My preference and go-to maturation choice in whisky is an ex-bourbon cask. The odd sherry cask will be right up my street, but new make whisk(e)y bundled into refill bourbon casks and left for several years… yes, please.
Finishing in whisky is when the spirit is matured in a cask from one origin (e.g. ex-bourbon) before spending time in a different cask from another origin (e.g. ex-port cask, ex-sherry cask). A maturing whisky can often be transferred into a few different cask/barrel types. The distillery could source a wine barrel (red, white, or fortified wine) or perhaps a cask that once held some stout or porter in another lifetime. Marry that all together and – boom – you have a unique profile.
Some finishes can work extremely well, depending on distinct flavour profile of the distillery and time spent in that final cask. I would say somewhere up to two years could be classified as a “finish,” any time more is just additional maturation in another cask. That’s just my take on what categorises as a finish vs. matured, totally up for debate.
However, I’m often a bit suspicious when it comes to “finishing” a whisky. More specifically, I’m skeptical of a dessert or fortified wine finish. My initial thoughts are, “what exactly is a distillery trying to hide?” when pushing a certain finish. You could almost call out some distillers for trying to mask spirit that spent a few years maturing in a knackered cask, or some poorly made new make that can be quite loud, hot, and punchy when bottling. Finishing can perhaps give it a sweeter, rounder edge rather than letting the produced spirit do all the talking.
There’s a very cool video on the topic of finishing from the Whiskey Tribe here. They seek out some wine casks from a vineyard to help change one MGP bourbon barrel they purchased, that turned out a bit “weird” after 6 months of exposure to the Texas heat and humidity.
Having a look at the finishing choice for this Deanston: Marsala wine is a fortified wine made in Sicily. Its use is more commonly found in cooking, but deemed fine enough for sipping like a sherry or madeira wine. Marsala offers common flavours such as vanilla, brown sugar and apricots and is described as a “nearly dry and sappy sweet” wine and best served cooled (12 degrees Celsius/55 Fahrenheit).
A quick look at the distillery for those coming across Deanston for the first time: it is a Highland distillery, although it’s situated just slightly north of the Lowland region of Scotland. Like Loch Lomond and Glengoyne, they’re quite a southern Highland distillery which I think lends to the sweet, unique, and delicate taste Deanston brings. As the distillery is located on the River Teith, its location contributed to the decision to turn the mill into a distillery, and Deanston is now the only distillery in Scotland to be self-sufficient in electricity, with power generated by an on-site hydro-energy facility.
This expression was distilled in 2002 and aged for 15 years, the last portion of that time being a finish in Marsala wine casks. There’s no mention of how long exactly it spent within the Marsala cask. This was bottled in 2018 at cask strength, 55.2% ABV. There’s no added colour and it is non-chill filtered. You can find it at most online speciality drink retailers. At the time of writing this piece, Amazon UK have this bottle priced at £92.45, Master of Malt for £87.95, and The Whisky Exchange priced at £88.95.
Deanston 15 Year Old Marsala Finish – Review
On the nose: Toasted malt. Oats soaked in milk. Slightly creamy. Sugar syrup. Sweet nose but overly loud or hot given the high ABV. Lemon peel in there, white pepper. Woody and a touch of floral elements. Quite a quiet nose. There’s a little vanilla cake sponge with some sugar icing.
Seeing as it’s a high ABV, adding water brings out apples and pears that weren’t there before. Sliced pears in a sugar syrup. Powdered sugar, with a lemon freshness. More of those creamy milky oats. A little touch of dark fruits, and some ginger with nutmeg.
In the mouth: The initial taste has the unique and typical Deanston characteristics. What I mean by that is you’re met by that sweet malty freshness. Toasted oats and a touch of vanilla cream. Everything that was on the nose is in the mouth, but with a slight amplified flavour. I’d describe the mouthfeel as a dry, astringent but covers your mouth entirely. Not hot, nor powerful. I haven’t had the opportunity to taste Marsala before, but you get a dense and thick syrup sweetness. A hint of liquorice and aniseed.
With water, it’s a little softer on arrival. Creamy again with the vanilla sponge. More of a woody element, alongside that toasted oat. The dram remains dry, and the water teases out a little nuttiness. Maybe a dusting of walnuts.
I’d have liked to be able to tell you how much of a difference the Marsala finish has made on this expression. But, having never tasted the fortified wine on its own, it’s hard to give any thoughts on it. I expected a bit more from this Deanston. The core range is very delicious, but this was a little quiet. It’s tasty, but at a high ABV with a fortified wine I was expecting so much more in terms of flavour. It wasn’t as sweet as I assumed, nor adding any levels of nuttiness, which is what I’m reading Marsala can bring as a wine. To me, this could have done with a bit longer in the Marsala cask to really round off some flavours and bring a little extra to the staple Deanston taste.
Image courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.