Whisky vs Wine

Whisky vs Wine

‘Whisky vs wine’ is a topic we get into, with wine lovers, quite often. We are in the whisky business but wine lovers ourselves and have done our homework.

Whisky as an appreciating, alternative asset is a relatively recent phenomenon. The market for such investments is growing in parallel with the booming industry.  Between January and October 2019, all markets rose by 5.9% with BIS Blend up by 2.7 % and Single Malts up by 14.4%, according to Pagoda Scotland/Whisky newsletter Dec19/Jan20′ export statistics.

Scotch is the most attractive and reliable alternative asset class in the world. When compared to wine or gold, whisky as an investment is extremely low risk. In addition, the popularity and global demand has been rapidly growing.

On the other side, over 99% of wine consumed and purchased in the United Kingdom is imported. Despite a steady growth in the prices of fine wine, the whisky industry is growing much faster.

Accessibility

Allocations of investment-grade wine are few and far between. Often, you have to purchase it as a bundle along with an estate’s 2nd and 3rd wines in order to secure a package. To the contrary, Cask Trade whisky is a highly accessible alternative asset class and newcomers can now obtain investment-grade casks. And unlike with wine, there’s no obligation to purchase additional non-assets.

Furthermore, asset-worthy wines are often very expensive, with many Bordeaux’s and Burgundy’s costing more than £10,000 per case. For the same amount of money, you’d be able to purchase a fully mature cask of scotch whisky from a highly reputable distillery. And that could yield upwards of 500 bottles. Entry-level casks can cost as little as £1500.

Investors in fine wine are mainly limited to wine enthusiasts who often own cellarfulls of bottles. While whisky is an asset class open to anyone.

Reliability

Whisky offers a unique security by a non-deterioration of the asset. Unlike wine, whisky can be saved from the ravages of time. A cask may have a lifespan of an excess of 50 years. That is quite a time frame if you buy malt under 8 or 10 years old. Even then, the whisky is only at the beginning of its true destiny; the bottle.

Unlike wine, whisky ceases to age in the bottle. Scotch that was distilled in the 19th century is still being opened and consumed to rapturous applause today. Furthermore, the risk of corking or poor storage is eliminated. Storage is provided in HMRC approved bonded warehouses. These are strictly governed and should offer complete peace of mind. Warehouses offer good rates for storage and insurance of casks. They are the same warehouses used by industry leading distillers. And ensuring the perfect, stable environment for maturation.

If you are looking to transition from the wine world into the whisky world, we’d love to chat about it!

Is older whisky better than young whisky?

Is older whisky better than young whisky?

Many people believe, and often rightly, that older whisky is better than younger whisky.

Indeed, the longer spirit matures in the cask, it becomes softer, smoother and more complex.

Old Whisky

Drawn in and out of the oak through a thin layer of char, the whisky is flavoured by a host of organic compounds within the wood. And impurities are mellowed and filtered out.

There are also specific flavours commonly associated with old casks that simply cannot be found in a younger whisky. These can take the form of leathery, dusty, or ‘old book’ notes. With peated malts, the phenol compounds that give the whisky its distinctive flavour are broken down. A 30 year old Caol Ila will taste completely different to a 5 year old.

As mentioned in our previous article, ‘1st fill vs refill’, first fill casks mature more quickly and impart more flavour from the oak. On the other hand, refill casks will mature more slowly, allowing for more distillery character.

Young Whisky

Despite the rarity, complexity, and smoothness of older whiskies, there are also many compelling reasons to bottle whiskies at younger ages. An extremely active cask can result in a whisky being fully mature after only eight years of maturation. Any longer and the intensity of the flavour may either become too strong. Or else disappear entirely.

If the desired character of a whisky is to be a ‘peat monster’ in the classic Islay style, then a youthful whisky is infinitely preferable. The peat will be much more prominent. Furthermore, the alcohol percentage will be higher, resulting in more power. This is essential with some casks. Often the alcohol is an integral part of the flavour where the sweetness of the spirit and sweetness from the oak are intrinsically connected. With a loss of alcoholic strength, the entire flavour structure of a whisky can often fall apart.

On the other hand, the alcoholic strength can mask more subtle flavours. And the whisky can come across as ‘spirity’ and harsh. The organic flavour molecules are often bound to the alcohol. All that is needed is a couple of drops of water to help break down the chemical bonds. As well as release the full taste potential of a whisky. This trick can also do wonders for the texture and mouthfeel as well.

More youthful flavours include a clear and spirity sweetness, fresh fruits, coconut and banana, and notes of malt from the barley. Many distilleries these days have been experimenting with local and organic barley. Often from one farm, and this can have a distinctive effect on the whisky. These flavours will be much more distinctive at a younger age, and with too long, a maturation will become lost.

Afterthought

Think of flavour in whisky as being something akin to a building. All great whiskies have structure. A combination of flavours and textures working together to create a truly pleasurable sensation that is more than just taste. An old, fine and rare whisky such as a 38-year-old Port Ellen could be likened to Westminster Abbey. However, other old buildings, whilst historically valuable, can be in appalling condition with the structure entirely disintegrated.

We could compare cheap blends and young grain to a 1970’s council estate in Birmingham. But there is no reason that an 8-year-old Bruichladdich Organic Barley can’t be as wonderful and inspiring as the Sydney Opera House.

So, is older whisky “better” than young whisky? There is no wrong or right answer and it completely depends on your flavour preferences.

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1st fill vs Refill cask

1st fill vs Refill cask

There is a common belief that 1st fill casks are superior to refill casks. With words such as ‘fresh’ and ‘active’ often associated with these particular barrels, hogsheads and butts.

The majority of casks used in the maturation of scotch are ex-bourbon. A US law states that bourbon can only be matured in virgin oak casks. And due to this law, these barrels and hogsheads will have been filled only once with bourbon whisky for an average of 2-3 years.

Where does the flavour come from?

The first time a bourbon cask is filled with scotch whisky, the wood is still fresh and active. With the sweet flavours of bourbon helping to season the wood. The more active the wood, the quicker the maturation and the more flavour extracted from the cask. Oak contains natural sugars that give the rich flavours of caramel and toffee, and vanillin gives classic vanilla notes. Lactones result in sweet coconut notes. And spicy-tasting compounds such as eugenol, iseugenol and cinnamaldehyde (from the charring process)  give us those familiar oak-spice, nutmeg and cinnamon flavours.

Virgin Oak

Virgin oak casks are perfect for the relatively quick maturation of bourbon whisky. But these would give far too much oak-influence to scotch which often matures for a considerably longer time. The previous liquid takes the ‘edge’ off the oak. Which ensures that the rougher, harsher elements of the cask are tempered (the really ‘woody’ and ‘varnishy’ flavours often associated with bourbon).

1st fill bourbon casks

1st fill bourbon casks are perfect for the maturation of Scotch whisky up to a certain age (around 15-18 years). However, a fresh and active cask will mature quicker. Breathe more and subsequently result in a greater angel’s share with greater loss of liquid and a faster reduction in ABV. Furthermore, whisky left for too long in a 1st fill cask runs the risk of becoming too woody. In which case, the softer and more subtle flavours and all of the distillery character is lost.

Refill bourbon casks

The wood of refill bourbon casks are less active than 1st fill; a portion of the flavour and colour from the oak will already have been extracted. However, a refill cask still contains plenty of the natural chemical compounds present in the oak. And we must not forget that the previous whisky will have also helped to season and flavour the oak. It will take longer for the new spirit to extract the flavours, and the whisky will mature more slowly. The cask will breathe less, but this will also result in a lower angel’s share. And make a refill cask much more suitable for long maturations from 18 to over 40 years old. The oak flavours will be more subtle, and the distillery character will play a greater part in the overall flavour.

Refill flavours

Smokey flavours, caused by phenolic compounds from the peated barley, will be more distinctive and take longer to mellow. As a cask breathes, spirit is drawn in and out of the oak, with the layer of charcoal from the charring process acting as a natural filter to fatty acids and phenols. These fatty acids are often the result of impure compounds from distillation through shorter, squatter stills and less copper contact in the condensers. This is what makes some whiskies such as Mortlach and Springbank so distinctively rich, fruity and meaty.

The compound B-damascenone gives floral notes, with diacetyl giving a buttery and creamy taste. A refill cask will naturally showcase these flavours better than a 1st fill cask. Other flavour compounds from the distillation process are esters such as ethyl hexanoate, which gives those fresh apple flavours. Another ester, isoamyl acetate, gives classic banana and pear-drop notes. These flavours are still present in 1st fill casks, but are often so subtle that the big toffee, caramel and vanilla flavours overpower them.

If you were to line up several 15 year old first-fill cask samples, you’d find a lot of similar flavours. The whisky would be rich, golden and sweet, but you might find it difficult to guess which distillery they are from. Were you to do the same with refill cask samples, the distillery character would be much more obvious.

A 1st fill cask might give 80% of its flavour from the wood and 20% from the distillation process. On the other hand, the refill cask will give closer to 60% of its flavour from the oak and 40% from the distillery.

Sherry butts

The same rings true with sherry butts. It must be noted that the large size of the butt results in a smaller surface area to volume ratio. They naturally mature slower and have a correspondingly lower angel’s share than the smaller barrels and hogsheads.

Spanish sherry butts are traditionally made of European Oak, which is less porous than American oak. There is less sugar and vanillin, but higher concentrations of spicy compounds. The previous fill of rich and nutty amontillado and oloroso sherry soaks into, and flavours the oak which often leaves several litres of liquid in the bottom of a butt (to ‘keep it fresh’) when it’s filled with whisky. 1st fill sherry butts result in an extremely rich, nutty and often dark-coloured whisky with a lot of flavour imparted from the sherry. Due to the colour, 1st fill sherry butts are among the most desirable casks available and fetch the highest prices. They’re also much harder to source, and an empty butt can cost in the region of £1000.

A refill sherry cask will mature more slowly, and the sherry influence and the colour will be less intense. However, this is a serious advantage if the cask is intended for long ageing, and the distillery character and more subtle notes from the sherry and European oak will come to the fore.

In conclusion

The difference between 1st fill and refill is one between youth and maturity, vigour and complexity, sweet and savoury, oak and copper. There is no right or wrong, and most people enjoy both! The only way to decide your preference is to try as many different examples of single-cask bottlings (blind if possible!) and make up your own mind!

Want to learn more about all things whisky and whisky casks? Look through our detailed guides and follow us on Facebook to be the first to know about new articled!