When it comes to whisky, very often we tend to see both bourbon and/or sherry cask matured whiskies as the standard, as the way things are done, normal procedure… The reasons for this are quite easy to understand: both bourbon and sherry casks have a strong and long tradition when it comes to whiskymaking. The former is built on a very solid foundation of availability. As bourbon must be matured in virgin oak casks, by law, those casks sort of become ‘obsolete’ for the vast majority of bourbon distilleries as soon as the contents have been dumped for bottling, and while things are indeed changing with more and more American distilleries big and small starting to branch out by producing whiskeys and ryes, there still remains an enormous availability of ex-bourbon casks for the Scottish industry. Some of these relationships go back years and years, if not ages. Take Laphroaig and Maker’s Mark for example, or even better Glenmorangie, who own vast oak forests in the States, closely collaborating with bourbon producers who sort of get to ‘lease’ the Glenmorangie casks for a number of years before these casks are being shipped to Scotland for a second life.
As for sherry, the story bares similarities to that of bourbon, with Britain being the primary export market for centuries. Until fairly recently, there was a lively tradition of entire shiploads of sherry casks getting shipped to Britain to be bottled there, resulting in an equally abundant availability of (empty) sherry casks on British soil. Even as Spanish legislation changed that (as sherry now has to be matured AND bottled in Spain), the tradition is equally firmly rooted within Scotch whisky.
Just to say, bourbon and sherry matured/finished whisky seems to pretty much agree with what we expect a whisky to be, and while of course different casks previously containing different spirits and alcoholic beverages have always been around, with wine finishing particularly popular atm, quite often we still tend to look at these port/madeira/wine/… casks as ‘exotic’, sometimes even unorthodox.
Port casks maturation or finishing is a particularly interesting case I think, as it shares quite a few of the characteristics of sherry. Both are fortified wine, usually around 20% ABV, both are produced in southern Europe (although there is a significant difference in climate between the region of Porto and that of Jerez, Andalusia), even some of the tasting profiles of port shares some resemblance with sherry as well, the main difference being port tends to be noticeably sweeter and less dry than most sherries, and quite a lot of the stuff is made from red grapes, where sherry is produced using white grapes.
So, for today’s journey, and inspired by a sample set consisting of different whiskies all being port cask finished (many thanks to the wonderful Luna Arran), I got to work and neatly lined ‘m all up to see what’s what. So sit back, pour yourself a dram and strap in for what will very much be a far from scientific little experiment. Obviously, the main focus will (and should always) be: does it taste good? But perhaps a few questions on the side might be asked as well.
The (un)usual suspects:
Tomintoul 15 yo port -‘the unknown’ - 46% ABV, bourbon cask, portpipe finished, 2016 bottling, 5820 bottles, natural colour, UCF
Glen Scotia 14 yo – ‘the limited edition’ – 52.8% ABV American oak cask, tawny portcask finish, 2020 Campleltown festival release, 15,000 bottles, natural colour, UCF
Glenallachie 11 yo - ‘the new kid in town’ - 48% ABV, American Oak matured with port wood finish, 2020 release, natural colour, UCF
Tomatin 14 yo – ‘the readily available’ - 46% ABV, bourbon + port casks, core range expression, natural colour, UCF
It will hardly come as a surprise that these 4 whiskies, despite all of them being port cask finished, all brought something else to the table, as they all have rather different characters and profiles. So putting them up one aside the other and assessing them as such, is only part of the journey. Perhaps the obvious place to start, is to look for similarities and differences between The Glenallachie and the Tomintoul, both being Speyside scotches.
The Glenallachie is very much of a bombardment of red fruit on the nose with rich red apples and berries being very obvious, calling to those of us with a bit of a sweet tooth. While it’s also quite grainy, it brought lots of notes of dark brown sugar, creaminess and soft spices. Not very complex, but pretty nice. With a drop of water there was a lovely milk chocolate note coming through, adding an extra touch to the sweetness. The nose continues on the palate, but a savory-briny touch pops up, lifting things up, also bringing some complexity. Good stuff, but imo it doesn’t really stand out against some of the other recent ‘cask finishes’ from Glenallachie. Which doesn’t mean that this isn’t a good whisky. Far from it, but comparing this to the standard 12yo, I don’t really see how it’s worth an extra €10-€15.
As for the Tomintoul, it’s immediately clear that this is a different animal. Despite the fruit showing itself almost instantly on the nose, the wood influence is also pretty obvious and recognizable. There’s a candy-like note, almost leaning into a syrupy, sweet glue-solvent note as well. Rather perfume-y alongside a distant grassy-funky note before the dried fruit notes kick in, with plums and raisins. Good and intriguing, but the balance wasn’t always, well, in balance. How that changes on the palate! This is much more interesting: fresh, vibrant and fruity (not particularly sweet, mind you) with what I’d almost would call a sherry note. Much more ‘alive’. The wood adds a soft and faint bitter note to counterpart the fruitiness. Particularly interesting was to see how this kept on developing over time. After 20 or so minutes suddenly some salty notes come through, making it a very engaging experience. All of this sort of fades out through the finish, where the woodnote lingers around a bit. This is not what I would expect from a portwood finished whisky, as it was far less sweet and quite wood driven as well, leaning more towards an oloroso or even amontillado (the dryness) finished scotch. The big ‘downside’ here is not only that it’s a limited edition with less than 6000 bottles, but also that it’ll cost you somewhere between €75 and up (to as much as €100, which basically is taking the piss imo).
No, in terms of bang for buck it’s quickly losing ground to the Glen Scotia, which is also ‘limited’ edition (if you’d call 15’000 bottles limited, that is), but which will easily be €15 or more cheaper. Not only that, but the good people at Glen Scotia absolutely nailed it with this little beauty. On the nose the marriage of subtle smoke and peat with the red fruit assortment (again figs, raisins, berries…) turns out to be a menage-à-trois with the classic Campbeltown signature of grassy funk notes with hints of cereals and biscuits. It goes on in the palate, which is very nicely layered with flavour and complexity: peat, rich red fruit, grainy and slightly grassy. Just pure whisky goodness that only stops after a long, dry finish with a peppery-peaty note and a maritime saltiness.
Which brings us to The Tomatin. Oh, how the Highlander has some large shoes to fill, it seems. Of course you can’t put the two of them together for a head-to-head comparison. Generally speaking, their flavor profiles are miles apart, and the fact that both of these whiskies have been port finished, does little to change that. Yet, it doesn’t take anything away from the Tomatin. The nose on this thing is just something I could kick back with all evening, purring like a happy kitten as it’s so soft and pleasant. The consistency of this wee dram is remarkable from nose to finish. It’s most definitely the most ‘typical’ port finished whisky of the lot: soft red fruit, quite citrus driven with a ton of sweet oranges and orange zest, brown sugar leaning towards a syrupy note and moutfeel, jafa cakes, red apples, honey, vanilla, milk chocolate and hazelnut. Sweet, soft and gentle, but never overly so. Just liquid friendliness. Despite my initial idea to compare the Glenallchie to the Tomintoul, I find this one to be closer to Billy Walker’s creation than the Tomintoul. And while this is 14 years old, it’s easily €15 to €20 cheaper compared to the 3 years younger Glenallachie, making this a bit of a no-brainer in terms of value for money. The Glenallachie is a very decent whisky, but it finds itself somewhere in the twilight zone between an easy sipper and a complex one. So if you ‘re looking for a pleasant port influenced whisky experience, the Tomatin wins it hands down. (And if you’re looking for a more complex Glenallachie, the 10 yo cask strength is still very much the way to go.)
Intrinsically, there can be little argument about the conclusion that the Glen Scotia is ‘the winner’ here, but, seeing how that will not be around forever and going back to our initial mission to find out what a port cask finish can bring to the table, to me the Tomatin 14 yo port casks comes out on top.
Surprising conclusion? Maybe. Can you draw any sort of generalized conclusion out of this little portwood experiment? Please don’t. Do I stick with my conclusions? Oh, yes! I appreciate this being a bit of a longer read, so if you’re still here: thank you (and congratulations). If you want more port wood nerding out, I can only recommend this week’s video from Greg’s whisky guide (I swear we didn’t plan this): watch it here.