The growing phenomenon of special cask finishes in the world of whisky

Why SA can hold its own on the world whisky stage

29 October 2020 - 09:12
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Three Ships Whisky Master’s Collection limited edition series: the 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish.
Three Ships Whisky Master’s Collection limited edition series: the 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish.
Image: Supplied/Three Ships Whisky

According to respected whisky writer for The UK Courier, Brian Townsend, special cask finishes are a growing trend in the whisky world, with whisky producers experimenting with techniques and finishes to produce a whisky that attains the perfect mix of flavours that will appeal to both the connoisseur and the average whisky drinker. By all accounts this growing phenomenon in the whisky industry is popular among whisky distillers across the world, and SA’s top distillers are among those producing exceptional cask finished whiskies.

For those of us whose whisky vocabulary needs a little refining, cask-finishing refers to whiskies that receive a secondary maturation in a special type of cask — those that held various types of sherry, port and even beer are popular choices, with wine now also featuring in the mix. With cask finishes the whisky is transferred into a port, sherry or any number of other casks for the final maturation, to absorb the flavours of the wood over a number of years, giving the spirit an unusual finish. Generally, the variety of notes adds dimension and subtle flavour to what is already a fine whisky.

Tasting notes: The 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish

With this limited release, collectors can expect a harmonious interplay of cherries, roasted nuts, Christmas fruit cake and subtle orange with smoky undertones on the nose.

In the palate this whisky opens up to reveal spice and ripe red fruit from the seasoned Shiraz casks, interlacing with the peaty character of this fine single malt.

A warm and lingering mouthfeel with subtle peat and a savoury, smooth finish rounds out this gentle but complex whisky. The whisky is un-chill filtered and rose gold in colour, presented in its natural form at a strength of 51.4% abv.

The history of cask finishes is relatively short with Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart, one of the most respected whisky distillers in the world, cited as the first to experiment with ageing whisky in a different cask after it had already reached full maturity.

“We were already using American and European oak casks, but I wondered how it would turn out if we just re-casked some American oak-matured whisky into sherry butts,” Stewart says. He set out to do just this, inadvertently birthing a new trend. His key achievements include the development of two cask maturations in the 1980s, unheard of at the time.

More recently, SA whisky distillers have also been using novel and unusual cask finishes to create interesting new flavours and colours. At the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, outside Cape Town, multi-award winning master distiller Andy Watts has been producing some of the finest cask finished whiskies for his annual Master’s Collection, over the past few years.   

He recently launched the fifth in the Three Ships Whisky Master’s Collection limited edition series — a superb 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish — in the magnificent setting of the Norval Foundation located below the Constantiaberg.

Just 400 of the 2,994 bottles produced were available for purchase during an online sale on Tuesday October 20, where whisky collectors hurried to beat the clock, with 85% of the whisky sold out within eight minutes (one bottle every 1.4 seconds).

We asked him what his take is on this growing industry trend and also what inspired him to create a Shiraz Cask Finish for this year’s release.

What does a cask finish bring to the experience for whisky lovers?

The flavour of whisky has much to do with the wood and the wood relates to the casks in which the whisky is matured. Without ageing your product in a barrel, all you’ve got is spirit. A cask finish is a secondary maturation in a special type of cask, allowing the whisky enough time to absorb the flavours of the wood over a number of years. This adds dimension and subtle flavour to the whisky, and gives it an unusual finish.  

How do locally produced cask finish whiskies stack up against those produced in other countries? 

SA isn’t generally recognised as a whisky-producing nation, though the country has made great strides in developing unique local whiskies that can confidently stand alongside any of its global competitors. This collectible release is a fine example of how SA whisky ingenuity is revolutionising the whisky category — and if the sales for this year’s release are anything to go by, I think our locally produced cask finish whiskies can more than hold their own on the world stage.

Multi-award winning master distiller Andy Watts.
Multi-award winning master distiller Andy Watts.
Image: Supplied/Three Ships Whisky

What inspired your choice of Shiraz casks for your latest release?

In 2016 we released the second in the Three Ships Whisky Master’s Collection and this was a pinotage Cask finish ... a uniquely SA wine with a uniquely SA whisky. It was my first wine cask finish and, as it turns out, a huge success. It got me wondering how other varietals would fare. Being a firm fan of good red wine I chose a few more varietals to experiment with and the Shiraz just delivered for me.

What makes this year’s Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish special? 

The 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask release was first matured for eight years in American oak barrels, before being finished in seasoned Shiraz oak casks for three years — the result is an exceptionally balanced whisky that is extraordinarily gentle but complex. I really think this year’s release celebrates the tenacity of the dedicated team at the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, where we produce the premium Three Ships whisky range.

How can whisky lovers best enjoy the 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask Finish?

The way in which each of us experiences whisky is very different — not only in which whiskies we prefer as individuals but also how we enjoy those whiskies. Neat, on the rocks, a dash of water or a mixer ... there is no right or wrong way. However, with this whisky I will personally be drinking it with a drop or two of slightly chilled water and nothing else.

Where can whisky lovers and collectors purchase the 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask release in SA?

A limited number of 2,994 bottles have been produced and 400 of these sold out during our online sale on October 20. The remaining 2,549 bottles are available for purchase at leading retailers from November 9 at R949.95 a bottle. My advice is to make an early purchase because we expect to sell out quickly, with festive season now fast approaching.

Would you say that the 11-year-old Single Malt Shiraz Cask release is a collectible whisky?

A question I am often asked is what makes a whisky collectible ... is it the volume produced, the type of whisky, that it’s part of a series of whiskies, or is it the potential investment value of the whisky? Over the years the popularity of the now famed Master’s Collection online sale “Wall” appears to have grown, and we now have a group of solid whisky lovers who look forward to participating and also to the reveal of the whisky. In fact, more of our loyal and newer whisky collectors tell us how they wish they had purchased the first releases in the Master’s Collection — so it seems the answer is a combination of all the previously stated reasons.

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This article was paid for by Three Ships Whisky.