I’ve always been one for letting food speak for itself. I make sure to cook and season a dish as much as needed, and as little as possible.
This approach bleeds into how I take my whisky. It is a food, after all! So, I add water, give it some air, or even add an ice cube (yeah, I said it!), in order to let the whisky be itself as much as possible. This is also why I lean towards bourbon barrel matured whisky rather than those matured in sherry casks. Bourbon barrel maturation seems to present the whisky in a more “hands off” style. It’s the pinch of salt to focus the flavor of what’s already there. It also seems to give you a clearer picture of the malt from the distillery.
You ever tried Macallan or Mortlach out of a hogshead? Not to be lewd, but it’s as if they’ve been stripped bare. Consider it a chance to see them on more honest terms, whereas sherry casks are so influential they can quickly gussy up a whisky. The malt underneath seems veiled by layers of colorful frills. However, this is simply a conclusion based on my own experiences. What if this preference has prevented me from tasting malts that truly are showcased better with some influence from a sherry cask?
With that in mind, I set up a little comparison with a malt I’m less familiar with: Benrinnes. This distillery is part of a small group of producers that use worm tubs to condense their vapors during distillation. This is done in an effort to retain weight and give the distillate a meaty quality. As has been written here on Malt, this process can yield some polarizing whisky. The heady sulphur can be too much for some drinkers, however those that love its unrepentant style have told me that sherry casks can really elevate it.
In this comparison, I’ll taste some Benrinnes bottled by Signatory. This was distilled in 1997 and spent 20 years in a Hogshead. Then, I’ll try a bottling by North Star. This was distilled in 2006 and aged 10 years in a hogshead, then finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry hogshead. Luckily, both of these are from Benrinnes’ tryst with partial triple distillation. The lower feints would be re-distilled and the strongest feints would be mixed with the highest strength distillate in an effort to promote the meaty style.
Will the limited contact with sherry wood be enough to enhance the character of Benrinnes? Or will the older whisky stay truer to the style? Let’s find out…
Signatory: Benrinnes 1997 – Review
Bottled at 43% ABV. On the shelf for €70.
On the nose: There’s a powdery malted milk aroma straight away. Then it gets richer with long notes of vanilla and confectioner’s sugar. These eventually fade and give way to weaker notes way at the back: old wood, dried grist, and a whiff of stewed meat. If you want it sweeter add a few drops of water.
In the mouth: An oily texture with a mild vanilla flavor to start. This is cut by notes of Juicy Fruit (like the gum). The mid-palate is prickly from the alcohol. However, there is a nice swing of malt flavors, ranging from toasty to dark and hearty. The finish seems the most telling of the whisky and the wood. Commingling flavors of burnt rip tips and heavy wood char. Add some water to highlight more of the wood spices and draw out some minty notes.
Everything about this is a bit out of focus. There’s good core flavors, some added notes from the wood, and you do get a glimmer of that meaty character. Though I find myself wishing for a few more pinches of salt to make the flavors sharper. While the char is heavy handed on the finish the rest of the wood notes seem tired. Which makes me think the cask used was probably on its last legs.
North Star: Benrinnes 2006 – Review
Bottled at 49.1% ABV. On the shelf for $100.
On the nose: Bold right out of the gate: wet mushrooms, soaked wood, extinguished matches, and whole anise seeds. If you smell this too deeply it’ll be all you smell for a bit, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. The aroma has impact and definitely leaves you curious about the taste. Because this seemed so dense I let it aerate in the glass for an afternoon. The second time around the aromas had unpacked themselves and there was a nice whiff of pipe tobacco.
In the mouth: While this starts as an arm wrestle between sweet and savory, it’s the sweeter notes that eventually win out. Fruit cake, molasses, hash marks, fruit gummies, and salisbury steak (though mostly the sauce and mere forkfuls of the meat). Dried cranberries, cotton candy, fruit leathers, and wood tannin to add some bitterness.
I tried to find out how long the whisky had spent in the PX sherry wood but couldn’t get a firm time frame, just “finished.” Though no matter how long it spent in cask, the sherry’s influence was enormous. This acts as an echo chamber for the sulphur notes, though I don’t know if the sherry finish showed the best side of the sulphury distillate. That’s not to mention all the other flavors it piled on. Pedro Ximenez sherry is a rich and syrupy wine. I thought with the limited time in cask it might be the touch of color the whisky needed. Instead, it seemed almost entirely drenched.
That said, this whisky is a cut above average. It’s a distinctive dram and not at all coy. While there are a lot of flavors from the sherry, it is never too sweet. Between its richness and the savory qualities, it’s certainly a whisky to pour when you want to “sink your teeth” into something.