Firkin. You’ll be wondering what it is, or possibly even why I’m using bad language this early in an article? The reality is somewhat more pedestrian, with the firkin meaning a small wooden barrel, or covered vessel. A device often used for storing perishable goods such as butter or lard, often with a capacity of 9 gallons, or just short of 41 litres depending on your preferred unit of measurement. Often utilised as a device by brewers as well.
Sizes of firkins can vary, but generally, these should not be more than 11 gallons. The firkin used for this whisky was really pushing the limits if my maths is correct based on a 70cl bottle. Such casks are rarely seen nowadays in whisky, along with the kilderkin (21.6 gallons) due to their small size and high maintenance requirement. By that, I mean, the need to observe the liquid closely. A smaller cask means more pronounced interaction with the wood, which can quickly dominate proceedings. Plus that lasting romantic image of Hamish jumping the outer croft wall with one massive swoosh of his kilt, whilst carrying a full firkin and heading into the glens to avoid the excisemen.
Then, there’s the additional factor of working with such small amounts of liquid, which is unusual. However, we do know that the Single Cask work with split casks, or even potentially a very leaky original host. I do recall such a cask bottled by Gordon & MacPhail from Caol Ila, bottled for the Carnegie Whisky Cellars. A damaged cask that produced 118 bottles after 11 years.
The lowest outturn I’ve seen and that I own, is a Scotch Malt Whisky Society release dubbed Simply Delicious from Ardmore distillery. Bottled at 9 years old, this SMWS 66.92 was from a refill bourbon cask at 57.6% and resulted in just 24 bottles. Given the SMWS don’t deal in splits and this was prior to their ongoing foray into cask foreplay creations, they had to bottle this Ardmore from what I believe was a leaky cask. I’ve never opened it not for value, but rather I always had a great theme for a tasting in mind i.e. whiskies with an outturn of less than 100 bottles. I thought it would be fun, but given my busy schedule I’ve never had the opportunity to arrange it, or ask Justine if she thinks it’s of interest. Maybe one day?
The underlying factor is that every drop of whisky is precious. What do you do with such a small amount of liquid? Larger companies would, in theory, take the blended route as we’ve seen with Cadenhead’s and their regional releases, or shop casks. For a small indie like the Single Cask, they are able to bottle smaller outturns due to their costs I presume and are more adept arguably at working with such small amounts.
Nevertheless, I’m not here to talk about wood or the Single Cask indie bottler who we’ve interviewed previously as part of our 2019 interview series. Instead, let’s talk a little about the fashionable and overrated domain of Islay whiskies.
Mark hit the nail on the head with his thoughts on the tasty Scarabus release, by suggesting that Islay is the Disneyland of whisky. This isle of whisky entertainment is creaking under the weight of distilleries and potentially could sink beneath the waves as jokingly suggested by Mark Watt.
What constitutes an Islay whisky today? Merely the place of its birth is within the confines of the island? That seems to be the case with a constant stream of new make tankers heading off to the mainland. The spirit to mature elsewhere from all of the Islay distilleries except Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. For pursuits, only these 2 distilleries or other casks maturing on the isle deserve the title Islay. It is a slippery slope and one that the Scotch Whisky Association would body swerve more vigorously than any Trump presidential spokesperson.
The regions have become blurred. You’re left with the conundrum of a whisky that may have only spent a few days on Islay and the remainder of its life on the Scottish mainland, for years if not decades, maturing. Yet a cask that has spent the same amount of time on Islay, but finished in a vessel, for any duration, not ordained by the SWA as legal (or Diageo in reality), losing the right to be called a whisky never mind an Islay whisky. Explain that!
This release is non chill-filtered and natural colour, bottled at 8 years of age. The last 6 months were spent in a 1st fill oloroso firkin cask #OCT002. Resulting in an outturn of just 75 bottles at 55.9% and an asking price of £88. My thanks to Michael from Whisky News for the sample.
The Single Cask Islay 2009 – review
Color: faded orange peel.
On the nose: a pleasing arrival of chocolate and orange peel combined with caramel and freshly baked ginger loaf. The peat is present but is more at the rear and offers some salt as well. Wood shavings and a smoke residue sits comfortably alongside honey. I felt this dram needed time to open up given my experiences of aggressive finishes. This patient approach proved beneficial unlocking coffee notes, walnuts, hoisin sauce, brown sugar and seaweed. Plus, some overcooked American thin and pathetic crispy bacon.
Adding water really shattered things for me, with only liquorice and cardboard prevailing as new entries.
In the mouth: a very dense texture and the stodge of an aggressive cask – a distinctive presence you’ll recognise. Chilli flakes and a very drying, rubbery nature. Red berries, cranberries and a red velvet cake. The peat has been pushed aside. Time in the glass didn’t prompt any new revelations. Perhaps the peat is within the foundation now. Assimilated Borg style? Water brings out a lighter nature as you’d expect but the rubber still persists.
This release evoked memories of the Glenglassaugh Revival, or more recently, the GlenAllachie 15-year-old where the use of aggressive casks has had a turbulent effect on the final liquid, increasing the viscosity tenfold. It feels twisted and forced down a route it didn’t necessarily want to follow. The thick, oozing texture comes as a result of its new host and that sense of rubber is hard to shake off.
What Islay distillery this was originally from, no longer really matters. Most nowadays, are refusing to let any old bottler use their precious name. I doubt given the robust efforts of the firkin cask that anyone would be able to say oh this takes like… Such character has been eradicated and it comes as a disappointment on the palate because the nose is very enjoyable. You’re paying for the firkin effect and if you like oloroso sherry with a big amplifier strapped underneath, about to implode due to the overload, then this is for you.
If asked for my opinion, I’d say that the Single Cask took their eye off the ball here. 6 months feels like several months too long. Of course, why you’d want to engulf a sellable commodity like an Islay with such a suffocating cask finish? What was wrong with the original whisky in the first place, if at all?
Image kindly provided by Tyndrum whisky.