There he goes again! The man who talks to oak barrels has done it again.
A few years ago, he had already regaled us with his WOOD FINISH RANGE (of which I had proposed a comparison between the two Rye finishes -9 years old Rye and 8 years old Koval Rye Quarter cask- here) with aging in Rye, Moscatel, Port, and PX.
The following year, he did it again with his VIRGIN OAK SERIES with finishes in Chinquapin oak (from Missouri), Spanish oak from Galicia and French oak from Occitanie.
So you can imagine that, as soon as I left this last whiskycole region (see here my last article on the development of this French region), my blood as a single malt (and GLENALLACHIE -but shhh-) fan, was turned upside down when I heard about the new BILLY WALKER release.
This wood lover is now tackling the ex-wine cask finish with his WINE CASK SERIES range. And here is the dilemma, how to choose between the three finishes? Impossible, so I'm going to offer you a presentation and a tasting of the three: 11 YEARS GRATTAMACCO WINE CASK FINISH, 12 YEARS SAUTERNES WINE CASK FINISH and 13 YEARS RIOJA WINE CASK FINISH.
To avoid confusion and pre-selection I will analyse them by age!
As we know, wine casks give extra flavour to whiskies but they should be handled with care. Put a too young whisky in an old wine cask and it will become too full of tannin (so much so that your tongue will fall out). Put an old whisky in another wine cask for too long and all the work of many years of ageing can be undone. In short, you have to master it! And here I believe (without playing the devil's advocate) that this devil BILLY has mastered!
So, aware of the impact of wine casks, he once again took up his pilgrim's staff and travelled through the south of Europe in search of the ideal and original casks, in France, Spain and Italy. The idea was to age his distillates for two years in each of the casks he found (and I'm sure he didn't just bring back three, we'll see in the future). Where he excelled was in sensing the age at which his whisky would ideally blend with the cask! And there I think only BILLY WAKER knows how to do it!
Let's start with the 11 YEARS GRATTAMACCO WINE CASK FINISH. This is a Speyside distillate that has spent 9 years in bourbon casks and finished in Tuscan GRATTAMACCO wine (for 2 years!).
First a little point about this Italian wine. The wine in the barrel comes from a vineyard in Tuscany in the west of Italy. Like this region, the Merlot that made it possible to make it is sun-drenched and although red is going to be very sweet. For a simple comparison, as Grattamacco wines (often called "super Tuscans") are not the most common (given their price), one can get an idea (not as good but an idea nonetheless) on a Tuscan wine or a Quianti!
The first thing that is striking about this distillate is its almost ruby pink colour. I must admit that this is the first time I have seen such a colour. You could put the distillate in a glass and without smelling it you would think it was a rosé wine.
So what about it?
When you approach the glass, you can feel that this whisky is going to be very sweet. Nevertheless, we can already detect some citrus fruits.
When the nose goes into the glass, the white fruit side is present, but as if attenuated by a honeyed side which gives it a pastry feeling. One can already detect some spices but without aggression.
At the second passage, the fruity side disappears for a while to leave more room for an orange marmalade.
On the third pass, one can detect a woody side approaching a smell of fresh nuts.
When it enters the mouth, one is immediately confronted with an attack of spices on the tongue. Nevertheless, it is accompanied by a taste of red fruit, almost strawberry. Afterwards we find vanilla, but also a touch of bitterness brought by the wine barrel. As is often the case with a finish in a wine cask, there is some dryness in the mouth. But in the end, the honeyed pastry side with spicy remains comes back and is more reminiscent of a "normal" GLENALLACHIE bourbon cask. It nevertheless retains a more pronounced woody edge.
The finish is as will be quite long on fresh vinous notes. The taste was of wine well in the mouth and one keeps in the throat the sensation of a stick of liquorice.
Let's go to the south-west of France on the right bank of the Garonne between Toulouse and Bordeaux (Nouvelle Aquitaine region, a big producer of wine of course but also of French whisky - see here an article entirely dedicated to it).
There is also sunshine here, but also a little rain and a soil full of alluvial deposits which allows the vines to blossom and give a Sauvignon grape full of sugar. And in order to let the grapes gorge themselves even more with sugar and to deposit their aromas on the barrels, the grapes are picked rotten (I reassure you that we use noble rot here).
The fact is that the almost sweet wine lined the wood of the casks Billy Walker chose to age his 10 year old GLENALLACHIE distillate in Bourbon casks for two years. This ageing gave it a golden yellow colour.
More discreet as it approaches the nose. It will be much sweeter than the 11 year old.
The nose plunged into the glass will be on the sweetness of a pineapple well gorged with sugar and vanilla counterbalanced by a hint of peppery spice which will remain on the three passages. There is nevertheless a certain freshness.
On the second pass, the pepper is still there but the smells are less sweet, more suave. There is an additional vanilla contribution which leads to the caramel. The glass fills with fudge.
On the third pass, the nose, which remembers the slight refreshment of the second pass, initially detects more oranges but paradoxically the aroma turns to overripe grapes (perhaps here the contribution of the noble rot of the Sauternes - but does the mind not wander when it has had the announcement).
Anyway the alcohol, whose title is the same for the 3 distillates (48% alcohol / vol) seems less strong.
In the mouth it is first of all very sweet on a very ripe fruit (a melon). It is also woody but mostly spicy. Alcohol is much more present in the entry. The pepper announced on the nose is very present. One feels more the impact of a wine barrel with a woody aroma present (it smells of white wine). Then it switches to a smooth honey flavour, while keeping the pepper in mind.
The finish is longer than expected at first. It immediately fades but after a few seconds it returns to tannin and a slight harshness of the cask. However, a sweet and warm memory floats down the throat.
In the empty glass, the pepper has clung. One finds the smell of a glass of Sauternes but in which a joker would have slipped some pepper. Once attenuated, it will be closer to a citrus smell.
For the last in this series, Billy Walker went further south to Spain. Just before meeting La Mancha and the mills of Don Quichote, he arrived on the banks of the Ebro river not far from Alfaro and took a tour of the cellars around Logroño. There he unearthed barrels of fruity Rioja red (often produced from a Tempranillo grape).
His objective was to give his whisky an extra fruity touch. To do so, he kept the same method as for the 2 previous ones (2 years of additional ageing) but on a base of 11 years old distillate this time!
The visual result is a whisky whose colour tends to be close to that of GRATTAMACCO but with more bronze reflections.
When is it ready to be tasted?
The approach to the nose is gentle. It is similar to a blackberry jam on a vanilla cake.
When the nose plunges into the glass, it retains the smell of the red fruit jam, but this time it has just come out of the cauldron because it is still hot. After a while a hint of spice appears but not as quickly as in the other two.
More present in the second passage, the spices come to the fore and make the smell more woody (although still hot).
The third passage is more marked by the sugar of the grape that once inhabited the cask but at the end our vanilla cake makes a comeback.
For a while, the palate starts to taste of vanilla, but very quickly the taste of red fruits and the feeling of the rioja wine barrel replace it. The spices are still present but do not stay as long in the mouth. It will then go a little more on the tannin, the grape and the harshness of the barrel.
The whole thing then rounds out (even if a hint of harshness is still lurking in the corner) and becomes honeyed and mellow.
The finish will be marked by the wine barrel. The finish is like a summer rosé (whisky version, I assure you), similar to a ripe grapefruit.
With these 3 distillates, once again the perilous exercise seems to have been successful by BILLY WALKER (who would have doubted it). Nevertheless, with a strong presence of spices (for my taste), he proves that it was not won right away and that it takes a lot of experience and a certain knowledge of casks to succeed. It's this experience that he broadcasts quite widely during online tastings (as he did last night). If you have the opportunity I advise you to have a look at it!