adding a unique spin to the original aged whisky.

Popular Types of Whisky Finishes

Distilleries get creative with the casks used for extra maturation. Some popular finishes include:

  • Beer: Beer barrel finishing imparts hoppy, malty flavours. Craft beers like IPAs are often used
  • Rum: Aged rum barrels lend sweet spice notes like molasses, caramel, and tropical fruit
  • Wine: Wine barrels, especially rich dessert wines, add vinous fruit and oak tannins
  • Sherry: The fortified wine sherry brings nuttiness and dried fruit flavors to whisky. Oloroso sherry is common
  • Port: Port wine casks contribute hints of ruby fruit, chocolate and caramel
  • Madeira: This fortified wine gives whisky baked spice accents and orange citrus tones
  • Wood: Finishing in other wood types like chestnut or maple provides uniqueness. Charred oak is also popular

Notable Examples of Finished Whiskies

Many renowned whiskies rely on finishing processes to achieve their flavour profiles:

  • The Balvenie's 'Tun' series is aged in sherry, rum, and bourbon casks
  • Glenmorangie special releases often feature extra maturation in port, sauternes, and madeira barrels
  • Crown Royal offers whiskies finished in apple cider and red wine barrels.
  • Basil Hayden's Dark Rye finishes rye whiskey in port barrels for fruited sweetness.
  • The Yamazaki Distillery implements specialised wood finishes like Japanese Mizunara oak.

Whisky finishing opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to flavour innovation. Distilleries will continue experimenting with unique casks to produce ever more complex and appealing whiskies. The variety of finished expressions gives enthusiasts many new experiences to explore.

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