Virgin oak is sure to capture my attention.
It is popularly used in Tomatin Legacy, Balblair 12, and The Balvenie Sweet Toast of American Oak Stories Series, amongst many other releases. Despite my general dislike of overly oaky whisky, virgin oak, for me, seems to allow fruiter flavours from the malt develop and appears to soften younger spirit. Others speak of stronger vanilla flavours and of heightened sweetness. Another obvious advantage to distillers is a depth of colour that belies the age on younger whiskies.
Opinions are split about the use of virgin oak. In 2015 Serge Vallentin of WhiskyFun described the use of virgin oak as “an abomination,” whereas Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie defended the practice of finishing with virgin oak provided there is a careful application, “or else a one dimensional whisky can result.”
Glenallachie – or, more specifically, Billy Walker – has earned a name with the skilful application of cask finishes to whisky. Initially through the work at Glendronach, Benriach, and (to an extent) Glenglassaugh. In 2017, after selling the former three distilleries to Brown Forman, Walker obtained the former Chivas workhorse Glenallachie Distillery. Billy and his team have turned a much maligned and unloved distillery with a poor reputation into one of the best sellers. In fact, Aberdeen Whisky Shop think it’s probably their bestselling single malt.
Where Billy Walker had honed his use of quality casks with Glendronach and Benriach, similar casks will be working hard on old Glenallachie stock acquired with the distillery purchase. Billy Walker’s style is flavour forward and sherry focussed, but there are also ventures into most other permitted cask types.
The core range is a combination of cask types delivering smooth, approachable whisky favour-focused on the majority. In these releases, the use of virgin oak is interesting. Virgin oak casks are typically used to speed up young spirit, such as with the Benromach Organic and Glen Garioch Virgin Oak, both whiskies released as non-age statement with the spirit roughly six to eight years old. With these Genallachie whiskies, the finishes are pepping up spirit that would otherwise be regarded as ready for drinking at other distilleries.
The new spirit character favoured by Billy Walker is only just filtering through in extremely limited numbers with the release of 10,000 bottles of the 50th Anniversary Futures four year old peated malt. Given the short five years that have passed since the acquisition of the distillery there is some hope for improvements; I’ve yet to try the new spirit. The production has been scaled back to just 500,000 litres of alcohol per year (LOA), although there is a theoretical capacity of up to 4 million LOA at Glenallachie. This change has allowed the distillers to stretch to an extra-long distillation of 160 hours.
Whilst the new-style spirit quietly slumbers, the experimentation continues. In 2020, the first three virgin oak cask finishes were released. This included Chinquapin oak (a sub-species of American white oak) and French Virgin Oak from the Haute-Garonne region in the Pyrenes. The third was Spanish Virgin Oak from trees grown in the Cantabrian Mountains in Northern Spain. The oak was air dried for 18 months prior to coopering. Each of these releases comprised of 6,500 bottles; the whisky was bottled at 48%. These releases cost around £60, and came non-chill filtered and at natural colour.
In 2022 three further virgin oak finished whiskies came in the series. The release included Scottish Virgin Oak finish the aged 15 years for a particularly spicy £175. The Scottish oak is Sessile Oak sourced from the West Coast of Scotland which was air dried for 36 months. The price is driven by the rareness of the oak and the difficulties in obtaining workable staves due to the tendency to knot. Just 2250 bottles of the expression were released.
There was also a 10 year old release of French Virgin oak from the same region as the 2020 bottles and another 10 year old release from Chinquapin oak from the Northern Ozark region of Missouri in the USA. All these bottlings were at 48% with natural colour and non-chill filtered. The two 10 year old releases retailed at £61.99.
All of the virgin oak casks involved in these released were charred and toasted to a medium toast as part of the coopering process and the virgin oak finishes were around 18 months. The whisky was in refill American oak casks prior to finishing.
The Scottish Oak Programme was championed by Master Whisky Maker Gregg Glass at Whyte & Mackay as an alternative to ex-bourbon barrels from the USA, whilst also supporting the small sawmills and woodlands around Scotland with the focus on sustainable wind-felled oaks. Originally, Whyte & Mackay released the King of Trees 10 year old blended Highland Malt using wood from two 200 year old wind-felled Scottish oak trees, from which only one single cask could be manufactured. Whyte & Mackay extended the programme across all of their distilleries. It is my understanding that other independent distilleries outside of Whyte & Mackay, such as tiny Badachro and Glenallachie, have been invited to participate in the collaborative programme.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak French Oak 12 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £60.
On the nose: Bright and fruity with orchard fruits, ripe nectarine, and dusty vanilla, cloudy apple juice, Danish pastry, and confident baking spices. With time, polished oak furniture develops and the whole nose becomes quite dry.
In the mouth: Light, malty arrival, white fruit, almost floral, before more oily baking spices; aromatic spices continue onto the finish which lingers pleasantly on the tongue.
The woodiness of the French oak is evident as a pleasant spiciness. I’m not sure that the base spirit is that tasty though, perhaps that is an inherent flaw with this series.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak Spanish Oak 12 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £60.
On the nose: Vanilla, soft fudge, more baking spices initially, muted fruit, dried apricots, raw puff pastry, freshly baked hobnob biscuits, ground ginger, peach flesh, icing sugar, honeycomb.
In the mouth: Initially light and flat this moves through vanilla and toffee to become quite peppery, herbal with tarragon and torn garden mint, the peppery spirit lingers with dry oak on the finish.
Smooth, reasonably complex, fair ABS, still quite prickly despite 12 years in wood.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak Chinquapin Oak 12 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £60.
On the nose: Toasted oak, baking spices, cinnamon, nutmeg, dusty confectioners’ sugar, toffee, a faint fruitiness, malted barley, a slightly floral nutty note, candied lemon peel, fondant icing, all muted and soft.
In the mouth: Light soft fruit, cut green apple, white grape, very soft spices and fudge, apricot turnover, a little ground ginger. The finish is short but with a little flash of funky fruit.
The flavour is OK; overall it’s drinkable. This is the softest of the three thus far. The extra ABV is carrying quite a bit of flavour; this would die at 40%.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak French Oak 10 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £62.
On the nose: This is much spicier than the French 12 year old with pepperiness from the spirit and a more American bourbon flavour profile with peppermint tea, polished oak, vanilla, and baking spices prominent. Aromatic toasted oak, Brasso, angelica root, fennel seed.
In the mouth: Smooth warm vanilla fudge, assertive baking spices, buttery icing, clove, aniseed, toffee apple. Slightly peppery finish again, with polished oak and pencil shavings giving quite a bitter note.
Perhaps one of the most complex, the tension between the spirit and the cask finish was interesting and it came across as livelier that the 12 Year Old. However, it needed some other dimension to elevate the score.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak Chinquapin Oak 10 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £62.
On the nose: Soft, sweet toasted oak, gentle baking spices, buttery pastry, iced cinnamon rolls, balanced with apricot jam, ripe pear, all in harmony with a cream cheese frosted carrot cake.
In the mouth: Caramel milkshake, vanilla, buttered toast sprinkled with brown sugar, baking spices, white wine fruitiness. Dry tarte and slightly herbal, more oak spices on the finish which is medium length and fairly simple.
Fine in the way that Edinburgh folk use the word (meaning OK) rather than Aberdeenshire folk (meaning fantastic). It’s fine. I think this dram is more interesting in a vertical comparison and most likely forgettable by itself.
Glenallachie Virgin Oak Scottish Oak 15 Year Old – Review
48% ABV. £175.
On the nose: Initially a burst of fruit: apple juice, pear, white peach, followed by toasted sugar, donut, oak shavings and baking spices, wild raspberry and an earthy sweetness, vanilla butter cream. Scottish pancakes drizzled in golden syrup.
In the mouth: Smooth arrival, soft caramel, butter toffee, baking spices, and some ground ginger, white pepper, creamy butter frosting topped with hundreds and thousands. The finish gives a little crushed raspberry and red apple peel; it is medium length, with some coffee grounds and a little fruity funk.
Good, interesting whisky but not more-ish. It’s perhaps the best here, but not deserving of a higher score. No reductions in price; Scottish wood is inherently expensive, but surely not quite as much as the price suggests.
I’ve previously reviewed a wine cask Glenallachie which I enjoyed. With these virgin casks there was some variation, but all within a narrow band. With the heavy cask finishes, the cask is doing at least 80% of the work on the old style Glenallachie spirit. The core range are vattings of lots of different cask types to try to give a boost to the flavour profile. The range is released at 48% which is a balance of maximising flavour and also profit, whilst recognising that not everyone enjoys cask strength.
With these virgin oak releases the weakness in the core spirit is exposed; there is not much to improve in it, despite the power that these virgin casks usually deliver. I know there is a huge fanbase for Glenallachie, but – as always – I’m prepared to go out on a limb. In years to come the releases between 2017 and, say, 2027 – when the new spirit makes it to 10 years old – will be regarded as poor years for Glenallachie. They will not be sought after. Would-be collectors should bear that in mind. I’d expect Glenallachie to re-brand each of their core range as the new spirit comes through to clearly distinguish it from the old stocks.
I don’t even really criticise the distillery team for doing this; to borrow a crude phrase: “You can only piss with the cock you’ve got.” They have done well with very little, but I’m not sure the fans who have flocked to the distillery are true whisky connoisseurs. Perhaps have been swept up in the hype?
If I am ever martyred in the name of whisky, let it not be these virgins who await me in heaven.