A guide to cocktails made from cask matured spirits
We haven’t yet reached the stage of barrel aging cocktails, as our cocktail culture remains rooted in tradition. But as our drink scene evolves, basic spirits are being replaced with premium barrel-aged versions. The enhanced flavour acquired by these spirits aged in cask lends additional nuances of flavour to the final cocktail.
The wider grain of American White Oak contributes to more pervasive oak character in the final spirit. The toasting regime also plays a role but expect to find rich vanilla, coconut, sweet spices and dill notes. This classic oak type is used by American whisky producers.
The tighter grain of French oak means less of the spirit penetrates the barrel and consequentially the flavour pick-up is less compared to American oak. Expect more subtle vanilla and toasty notes. Few spirits, Cognac aside, are aged directly in new French oak, although some producers age their spirits in French oak barrels that previously aged wines.
In the spirit world, there is a great tradition of relying on barrels used to previously age other spirits and wines. Barrels once used to mature Bourbon are the most popular oak selection for many spirit producers around the world. Scotch whisky producers in particular have long fancied the casks for their rich vanilla, smoky and spicy aromas — not to mention their price compared to more expensive French oak. Many premium
rum producers also age their spirits in this type of barrel. Spirit producers also prize barrels that once housed these classic fortified wine styles. Those aged in ex-Sherry casks often acquire raisin and dried fruit notes, while those aged in ex-Port casks get infused with berry fruit tones.
In the case of spirit maturation, the size of the cask does matter. The smallest barrels, such as the quarter casks utilized by some Scotch whisky producers, impart the most flavour, as there is a reduced liquid-to-oak ratio.
Despite the whisky world’s reach to all corners, the spirit’s culture continues to be rooted in just four countries. Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States are the classic whisky nations.
Scotland – Scotland is the biggest whisky producing nation. They range from mild and refined Speysides with honey, apple and citrus flavours to the bold, positively kilt lifting smoky and briny styles of Islay. Almost all are twice distilled in traditional pots stills contributing to their rich flavour profile and full body.
Canada – Our nation’s reputation as laidback, easy going and welcoming people extends to our whisky. Canadian Whisky is often referred to simply as “Rye” despite most only having a very small amount of rye in the blend. They are typically lighter and smoother than other whiskies. They are highly mixable and have long been popular on both sides of the border as an ingredient in cocktails such as The Old-Fashioned.
Irish – Don’t tell an Irishman that the Scottish invented whiskey (and its spelled with an ‘ey’ here). There’s strong evidence to show the Irish distilled a mash of grain and water centuries before the Scottish. Irish Whiskey is typically distilled three times contributing to their delicate aromas and unlike Scotland it is rare to find one made with malt dried by a peat fire. Expect them to be milder and less smoky compared to Scotch Whisky.
American – American whiskies tend to be bold but simultaneously sort of sweet. The most famous style is Bourbon, which must be made with no less than 51% corn and aged in new charred American oak barrels. Tennessee whiskies, on the other hand, must be made in Tennessee and unlike Bourbon are filtered through a thick layer of maple wood charcoal, a technique known as the Lincoln County Process. The initial flavours in a well-aged Bourbon show toffee, vanilla and a distinctive spicy oak flavour.
COCKTAIL RECIPES, BY KELLY NEIL
Kelly Neil is a well-known food stylist and photographer and is currently the Food and Beverage Director at Cabot Links, Nova Scotia’s preeminent golf course located in Inverness, Cape Breton. The course, recognized as one of the top golf courses in the world, boasts one of the province’s best collections of whisky.