“When would a Malt pick really matter?”
I asked myself this question as I pondered several opportunities for the Malt team to be involved in selecting single barrels, casks, or whatever they might be called in your locale. While some folks might be convinced that every single cask or barrel pick is unique and interesting purely by virtue of its existence, I’m not so convinced.
In my many reviews of whiskeys in the barrel pick format, I have returned time and again to the idea that a single cask – to warrant special consideration and a price premium – must offer something different than is widely available from the same brand. It’s a hard line to walk; there must be off-profile notes not commonly found in the reference expressions, but they must be balanced enough to contribute to, rather than distract from, the overall tasting experience. Otherwise, the exercise of “picking” is a self-defeating one, and those bang-average barrels may as well have been batched like the rest.
As you might imagine, there’s almost no support for this viewpoint from the people offering barrels for selection, selecting them, and selling them. Starting with the first group: some distilleries actively restrict barrel picks to on-profile barrels, for fear of… well, I’m not exactly sure. Buffalo Trace (probably rightly) feels that they have 99 problems, and a dearth of enthusiasm for their products ain’t one. Why whip up more of a frenzy when retailers are already in a knife fight (in the form of endcaps full of Fireball and Wheatley vodka) for barrel picks that are functionally identical to the batched retail versions?
Moving on to the pickers, we have a serious case of the Lake Wobegon effect, in which everyone considers themselves (and their barrel pick) above average. Rather than cast aspersions on anyone’s palate, let me say: I get it. You went to Kentucky and sat in the rickhouse and breathed in that musty air, and it was a magical moment in your whiskey journey. To you, your barrel pick – no matter how objectively pedestrian the whiskey – is a physical manifestation of that fond memory. That’s great for you, but all your warm fuzzies don’t mean that consumers like me should pay a premium for a bottle of your pick.
Finally, let’s consider the poor retailers. As mentioned above, they’ve been forced by their distributors to move some really undesirable inventory in exchange for the dwindling hope of getting a barrel pick. Perhaps they weren’t even allowed to pick; perhaps they had a barrel foisted on them, blind, in a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer that they feared they couldn’t refuse. If that retailer is the type of businessperson that plans on staying in business, they’re probably not going to advertise that their “hand selected” barrel is a dud that was passed over by the dozen-or-more groups that preceded them.
When I thought about attaching Malt’s imprimatur to a barrel pick, in consideration of all the aforementioned pitfalls, I almost decided to quit before I started. Then David came calling.
David Jennings and his Rare Bird 101 blog will be well-known to readers of this site. Rather than rehash his resumé for the umpteenth time, I’ll encourage the curious to type “Wild Turkey” into this site’s search bar and marvel at how pervasive (in the best possible sense) his influence on this site has been. Personally, he’s a friend and a mentor to me, and has consistently encouraged me both to do the right thing, as well as to do things right.
I was tantalized by David’s offer of a Westland barrel pick, to be shared among the Patreon supporters of both his blog and ours. His rationale for including Malt was that he has a more bourbon-oriented audience, and we’d have a better chance of moving all the bottles if we tied in Malt’s more, umm… malt-focused fanbase.
Few craft distilleries rank higher in my personal league table than Westland. I’ve been privileged to enjoy a number of their whiskeys thanks to the generosity of the distillery as well as friends of this site. I love that they differ significantly but retain common characteristics. I adore the meticulous details provided with each release, allowing the taster to understand the connection between raw materials and processes on the front end, and the resultant aromas and flavors on the back end.
I also like that I haven’t seen many Westland barrel picks around, in comparison to the ubiquitous selections from Kentucky distilleries both large and small. If Malt stands any chance of picking a barrel that will be worthy of your time, attention, and currency, it would surely be from Westland?
David recruited two of his Patreons to join him, me, and the inimitable Kat Aagesen on the virtual pick. Sitting down with brand ambassador Chris Riesbeck, we discussed the philosophy and process of Westland (a video recording of the proceedings is available, for those interested) before diving into the three barrels on offer. They all differ significantly in terms of their specifics, promising a wide range of potential outcomes.
Below are the whiskeys in the order they were tasted. My notes were produced contemporaneously during our tasting, with the benefit of added thoughts from revisiting the remains of my samples a few days later. I have used the SRP of $100/bottle for the purposes of scoring within Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands.
Starting with cask 4121, we have a whiskey from Westland’s 5-Malt mash bill. This had a full four year, five month maturation in a Calvados cask. Coming out of the barrel at 119.98 proof (59.99% ABV), this cask yielded 174 bottles.
Westland Cask No. 4121 – Review
Color: Palest shade of maize.
On the nose: Sweet orchard fruit meets malt and oak in a tripartite marriage of exceptional balance. Apples accented by cinnamon sugar meet with a pert stoniness and a spicy note of anise, with salutary notes of barley and potpourri. Lemon meringue, honeysuckle, and a subtle maritime influence of saline and iodine. Though this isn’t the ex-tequila cask from among our selection, there is an uncanny note of agave here.
In the mouth: Malty and roasty upfront, presenting immediate notes of mocha and nutmeg. Toward the middle of the palate this presents dried apple flavors, moving into an astringent woodiness balanced against tart orchard fruit, then evolving smoke and ash noted in the manner of a spent cigarette butt. There’s a malty finish, with a roasty resurgence, lemongrass, lime rind, and vanilla bean. On further consideration, I get notes of moist vanilla cake, balanced against a firm stoniness.
There’s lots to recommend this whiskey; in particular, it takes on some gorgeous fruit and floral aromas from the Calvados cask. I like that these are integrated in a balanced way, allowing the malt to sing out on its own rather than being smothered by the cask overlay. Very, very good whiskey; I was nearly certain when we tasted it that this would be the group’s final selection.
Moving along to cask 5700, this is again from the 5-Malt mash bill. The whiskey matured for three years, eleven months in an ISC Cooper’s Reserve barrel before finishing in a tequila cask from Rocky Mountain Barrel Company for two years, seven months, for a total maturation of six years, six months. 192 bottles were produced at barrel proof of 105.05 (52.53%).
Westland Cask No. 5700 – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brown.
On the nose: Initially, this presents Asian cuisine aromas of soy sauce and fivespice. There’s more tannic and young woodiness, with notes of mesquite. Spicy and sweet scents of Tabasco sauce and brown sugar bounce back and forth. Some more time in the glass reveals a whiff of strawberry yogurt, as well as maritime notes of kelp and algae. Chris called out some dried cherry scents, which became apparent to me after he suggested them. Only after a very long time do I get any specific aromatic notes of tequila.
In the mouth: Astringent and tart on the entrance, though this quickly yields to richer notes of cacao, coffee, and the most delightful drying woody note. Balsamic vinegar makes an appearance, as does a spicy and rich note of Mexican chocolate. This lingers with a drying, off-bitter note that sits somewhere between wood and cocoa. There’s a subtle, lingering umami note of tomato-based BBQ sauce in here as well. Texturally, a residual, woody warmth lingers on the top of the mouth.
This is delicious in a way that might result in an entire bottle disappearing over the course of a party, but it’s also got layers and layers of subtle nuance that reward patient, prolonged consideration. The chocolate notes sprinkled throughout the nose and palate are simply delightful, but there’s enough woody and spicy elements to keep this from becoming unbalanced. The tequila cask has clearly had an influence but – remarkably – in a way that is not at all reminiscent of tequila. Chris noted that this distillation was the first run post-peat, and the wash run charge in the spirit still would have been the peated malt, so some of the phenolics might have crept into this, resulting in the smoky nuances.
In total, this is one of the most seriously excellent malt whiskies I have tried, from America or elsewhere. It delivers diverse aromas and flavors with intensity and balance. It warrants serious consideration in an intellectual way, but can also be sipped hedonistically, with joyful abandon. A real delight.
Finally, we have cask 1229. Though David mentioned that the polarizing influence of peat made him want to stay away from peated malt, we maintained an open mind with regards to this barrel. The malt is Baird’s Heavily Peated (55 ppm), and this was matured entirely in an ISC Coopers Reserve cask for six years, eight months. 198 bottles were filled at cask strength of 109.34 proof (54.67% ABV).
Westland Cask No. 1229 – Review
Color: Medium-dark brownish gold.
On the nose: Woodland, pine, saline, roasty malt, sous bois, a citric and creamy whiff key lime pie, a smoky meatiness of kielbasa sausage. Surprising rich sweetness of oak, married to a subtle smokiness. There’s also a surprisingly specific, rich note of prunes in here.
In the mouth: Puckering the lips at first, this arrives with a smoke-infused citric sourness. The whiskey moves into a salted nuttiness and notes of roasted green chili on the midpalate. The lone nit to pick is that the smoky elements turn slightly acrid as this reaches the crescendo. There’s a lingering rich heat here, as well as a persistent and drying minerality, but I still come back again to that smoky aspect that sits just the other side of stale.
This is comparable to the Westland’s Peat Week bottling that I tried, in that the peaty and smoky elements remain an accent, rather than the dominant note. I like that there are ample other elements come through. All in, though – and in comparison to the two other barrels – this comes across as more mainstream. It’s unlikely to offend, but might disappoint those looking for some truly unique notes. As a consequence, it’s my least favorite of the three, and I’m scoring it as precisely average.
Now, time to rank these. We went in descending order of preference; I awarded three points for first, two points for second, and a point for third.
David’s Order: 5700, 4121, 1229
Kat’s Order: 1229, 5700, 4121
Roger’s Order: 5700, 4121, 1229
Scott’s Order: 1229, 5700, 4121
Taylor’s Order: 5700, 4121, 1229
4121: 8 votes
5700: 13 votes
1229: 9 votes
We have a winner! Cask number 5700 will be available first to our Patreon supporters, with remaining bottles (if any) released to the general public. It’s worth noting that our retail partner has an international shipping option, thus this will not be limited to our stateside fan base. More details will be forthcoming.
Repeated perusal of this site will have infused our readership with a healthy level of cynicism. I’m certain at least one of the folks reading this saw my high score for the cask we picked and rolled their eyes. These are for sale, after all, so of course it would warrant an inflated mark, right?
In my defense, I can only offer you my honesty in exchange for your trust. I fell in love with this whiskey the moment I tasted it and have periodically craved it ever since. It’s so enjoyable on different levels. I absolutely cannot wait to share it with friends, and with our Patreon community and David’s. If it assuages any concerns about a conflict of interest: I have no economic stake in this barrel. The only profit to be made from it will go to our retail partner, who will be selling bottles at wholesale cost plus the normal retail markup in his state. To put my own money where my mouth is: I’ll happily buy up any unsold bottles from this cask once everyone has had a chance to purchase theirs… but I don’t anticipate there will be many, once you get a taste of this whiskey.