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Understanding The Appeal of Single Cask Whiskies

By Evigan Xiao

 
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When it comes to the art of distillation, purity is often king. For perfumiers, foreign artefacts can often translate to undesirable aromas. Likewise with whisk(e)y, introducing other liquids to a vatting will result in a change of flavour. For master blenders, priority is given to the expression, as their function is to achieve what they deem to be the "perfect" whisk(e)y. Blenders will happily vat numerous casks (even from multiple distilleries)  in pursuit of their goal. It's a different story with whisk(e)y purists though; cask integrity is considered sacrosanct and perfection has more to do with provenance than anything else. While it may be tempting to distil the appeal of single cask whiskies to such a simplified explanation, there are in fact numerous reasons as to why single cask expressions are treated as the gold standard amongst seasoned drinkers.

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Cask Distinction

As opposed to the more common practice of mixing various cask finishes or vatting multiple whiskies that have been matured in the same casks, single cask expressions are bottled from a single source. This preserves the integrity of the cask's character, giving the drinker a truly unique experience. Of course, the highly specific nature of single cask bottlings also means that there can (and are usually) inconsistencies across different cask bottlings. From a whisk(e)y connoisseur's perspective though, this fact simply makes the acquisition of new bottles more enticing, as each venture comes with a promise of subtle yet appreciable differences in flavour.

Exploration is also a big part of whisk(e)y appreciation, and the sheer variety of casks out there only adds to the fascination inherent to the journey. Wood, being an organic material, is volatile in the sense of how it translates to cask quality. The casks used for single cask releases are the crème de la crème, but a seasoned palate will detect the differences between different casks, even if they're of the same type. Still, they tend to exemplify the characteristics of their category. A single cask whisk(e)y typically gives drinkers a firm sense of the provenance of their dram, whether it's a first-fill bourbon-aged American Oak or a French Oak barrique that previously held Sauternes.

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Rarity

The only thing better than getting your hands on a rare bottling is selling a rare bottling, but it isn't without risk. Single cask whiskies usually sit in the upper echelons of a distiller's catalogue for good reason; committing to a single cask is expensive. Firstly, there's the cost of sourcing and maintaining a profitable inventory or quality oak casks. Most single cask expressions are usually of higher age statements too, which makes it even more of a gamble (a 16-year bottling precedes 16 years of operating costs for a product that cannot be put to market just yet). 

For connoisseurs, a big part of the appeal is derived from the highly limited nature of single cask releases. Once a cask has been filled and bottled, its characteristics change due to the vanillins, tannins and lignins that have been extracted by the spirit. Subsequent fillings will thus result in an expression of a slightly different character. This batch variation translates to a greater willingness to accept the premium that distillers place on their single cask expressions.

BenriachBenriach Cask Edition Collection 2021
Benriach Cask Edition Collection 2021

Strength

Single cask whiskies almost always arrive in a cask strength bottling, meaning that no dilution has taken place at any point. Distilleries choose to add water to their whiskies for a variety of reasons (flavour, palatability, tax rate, etc.), but it's not always a welcome move. Taste is highly subjective, and many experienced whisk(e)y drinkers tend to have their preferred proof. A whisk(e)y at cask strength provides the opportunity to achieve just that via a controlled dilution. After all, you can't remove water once it's been added. Having dilution as an option also means that one can observe and appreciate the difference between a whisk(e)y that has been "cut" and one that has not; water often unlocks flavours and aromas that can elevate the overall drinking experience.

Another argument in favour of bottling at cask strength is that the flavours tend to be more robust, resulting in an ideal synergy between it and the unique value proposition of single cask bottlings. If you're trying to highlight the strengths of your cask and distillate, it makes sense to deliver it in a format that categorically eliminates interference. Returning to the ideal of purity, a single cask whisk(e)y bottled at cask strength promises not just unadulterated flavours but also an accurate representation of the distillery's intent and skill with the given expression. The further lack of additives and processes like colouring and chill-filtration also plays into this.

The good news is that as the whisk(e)y industry continues to enjoy an upwards trend, more and more single cask release are beginning to trickle into the market. Despite intact price points, the expansion in distillery options can only mean more opportunities for exploration. It's an exciting time to be a whisk(e)y drinker, especially if one is keen on experiencing one's passion at the highest level.