What does oak do for whisky? Now, I’m not about to embark upon yet another exposition of the science at the heart of the maturation process, the like of which can be found in every other magazine or blog. I’m not even going to refigure my many previous eulogies composed to exalt the profoundly powerful impressions shuffling through a dunnage warehouse elicits, or at least not entirely.
Instead, I’m going to begin with the claim that oak is PR, that it is the romantic dressings to whisky’s true inception. This thorny reality is that, for most single malts, their start in life betrays the clatter, hiss and heat of industrialism. When whisky floods through the spirit safe, what can really separate it from gin or vodka to the lay consumer? It is new make, a white dog; it is brutal and challenging. But it is honest, too.
Ten years later, however, with a bit of money thrown at some wood, the sales and marketing team can recoup some of their investment with packaging that declares, with all the sincerity of a sickly maitre d’, that your whisky has been matured in the ‘finest oak casks’. In the vast majority of cases, a lot of it has been thrown into whatever American oak hogshead has arrived into the filling store, or has been delivered to the central warehousing complex if new make is put into cask off-site.
Not enough, to bring this tirade to some sort of point, is said about the process at the distillery and the practiced nuances required to ensure the right character of spirit goes into the wood policy lucky dip. It seems strange to praise the maturation regime, one which few – if anyone – understands completely, whereas mashmen and stillmen have consistently precise calls to make to ensure that the whisky is up to scratch. My week at Balblair testified to this, and so too did in-depth visits to Benromach and Bruichladdich where infinitesimal adjustments to malt batch, peating levels and wash density must be made to guarantee that the appropriate flavours will sing out years down the line.
Dave Broom, in his World Atlas of Whisky, explains this accrual of marginal gains (to quote British Cycling) exceedingly well. Distillers must assume control over those parts of the whisky-making process which will yield to their influence. Though 60-70% of a single malt’s flavour will be owed to the cask, that 30-40% of direct distiller interference is keenly contested. To return to the dog metaphor, it is like training a two-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier that will ultimately have to adjust to a new owner. The example set at the beginning will prove critical. For Broom, our readily available single malts cannot be comprehended without that most limited and secretive of substances: new make. In the nature or nurture debate, a spirit’s encounters with oak incorporates and rejects both sides to varying degrees in order to assume its eventual character.
Recently, the Whisky Roundtable discussed new make, and so too did Joel and Neil in an excellent article for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine. More distillers are marketing single malts in their infancy to the delight of mixologists and whisky geeks. I still think, however, that more distilleries should provide a measure as part of their end-of-tour tastings. How better to bridge the gap between the smells of the distillery and the mature product on the shelves? New make can babble brilliantly, echoing the grist, the wort, the CO2 at the washbacks and those complex, heavy and heady aromas of esters and congeners coming into being at the spirit safe. Glencadam did, and that remains my favourite new make: puckeringly sweet and clinging, some of the soft yellow and green tropical fruits from the stainless steel washbacks could be detected.
Last week, however, I tried Auchentoshan’s new make spirit. Triple distilled, this was joyously intense with strawberry jam and pear on the nose, yellow citrus on the palate. Water pulled out plum yoghurt and sticky pot ale, a combination which recalled the delicate balance of waste and gain at the heart of distilling. In the mouth, I found cider apple and coconut. It was a fabulous insight into the selection process that three stills necessitates and how a delicate but full-throated flavour can be teased into existence and magnified.
When surveying the classifications of single malt species, knowing the new make makes a big difference. You always begin with a highly individual and complex animal which, whether dressed in Pedro Ximenez or Carribean rum or Sauternes, can never completely change its spots. To not hide those spots is another challenge for the distiller altogether.