The whisky creation team of any iconic distiller in Scotland has to perform a fine balancing act. They can’t afford to dilute their brand and yet neither can they let it go stale. So they innovate just that much to produce a little twist every now and then. Most of these twists have to do with the cask in which the whisky is aged, because it’s the wood that accounts for 60% of the flavour of a whisky, according to David Blackmore.
He should know, because he works off and on with the creative team of Glenmorangie, makers of some of the finest single malts to come out of
To show me what he meant, he talked me through four malts, all clearly related to one another, and yet each one distinct. The first to be sniffed and swirled about on our tongues was the aptly named Glenmorangie Original. This had simply been aged 10 years in casks made of White American Oak, which had previously contained American bourbon.
What? A premier Scottish distiller using hand-me-down American casks?
David assures me this is by design. Apparently the sourmash that gets turned into bourbon in these leased out casks takes out the harsher tannins from the highly porous white oak. Two or three years of this and the casks are ready to impart their vanillins and other mellowed flavours to their new Scottish occupants.
If bourbon provided the starter, it’s wine that the creative team turned to for some divergent finishes to the original single malt. The second snifter I picked up, for instance, had the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban. This one had been matured a further two years in barrels already used for Portuguese port wine, giving it a sweeter, richer flavour than the original, and a darker hue too.
Similarly, the Lasanta in the third snifter lay in American white oak for 10 years before being poured into Spanish sherry casks. The result was just that little bit spicier and less fruity than the Quinta, which made this my pick of the evening. The last one was called Nectar, because it had been extra-matured in casks treated with a dessert wine from Sauternes in France.
A lot of trial and error went into finding the right wine casks which would enhance the flavours of the single malt without corrupting its essence.
Not all experiments have happy endings. In fact very few do. David remembers with particular distaste a Brazilian cherry wood that was once tried as a substitute for the American white oak. “I realised why we use oak. The whisky that came out of that cherry wood cask smelt and tasted just like boot polish,” said David. Glenmorangie Cherry Blossom, they could have named it, but of course it never got bottled.
What next? Over our second round of malts at Tote on the Turf in Mumbai, David and I started talking about the Japanese single malts that were carving out a niche in the global market with their distinctive flavours comparable to the best from Scotland. They use Japanese oak, which is also very good for maturing whisky, David explained, and a light seemed to come on in his head. What if Glenmorangie manages to bring out the best of American oak and Japanese oak in its whisky?
David dreams of the day when, as a retired gentleman, 12 to 15 years now, he would be able to raise a toast with a whisky of his own creation. Well, if it has any Japanese oak in it, he’d better be raising that toast to me.