Whisky is an art they say – colours, shades and greys. Each stroke of the brush, thoughtfully selected colours, and an assortment of shades carefully fused on the palette elaborating a unique spectrum, exemplifying the final outcome on the white canvas frame. Perfecting this concoction takes sweat, blood and time, one that has evolved through the many decades. Distillers are constantly trying to one up their game, reaching deep into their pockets – reinstating old traditions, redefining existing practices while innovating newer ways that can be layered on existing processes – some accepted while others frowned.
Compass Box had for example, suspended 195 year old french oak staves in barrels maturing whisky intended for their 2005 “Spice Tree” blend – the SWA didn’t quite approve since they felt it went against their definition of cask maturation, having the distiller refrain from the practice. But it is exactly this experimentation and ‘hit and miss’ approach that opens up Pandora’s box, giving a whole new avenue of possibilities, leaving no stone left unturned, be it innovations in blending, maturation, malting… you name it!
Maturation has probably been the most tested avenue, letting distillers go cra-cra. Barrels have been matured underground (Paul John), out at Sea (Jefferson’s Ocean), at varying altitudes and even space! Ardbeg to commemorate their 200th anniversary, had sent a vial to the black beyond in 2011 in an effort to understand the effects of space on whisky. For comparison sake, they kept an identical sample at the distillery. This now extraterrestrial vial made it to the International Space Station and orbited the earth 15 times before falling back to earth. Being the only one sample, it surely had no chance of making it to a bottle-shop near you, but the experiment did appear to have a successful outcome, both vials being distinct in terms of its flavour profile.
While master blenders have used varied sizes and casks – American, European, Japanese Mizunara or even Bamboo (Hibiki 12), they’ve also leveraged barrels that previously housed wine, sherry, cognac and beer to finish off their whiskies. A few have gone a step further, the distillers at Amrut had infused flavour and character into their expression, The Amrut Spectrum, by maturing their spirits into a custom cask, made of staves from 5 distinct casks.
Blending too has taken unorthodox paths, not limiting to grain and malt alone, distillers now blend between genres. The 23rd Street Distillery Hybrid whisky is the Aussie answer to a blend of scotch and bourbon – unheard possibly, but the alchemy works! And this can be a home project too, I know of folks who’ve experimented and have ratios they swear by!
Now those who know their whiskies are familiar with barley, corn or perhaps rye as the primary ingredient when making the brew; but there have been recent expansions into other grains, millet (Koval Bourbon) and rice (Japanese Rice whisky) being used as primary or sub primary grains. Is it by definition a whisky though?
Many of these wildly bizarre trials, fall in no man’s land, border-lining the definition of what might be termed a whisky. The reason being, the definition itself is vague, blurred and convoluted at best. And I believe that is in fact the enabler to innovation and uniqueness that might as well bring us the next mind numbing spirit that possibly sweeps the world of its feet, the next Japanese whisky perhaps (read – mizunara maturation).
With that, I humbly bid adieu while I enjoy a home made whisky brewed by a mate – remember my Cam X Project. This one though is matured with Jarra wood sticks dropped into the barrel, while another is a peated whisky matured in barrels for around 10 months – the SWA wouldn’t be pleased but I’m not too bothered as this is all but a friendly bloke’s home project and a way down the path of experimentation and fun.
Eye: Deep copper, natural colouring
Age : 6 months, matured along with Jarrah wood sticks
Nose: Moist wood with a creamy barley whisper, zesty and fragrant with dried fruits, melons and figs. Leathery and lovingly spicy – crushed bay leaves and powdered nutmeg mixed with shavings of cardamom and a sprinkle of green pepper.
Taste: Milk chocolate and caramel pudding is layered with honey and vanilla. Oily on the palate, there’s a nuttiness that is accompanied by licorice, stone fruits and bits of pepper.
Finish: A sprinkle of nutmeg, with a drizzle of caramel and a hint of pepper.