Wouldn’t it be nice to play around with whisky? Demonstrate the effects that the wood, fermentation, barley varieties etc. all have on the end product and experience? It certainly would. With the advent of whisky becoming very much a commodity nowadays, the sense of experimentation and therefore education has been pushed aside. Thankfully today, we have a concept that may prove enticing to the inquisitive.
The ability to engage in such whims and forays into the unknown are financially out of touch with the mere mortal whisky enthusiast nowadays. Whilst we’re welcoming new entrees to the wonderful world of whisky daily, there remains a growing awareness and level of appreciation amongst the existing conscripts. A percentage of the rank and file are seeking to broaden their horizons; nose and taste the differences that the aforementioned elements have on the whisky right in front of them. For these recruits, the playing field is more limited or has been until now.
When A.D. Rattray reached out to Malt about sending out a pack of samples – note we don’t pursue samples – it was a kind gesture. The problem with samples is that you’re then dictated to in a way what your next article for Malt is going to be. I prefer to write when I’m inspired or have that glint of mischief in my eye. Things come more naturally and the sound of the keyboard resonates like an orchestra. We also prefer original content and seek inspiration from our own mindset rather than say Facebook posts of others like certain whisky consultants.
So when A.D. Rattray popped a set of samples into the post my mind was already chugging like an industrial steam engine. What to write? What to say? The hardest articles to take root in my fertile imagination are outturns from independent bottlers. Thankfully what plonked on my doormat wasn’t an assortment of various releases, but a concept that warrants further investigation.
As an independent bottler A.D. Rattray could have just released the Bunnahabhain cask we’re going to explore shortly as a single release and it’d have sold very well I’m sure. The same applies for the Arran and Old Pulteney that have received the same treatment. Instead, they thought outside of the box. These casks offered the chance to do something a little more creative and fun. Whether or not if it’s successful – typing this prior to experiencing the liquid – I applaud the effort and imagination. The team commissioned their coopers to create a set of 50 litre Octave casks. These casks were built using oak staves that previously harboured Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry, Oloroso sherry, Rioja or rum. The whisky was then put into these casks for a period of 5 months to showcase the influence of these types of cask and their differences.
Oh yes, potentially the trio have resided in tired and benign casks. That’s a fair point. Within each pack, there is a sample of the original whisky prior to it being finished so we can test that theory as well. The Bunnahabhain is the oldest of the trio being distilled in 2002 and residing in a bourbon hogshead. The additional finish means that the final product is 15 years old. The Pulteney dates from 2007 and the Arran 2011. Whilst we’re not trying the other 2 just now it’d be interesting to do further comparisons. Certainly, Arran, is well versed in cask finishes and the Pulteney is an interesting choice – why these particular distilleries and casks?
Octaves do have a haphazard reputation. Distilleries for a while were gladly filling these traditionally 46-50 litre casks to raise revenue. The end results of some of these Octaves I’ve experienced over the years has been variable. Many had become wood dominated and rather rough. Others really didn’t do much at all. These it must be said are full maturation in the Octave format opposed to the finishes we have here. Generally, full maturation in an Octave would be reasonable for a period of 3-6 years before any sense of balance was erased.
There are various sizes of smaller casks available. Some have roots in traditional distilling which enabled the illicit distiller to easily move and sell his product – even if this literally meant grabbing it and running. The Firkin is 41 litres, whereas a Kilderkin is double in size – 82 litres if you’re not mathematically minded – before the Bloodtub is a tiny 34 litres. The Quarter casks that are used by some distilleries today are a more modest 125 litres. By reducing the size of the cask the spirit has more interaction with the wood over a shorter period. In essence, I call it turbocharging the contents for whatever purpose.
Before we jump into each of these octave finishes lets sort out the bottling cask strengths. The original bourbon cask was 57.1% volume with the strongest of the finishes being the Rioja at 55.9%. However its a tight run thing with a rum finish up next at 55.4%, then a joint tie between the Oloroso and PX at 55.1%. Each of the sets individually comprising of the Arran, Bunnahabhain and Pulteney are available at A.D. Rattray for £35 for the 5x3cl boxset. And if you or I, enjoy a particular variety then there are a limited number of full-size bottles available with the Arran coming in at £57, the Pulteney £70 and the Bunnahabhain which we’ll go through just now at £87.
Bunnahabhain 14 year old bourbon hogshead – review
Colour: a light olive oil.
On the nose: coastal and the lingering residue of smoke are my initial impressions. In the mix are stewed red apples, a few slices of lemon peel and that distinctive aroma of seaweed. In other words, a typical Bunnahabhain example offering approachability and character. The sugary sweetness of tablet, the freshness of pine resin, buttery and a chalky endnote. Water I felt isn’t beneficial hugely releasing some vanilla and cask char.
In the mouth: salty with some smoked lemon and a nice oily texture throughout. At first, I thought there as a soapy aspect but it vanishes upon the second tasting. More resin and white chocolate come forth as do the apples once again with the salt carrying through to the finish. Water reveals little other than more salt. Ultimately a solid single cask without rocking our world – so we can put to bed that concern the original host was flawed.
Bunnahabhain 15 year old Rum octave finish – review
Colour: very little colour change from the original light olive oil, maybe a touch darker.
On the nose: initial impressions are that salty aspect has been replaced more by sweetness. It smells fresher and more punchy with hints of mango, green bananas, sunflower oil, vanilla pod and Kiwi fruit. Adding water brings out more lemon thyme, mustard seed, sugar cubes and a buttery pastry.
In the mouth: my initial notes suggest this is a midway point on the palate. The rum has started to exert its influence but is at a crossroads. Like the second coat of varnish, we’ve lost a bit of detail whilst adding more body. A faint suggestion of tinned pineapple and golden syrup. A slight harshness. It feels more rugged and sugary but incomplete on its journey. Water does sand things down ultimately but doesn’t revive it to a level of its original host.
Bunnahabhain 15 year old Oloroso octave finish – review
Colour: golden syrup
On the nose: less defined than the PX that’s coming up next. Some rhubarb and red apples, dark chocolate and toffee. Trying to fight through this are tangerines, stroopwafels, rubbed brass and cherry menthol. It’s a thick intoxicating mix and even adding water and displaying some patience doesn’t yield too many results with some syrup, honey and a creamy aspect.
In the mouth: the sweetest arrival so far with red grapes, apples and raspberries. Water brings out honey, tablet, Kiwi fruit and hazelnuts. Totally drinkable but it feels incomplete and lacking definition. Still a solid whisky hence the score…
Bunnahabhain 15 year old PX octave finish – review
On the nose: transformed thanks to the octave cask. There’s a redness with cranberries and noticeable sherry influence here. It’s tangy with rhubarb, raspberry jam and blood orange, then some prunes. It’s amazing what 5 months have done – it’d be interesting to note whether the original PX cask was a 2nd or 3rd refill – and whilst it’s changed it doesn’t feel forced or a hatchet job. Towards the end, the cinnamon comes through alongside some sweet tobacco and cracked black pepper. Water with the addition of time reveals ginger root and varnish.
In the mouth: a burst of sweetness followed by red fruits before a slightly drying finish. Returning there’s a tartness almost Braeburn apple in character. Australian red liquorice, more dried cranberries and pomegranate. It’s startling how little of that original Bunnahabhain character remains – its been literally washed away, but what remains lacks real detail. Unsurprisingly, water takes off the roughages and letting it sit for a sizeable length of time has its benefits. It becomes more palatable generally and feels more complete – cherries come through and an engaging leathery quality.
Bunnahabhain 15 year old Rioja octave finish – review
Colour: copper tape.
On the nose: on paper, I was expecting something forceful but this doesn’t transpire. Honey is evident as are fudge, wine gums and digestive biscuits. A coffee latte. Orange peel mingles with an autumnal quality and salted caramel. Water erodes the sense of structure and uniformity.
In the mouth: again transformed but not swamped in this case. Very chocolate rich, almost a dense brownie with a touch of mint. Cranberries appear with water and more redness with grapes, apples and roasted coffee beans on the finish.
Is the project a success? That depends on the criteria you’re utilising to gauge the outcomes. If you were expecting a metamorphosis then yes, there have been transformations but nothing that really improves upon the host cask. A couple of siblings that in their own way are equal yet not superior. Instead, an appreciation is formed for the power of the octave and also the fragility it brings to the final whisky. After just 5 months aromas and flavours have been diverted, twisted, inserted and erased. A dangerous tool that needs careful implementation and observation. Remember our scoring system is a little more candid than others.
The opportunity to compare and contrast is the ultimate achievement. As is an appreciation where cask finishes that are a success should be applauded.
Thanks to A.D. Rattray for the samples and opportunity to compare these octave finishes.