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The Scientific Art of Ageing Whiskies

By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

Brendan McCarron, head of maturing stocks of Glenmorangie.
 
Glenmorangie
Brendan McCarron, head of maturing stocks of Glenmorangie.

Whisky is the liquid culmination of time. The golden by-product of a waiting game so refined in its precision, it has been consecrated as far as to be referred with reverential phrases the likes of “nectar of the gods”.

In an era that increasingly favours the virtual and the instant, whisky-making is a process that remains bound by centuries-old rules and tradition. By law, Scotch whisky is required to age in a cask for at least three years and one day. Most single malt whiskies are matured for at least a decade — you can rarely encounter single malts younger than that — while more complex ones are aged for 16 years and older. And as important as their age are the casks the whisky blends are housed in. It’s standard practice for distilleries to meticulously select their barrels as the chosen wood will impact the aroma, colour, and over 60 percent of the whisky’s flavour.

Within the prescribed whisky-making codes, however, distilleries often go to arduous lengths to experiment to introduce newness. For some, this can mean toying with the intricacy of its blend or ageing duration. For others, it may mean sourcing rarer types of woods to elevate the end flavour’s complexity.

One such distillery does all that — and goes beyond.

About a four-hour drive north from Edinburgh is the Glenmorangie Distillery. Situated by a tranquil firth of Dornoch Firth in Tain, a township of 4,000 people, its rickhouse has brewed smooth single-malt whiskies that are matured in its labyrinth of casks. For almost a century, the Glenmorangie house has been renowned for its expertise in wood. And three decades ago, its creators introduced the extra-maturation technique, transferring spirit first matured in ex-bourbon casks into ex-wine casks in order to deepen its layer of flavours.

GlenmorangieFrom left: The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain; the distillery’s “designer cask” that’s structured out of specially grown American white oak.
From left: The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain; the distillery’s “designer cask” that’s structured out of specially grown American white oak.

“Our flavour profile is an elegant fruity and floral single malt from the Highlands of Scotland,” notes Brendan McCarron, Glenmorangie’s head of maturing stocks and a member of the house’s Whisky Creation Team. “It has an almost infinite finish and is incredibly complex.”

The distillery is synonymous to its “designer cask”’s signature American white oak, Quercus alba, that’s grown in a forest on the north-facing slopes of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. The company bought an entire forest of its own to guarantee supply. Yet, its team of whisky creators travel the world in search for exceptional casks; for new possibilities of expanding the house’s flavour lexicon.

The newly released Glenmorangie Rare Cask 1399, then, pays testament to the house’s devotion to innovation. The opulent elixir sat in American white oak bourbon casks for ten years — of which melds notes of orange, peach and vanilla — before spending four more years in an ultra-rare single Oloroso sherry cask, developing deeper notes of cocoa, treacle, toffee and spice. The special spirit was first released in March for DFS The Whisky Festival. It’s exclusive to DFS Changi Airport till end of June or while stocks last.

Here, McCarron shares with us his deft expertise on whisky maturation and the uniqueness of the Rare Cask 1399.

How can you tell when a whisky maturation is ready?

You just know when it’s ready, to be honest. If it’s a whisky we make regularly, then we have a benchmark — a perfect example of, say, the Glenmorangie Original – which we compare the “new” batch to. If we are making something that’s a single batch or a new whisky, then we have in our heads what we are trying to create, and we will set up many different tweaks on the recipe, and eventually something stands out in the whisky and you just know.

Do you perceive whisky making as science or art?

Both. It’s a science as there are lots of biological processes and chemical reactions going on, but also some art in there as it has this beautiful randomness to it where each cask is slightly different from its brothers and sisters, which have all been filled and matured for the same time. There is no exact recipe, there are always little changes in there. 

How does the distillery remain innovative in a craft that’s bound by time and tradition? 

Because the rules of making Scotch Whisky are so clear and restrictive — which is important as it preserves our amazing industries heritage — it can be very difficult to innovate. But from this restricted view is where you sometimes see the most innovative ways of doing things. For example, you can only use three ingredients to make a single malt scotch — water, malted barley and yeast. So, because you can’t add anything else, that forces you to look at how these ingredients are prepared. Without the boundaries of the Scotch Whisky Act we probably would never have created Signet where we roasted and blackened the barley during the malting process. 

Most whiskies tend to stick to specific numbers of ageing. Why is this? 

Generally speaking, there are some sweet spots for whisky in terms of how long suits them to mature. One sweet spot is 10–12 years, one is 16–18 years and another around about 25 years. This is one reason that a lot of the companies have whiskies at these age groups. Also, a lot of single malt whisky distilleries make a lot of their whisky to be used in blending so they have to age their whisky to the appropriate age of the big blended whiskies which tend to be 12, 18 and so on. There are sweet spots for whisky, other times it suits to use a range of ages to pull out the flavours you want to achieve. At Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, we only use our whisky for the production of a single malt, none is blended. 

GlenmorangieThe Glenmorangie Rare Cask 1399.
The Glenmorangie Rare Cask 1399.

For DFS’s Whisky Festival launch, Glenmorangie released a Changi-first 14-year-old Rare Cask 1399. How integral is its cask maturation to its flavour?

It’s special as it is a whisky drawn from just one rare cask. Cask 1399 was a sherry butt. Inside is a one-of-a-kind 14-year-old whisky. It’s one of a kind as every cask of whisky is different. Usually, we will combine 10 or 20 or 50 casks to achieve something consistently similar, for instance, our Ardbeg 10-year-old product or Glenmorangie 18-year-old. When you make a single cask, this is the only time the whisky will ever taste this way. It’s about catching a certain moment in time during a whisky’s maturation. For Glenmorangie, I usually say that the spirit character from the distillery contributes about 40 percent of the flavour and the cask will give around 60 percent of the flavour — so the cask is very integral to the flavour. 

The new Glenmorangie Rare Cask 1399 is exclusive to DFS Changi Airport until end of June or while stocks last.
The Whisky Festival runs till 30 June at Changi Airport, Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport, Ho Chi Minh Tan Son Nhat Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Tom Bradley International Terminal. Elsewhere, the festival runs till 31 July at Hawaii Honolulu International Airport and San Francisco International Airport; and starts from 1 July till 31 August at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

For the month of June, travellers who shop at iShopChangi stand a chance to win the grand prize of an all-expense paid trip to Scotland (worth S$8,000), including two sets of round-trip tickets to Scotland, hotel accommodation, transportation, meal expenses and a tour around a whisky distillery. This iShopChangi-exclusive promotion runs till 30 June.

Travellers who spend S$200 on any whisky from the Departure Hall store will receive a branded Glencairn whisky glass. Arriving travellers who spend S$140 (per passport) including any whisky product(s) will receive a pair of ferry tickets and city tour to Batam (worth S$70). In-store promotions run till 30 June.

After the end of The Whisky Festival (30 June) in Singapore, travellers can still explore over 400 whiskies at DFS Changi and enjoy complimentary tastings at The Whiskey House in DFS Singapore Changi Airport’s Terminal 2 Duplex, Terminal 4 Departure store, and DFS Long Bar by Raffles in terminal 3 Duplex.