As much as we are preachers of the grain on Malt, from time to time it’s interesting to look a wood types when… well, it’s actually interesting. And this from High Coast Whisky, the artist formally known as Box, is interesting. It’s about another form of oak which is less commonly used: Quercus petraea (which you may know more commonly as the Sessile Oak).
I should say, oak is really the best vessel for all of this maturation malarky. I’ve sampled Acacia, Wild Cherry, Mulberry and Chestnut maturation in the Waterford Distillery cellars – full maturation that is, no finishing – and only Acacia is starting to get there for my tastes. But even so, oak remains hands-down the winner. The interaction between spirit and oak (and we should remember, it is an interaction, a back and forth, a maturation tango, and not the wood dumping flavours like concentrated fruit juice into the whisky).
But oak itself can be incredibly varied, and the different species of oak allow for a different interaction and a different set of flavours to develop within the spirit. Species, in this case, rather than the cask’s previous contents. The whole way species of oak are processed by mills can be different too – for example, French oak trees have to be split apart, whilst American White Oak has to be sawn. Not that your typical producer will care about such things, for they may well be using knackered old wood that’s been used a couple of times already and bugger all happens with the spirit in terms of flavours, but these things can be interesting and when a distillery is interested in this then it is a sign to me that they care more about quality than the average brand.
So High Coast Distillery’s Quercus series has been all about exploring oak species. I reviewed Quercus II Alba (White Oak) many months ago, and enjoyed it a lot. (I also ranted about wood porn, the industry’s fetish for banging on about wood, something most producers do as that’s the only variable they can really control, as opposed to, you know, actually caring about their spirit – the thing they make. Although me writing about wood again probably doesn’t help…)
Back to Quercus petraea or in this case more specifically, Hungarian oak (though not to be confused with the other Hungarian oak). There’s an epic piece on Wines & Vines that details the differences between Hungarian oak and the more commonly used European oak (Quercus robur), so you should absolutely read that. Hungarian is slightly cheaper than super-posh, Lafite-swilling French oak, though more expensive than grizzly, Bourbony American white oak; and Hungarian oak is thought to impart fewer tannins and produce more aromatics than French – due to its tighter grains, which are as a result of where it is grown. (Who would have thought where something grows can influence flavour, eh…?)
So all in all, this species of oak has become rather desirable in the wine trade, despite an iffy decade in the 1990s. About 30,000 barrels make it out of Hungary each year, and there’s been a solid tradition of coopering within the country for centuries – so if anything it’s somewhat of a surprise we don’t really see more of it in the whisky industry, until you realise just how conservative and formulaic and not really interested in pushing the boundaries of flavour a lot of modern whisky production is.
As with all of High Coast’s whisky, the production information on their site is more transparent than any Scotch producer can dream of sharing, so take it all in. It uses four barley varieties, Tipple, Barke, Rosalina and Quench, all common for Sweden, and has a solid 80-hour fermentation time. High Coast Quercus III Petraea is actually finished in virgin Hungarian oak (so no wine influence) after maturing mostly in ex-Bourbon casks. After 5 years of maturation, it’s bottled at 50.8% ABV. Though a sample made its way to Malty Towers, a 50cl bottle should set you back… I’m not actually sure. Somewhere between £80 and £100, going by the other two.
High Coast Quercus III Petraea – Review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: stacks of golden syrup, with a flapjack-like, porridge-like underbelly. Dried apricots. Stem ginger, leading into slightly headier raisins – but not into dark fruits. Very biscuity and sweet. Coconut. Praline. Sponge cake, ground almonds, and it’s really, really quite delicious.
In the mouth: gorgeous texture, thick and slippery, cloying, full of flavours. Similar to the nose in that syrupy quality, yet there’s something unmistakeably Box, I mean High Coast, about it all. Ginger, apricots, strawberry jam, oaty, barley sugar. Milk chocolate. Then an intense midway maltiness, huge notes of barley indicating to me a respectful distillation of the grain. Assam tea. Sage. Hemp oil. Bounty Bars. Still more flashes of sweetness, a little vanilla here and there. Mostly syrup! Nutmeg, coriander, ginger again on the finish.
Absolutely brilliant. Just a great dram from a great distillery. So moreish. So tasty. There’s certainly something a little more unusual going on, but for me that makes it a very intruiging whisky and the best of the Quercus series. You should definitely bag a bottle.