Whisky finishes have well and truly become the fashion now in whisky. Decanting whisky from one cask into another, for a short period of time, is being done by pretty much everyone.
Finishes were almost always – and possibly are almost always today – remedial processes though. If a new spirit has lived in good wood – which is to say, for example, a first-fill cask, fresh oak, then down the years that spirit will good to go. It’s done its dance with the wood and can go into whatever vatting the distiller wants. It does not need to be finished.
But when a cask has been used three, four or more times before, then the spirit has far less flavour. You can see it in its weak colouring, and you can taste it in the same weak grassy-vanilla profile. Finishing comes to the rescue: a quick shot of something at the end, a dose of colour and flavour that can come in a few more months in a new cask. (“Double maturation”, which you sometimes see on a label, probably kicks in after two years in the new wood, which is another form of remedial work on the spirit.)
My problem with finishes isn’t that they don’t work, because when done well, the remedial work can be effective and flavoursome. Bruichladdich did loads of it, back in the day, and it was mostly ace, with a few rogue ones. The trouble is they’re not always done well. (Take Bladnoch, which has ineffectively finished poor spirit of late, resulting in weird notes, a dissonance in the taste profile.)
No. My issue is that finishes have become a shorthand for lazy marketing.
Finishes drag the whisky drinker even further away from ever understanding the real importance: the bit that happens before the whisky goes into the wood. “Finished in” often means smoke and mirrors, a way of hiding the difficult questions about barley provenance, fermentation or rushing the distillation process and scooping up a bunch of bad flavour compounds before maturation. Say something’s finished in Château Blah Blah and the consumer’s mind is dragged into exotic dreams of Bordeaux, forgetting neatly that years ago someone started cutting corners in production. Some might say that’s exactly the point of Big Whisky: save money at the start of the process, which gives you an inferior product, and then spend cash telling digestible stories at the other end.
But most importantly, when brands dwell on the finished wood on the label and in their marketing, and it’s pushed out by marketers and drinks websites that are simply PR outlets, the danger is that whisky is no longer the desirable thing about any of this. This business is no longer about making good spirit, putting it into good casks, and then bringing it all together; using all the instruments in the orchestra to belt out a symphony and labour my metaphor.
Instead, we start to value the vehicle for flavouring more than the spirit itself. The sexy thing is the château, not the distillery. We value the Steinway piano more than the Rachmaninov Concerto that we came to hear…
With that huge slice of misery by way of introduction, here are two examples of very good finishing from Bunnahabhain, a distillery we like a lot here on Malt, as it’s been producing some fine whiskies of late.
Bunnahabhain 2004 Moine Brandy Finish – Review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: soft, creamy, lime marmalade, gentle maltiness that merges, almost, with smoke. Mellow stuff. Buttermilk. Straw. Green tea and a light floral honey. Vanilla. Custard Cream biscuits. Pencil shavings. Parmaviolets.
In the mouth: very rounded texture, and approachable for the strength. Cereal notes, some nice barley showing on the spirit. Cloves and black pepper. A little ginger warmth. Peaches and apricots, with lemonade – fizzy sweets. It’s a bit simple, but very pleasant stuff.
Bunnahabhain 2003 PX Finish – Review
On the nose: the sherry notes are far more apparent. Raisins and sultanas. Actually, it’s lovely: a nice meatiness here, grouse breast, a little gunsmoke and metal. Cranberries, a pleasant mustiness. Slightly oaky.
In the mouth: again, very nice texture to the spirit, lovely and rounded, but the flavours are lovely. Black tea – slightly ashy – is balanced by raisins, blackcurrants, heather honey and a little tartness. Mixed peel. Ginger and cloves again, but sweeter here.
Not all bad, these ones. Someone at Bunnahabhain knows what they’re doing. The Moine Brandy Finish costs about £80, and the 2003 Pedro Ximénez is about £85. Pretty good, really. I’d go for the PX though, if I were you.
Note: samples sent through to Malt Towers, but as usual, no favours done, blah blah…