Distillers use exotic cask finishes to create new flavor profiles, and challenge chefs to pair those flavors in creative ways.
The art of finishing whisky
The wonderful thing about whisk(e)y in general, and scotch in particular, is the great variety that can be achieved by in what (and how long) the distillate is aged. I’ve already written about how the scotch industry reuses casks…indeed, much of what I’ve tasted in my experience so far are drams that have been aged in sherry casks and a few in port casks. Given the popularity of these finishes, you would expect that the supply of available casks is competitive. Some producers are turning to other types of casks as a substitute, with the result being surprising and delightful. Cask influence on a particular spirit varies greatly based on the wood and what was in the cask before. And I’ve come to learn that choosing exotic cask finishes and food pairings with whisky both are arts requiring a skilled palate.
Holly Seidewand, Gordon’s new Whiskey Specialist, recently presented a wonderful and highly informative scotch tasting seminar called Exotic Cask Finishes. I was lucky enough not only to attend, but I was able to stretch my culinary wings a bit and provide a food pairing for one of the samples, the Glenmorangie Bacalta, a first for me! I’ll talk more about the pairing in a bit (ok, now don’t forget!), but let’s get back to the point…the finishes. Each pour was unique in its own way. I think the easiest way to present them here is, well, just to present them. One small note…because I was also prepping and serving my pairings, my attention was distracted somewhat and my tasting notes weren’t as detailed as I would have liked — I added some more notes as I wrote this post. In my defense, I was nervous and excited (there, there, it’s ok). Luckily, everything went great. Anyway, here goes…
Exotic Cask Finishes Scotch Seminar
Presented by Holly Seidewand at Gordon’s Fine Wines and Liquors, Main Street location, Waltham, MA, April 20, 2017
Glen Moray 10 Year Chardonnay Cask
- Nose: vanilla, peach, grapes; with water, mineral forward
- Taste: minerals, pine, oily, medium body; with water, fruitier, green grapes
- Finish: fades to fruit & pepper; with water still spicy
- Comments: Speyside, matured entirely in a chardonnay cask so you get the buttery, green fruit taste
Tomatin 14 Year Port Cask
- Nose: vanilla
- Taste: strong port, sweet
- Finish: cherry finish
- Comments: Wonderful!! My favorite of the lot. The port cask isn’t as exotic as the others, but it gives a sweet red fruit note
Glenmorangie Bacalta Madeira Cask
- Nose: Light citrus, evergreen
- Taste: smooth entrance, thick, pine, sweet
- Finish: green finish
- Comments: This one I’ve tasted before and loved. Madeira gives a sweet, cooked fruit element
Kilchoman Sauternes Cask
- Nose: sautéed mushroom in butter, a bonfire on the beach
- Taste: a campfire on the tongue, ashy, smoke doesn't hit but slides in, major body, soft, not peppery
- Finish: eases off the tongue
- Comments: Fab! A nice pour for a summer evening. 5 years only in Sauternes wine, a sweet, minerally white wine. Good balance with the smoke
Gordon & MacPhail Sassicaia Cask Caol Ila
- Nose: caramel, smoke slightly; with water, get sweet fruit
- Taste: orange peel, easy smoke; with water, sweeter, fruit comes out, still has peat
- Finish: no real finish, puff of smoke; with water pepper rises finish lasts more
- Comments: Sassicaia is a Bordeaux-style dry red wine
Glenfiddich 12yr IPA (Mystery Pour)
- Nose: sweet ripe peaches,
- Taste: sweet, oily, thick body, pear
- Finish: lasts, mint at the end
- Comments: Very good. Finished in IPA 3 mo, gives a floral “hoppy” notes to the aroma
Now about the food pairing…
As with everything to do with tastings, pairing a food with a particular expression is going to be highly subjective. You can try to complement a flavor note or contrast it, going sweet or savory in the process. I had tried the Glenmorangie Bacalta before and had an idea of its flavors on my palate. In fact, the notes I gave above are from that previous tasting (again, I was busy serving so I didn’t get to try it at the seminar). With Holly’s and Gordon’s Catering Manager Julia Williams’ approval, I chose to play up the apricot and menthol elements of the pour. I presented mini apricot tartlets featuring a homemade short crust pastry filled with organic apricot jam, playing up the fruity notes of the expression. For the “green” taste, I served handmade rosemary sourdough focaccia with a drizzle of sweet balsamic glaze — these contrasting flavors mimicked the Bacalta itself. Everyone seemed to enjoy the snacks and several people commented favorably as to the pairing choices, so I guess I didn’t do too badly!
I loved the thought process involved in coming up with the food pairing ideas. There’s that aspect of creatively using my own experiences with both food and scotch to decide what to suggest, as well as learning from others about their relationship to that particular dram. It’s very interesting to me how we share or differ in our opinions, and tasting in a group certainly can help to name those flavors that you taste but can’t really identify. I would love to hear from you about what food you like to pair with what whisky, and how you came up with that choice. Please leave me your comments below!
I hope you’ll go off the beaten path and try some of these more exotically finished whiskies. They really start to give scotch a wider spectrum of flavors available. If you have tried any or all of them, leave me a comment and let me know your opinion. Or just think up a snack to have with it and enjoy!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!