The alarm bells screech across a stagnant urban landscape. Enthusiasts run for cover as the news of Sauternes cask usage reaches public consciousness. Not another a fleeing bystander yells, diving into a nearby shelter. These wooden beasts don’t take prisoners and have been deployed as weapons of taste destruction in recent times.
The Sauternes is arguably the most argumentative of casks with a dubious pedigree. Utilised by many distilleries or independent bottlers – the Scotch Malt Whisky Association springs to mind – to hide flaws or cracks within a release. It is the T-Cut scratch remover of the whisky industry. Why else would you take a reasonably aged whisky and finish it for a short period in such a cask? The only ethical reason is to restore or save what you currently have. Tullibardine 225 Sauternes Finish anyone?
Sauternes itself comes from the sweet wine ranks. Already this is a divisive genre as such wines are an acquired taste. For many they are sickly sweet and inappropriate. Punchy and sugar-coated these wines have to display such characteristics to complete against the dish at hand. Other countries produce their own sweet equivalents with the Hungarian Tokaji springing to mind, but on the whole Sauternes belongs to France and its Bordeaux region.
The production of Sauternes is married to a fungus known as Botrytis, which prospers due to the climate of the region and the use of the Semillon grape. The fungus at a simple level lowers the level of water in the grape and amplifies the sweetness. As the grape rots it becomes sweeter. Timing is everything but unfortunately, due to the element of rot, crop yields are lower and the cost of production higher. The overheads include the costs of assembling and utilising quality casks for maturation. Such a precious and rare liquid needs a suitable host to reside within for anything up to on average 1-3 years.
Once the wine is bottled, the Chateau is left with empty casks that have served their purpose for that season’s crop. A favoured outlet is the whisky industry that realises the value of these casks for their own maturation. The pungent flavours of Sauternes can feature honey, almonds, caramel, pineapple, mango and figs amongst others. The liquid has left its mark on the cask and hence why whisky is often tipped into these wooden beasts of flavour for a short period. It’s effectively an adrenaline rush of flavour that transplants a whisky from its slumber into something arguably more evocative. Or in Malt speak delivers some much-needed character to a rather tepid liquid.
Few distilleries have the new make spirit that can withstand a prolonged maturation in a fresh Sauternes cask. That’s why they are primarily used as a finish. However this isn’t always the case with Octomore springing to mind with its higher ppm levels overcoming the evident sweet delights associated with Sauternes. Another more recent example is to be found in Campbeltown and the Springbank Society. This club of like-minded individuals has enjoyed 2 Sauternes releases from 2017 if you were quick enough to snap up a bottle.
The Springbank Society 2007 9 year old Sauternes was quite a surprise when I reviewed it earlier this year being fully matured in the wine cask. On paper the initial impression was that Springbank might have lacked the gusto to hold its own. Thankfully it was more than up to the task and we’re now faced with the prospect of Springbank’s more heavily peated type of spirit – Longrow – facing the Sauternes challenge.
Potentially the casks here may herald from the same batch having also been filled in 2007. This Longrow release is bottled at 9 years of age and a similar strength making for an interesting tasting comparison. An edition of 1134 priced at £45 to the membership, this has unsurprisingly sold out.
Springbank Society Longrow 2007 – review
Colour: crème caramel.
On the nose: a sticky apricot jam with some earthiness behind it. There’s a smokiness here as well almost verging on crispy bacon with plenty of pepper. Golden syrup and cinder toffee follow so there’s lots of sugar work and citrus sweetness here from the cask, but it feels well married with the spirit. Water brings out more honeyed and almond notes with marzipan, orange peel and ripe mango.
In the mouth: incredibly fruity with those apricots but also blood oranges and some grapefruit coming through towards the end before the earthiness takes hold and copper on the finish. Adding water reveals lemon oil and honey, but also ramps up the smoke.
Tasty at cask strength. The Longrow more than holds it own but fights back. I’m sure I could squeeze in a Star Wars reference here but the force is weak within me. This is an oozing, luscious and enjoyable whisky. Yes, it lacks the depth we’d like to see in the very top whiskies but for £45 its another bargain from the Springbank Society and a very interesting experience.