To create the great whiskies of the world has always required constant testing and experimentation. The Master Distillers tinker with elements of the production process but their role is more as a quality controller rather than artist, ensuring that the house style shines through in every release. Distilleries have long been conservative, shying away from any change that may offend their loyal clientele.
It was only around 40 years ago that distilleries began to change, slowly at first, releasing new expressions of their single malts and blends. The first taste of this was from Master Distiller David Stewart who invented cask finishes when he created the Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old, first known as the Balvenie Classic. American oak-matured Scotch whisky was finished off in sherry butts to add a richness and a sweetness. It was not long before other big names followed.
Stewart no doubt never dreamed that cask finishes would revolutionise the industry, with rum, maple syrup, wine, Port, beer and Champagne barrels now used to finish Scotch whisky. Bourbon followed almost 20 years later with the limited release Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, matured in Cognac barrels, with the Distiller’s Masterpiece range now including other finishes such as Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.
Cask finishes were just the start and showed many whisky drinkers were more than happy to see alternate expressions of their favourite single malt or region. The success of Bruichladdich and its unpeated Islay Single Malt also displayed how whisky drinkers were embracing alternate whisky styles from the classic regions.
The popularity of whisky distilleries has also made production a global industry. While still concentrated in traditional countries such as Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada and Japan, whisky is now distilled around the world, with each country bringing its distinct style thanks to different ageing conditions, water and availability of peat.
Southern Tasmania’s Belgrove distillery owner Peter Bignell hand-harvests peat from a property near Bass Strait, which provides some of his whiskies with their distinctly smoky edge.
This wide range of whiskey-producing countries and methods, combined with more experimentation in the category, is making the world of whisky more interesting by the day. Below is a small selection of whiskies showcasing the brave new world of international whisky.
Caol Ila 15 Year Old Unpeated Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (A$199)
Caol Ila is a classic Islay Single Malt renowned for its smoky iodine characters, and is also a vital component of the Johnnie Walker range. A very small amount of Caol Ila is made
from unpeated malt and a portion of this is then matured in a variety of different oak formats, including reshaved American oak barrels and sherry oak butts direct from Spain. This Caol Ila 15 Year Old Unpeated Cask Strength is a powerful, maritime single malt, with citrus and candied fruits plus a distinctive spicy, vanillin oak background. It’s quite peppery, but also has a fresh and bright malty character to finish.
Legent Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey (A$96)
Legent is a delicious take on the premium bourbon style, bringing together the talents of Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s seventh-generation Master Distiller, and Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory’s fifth chief blender in almost 100 years. The Bourbon has been aged for five years in American oak. Parts of the blend were then aged for an additional year in Californian red wines casks or two years in sherry butts. The colour has a ruby edge showcasing the wine cask influences, and it has all the hallmarks of quality bourbon with vanilla pod and spicy dried fruit aromas. There is also a floral, sweet blackberry edge adding some intrigue. A unique and flavoursome expression of straight Kentucky Bourbon whiskey.
Compass Box Hedonism Blended Grain Scotch Whisky (A$110)
John Glaser, founder of Compass Box, is a whisky revolutionary. Twenty years ago he challenged the traditional hierarchy of Scotch and the belief in the superiority of single malt over all other forms. Glaser blends together malt and grain whiskies to create outstanding and unique blends. This 100% grain whisky is aged in first-fill American oak Bourbon casks, making a rich and powerful style, with vanilla and toffee aromas well matched with the subtle simplicity of high-quality grain spirit.
Amrut Fusion Indian Whisky (A$96)
India is not the first country that comes to mind for fine whisky but Amrut is a true star of the international scene. Founded in 1948 in Bangalore, Amrut differentiated itself by using traditional barley rather than molasses. Amrut is not given the traditional long rest in wood due to Bangalore’s warm climate. But the whisky does not suffer thanks to its blend of 75% local barley with 25% peated barley from Scotland; the components aged separately for four years in American oak before the two barley components are blended and finished, again in American oak, for another three months. It’s a rich, plush and powerful style with honeyed barley and candied fruit plus smokiness in the background. On the palate it is equally generous, finishing with hints of spice and chocolate.
The New Zealand Dunedin DoubleWood 16 Year Old Whisky New Zealand (A$120)
Tasmania has already shown its suitability to make superb whisky and New Zealand is not far behind. This 70% single malt and 30% grain whisky, was crafted in Dunnedin’s now closed Willowbank distillery. After initial ageing in ex-Bourbon American oak for six years, it was given additional 10 years in ex-pinot noir and cabernet aauvignon barrels giving a reddish colour and additional richness. It’s highly complex with fruit cake and spice aromas plus a touch of toffee and candied ginger leading to a full-bodied, spicy, toffee-scented palate.