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Crossing the finishing line

by Gavin D Smith, 08/06

Diageo Distillers Editions

Love them or hate them, few experienced whisky drinkers are indifferent about 'finishes.' Some feel that they bring new and exciting dimensions to their favourite malts, while others see them as cynical line extensions, sometimes masking, or indeed failing to mask, moderate whisky.

   A good starting point for the finished whisky novice is Diageo's Distillers Edition range of Classic Malts. With the reputation of the heavily promoted Classic Malts line up at stake, Diageo was always going to ensure that its 'finished' expressions lived up to expectations.

The Classic Malts Distillers Edition selection was launched in 1997, and all whiskies are limited in quantity. After their usual ageing process in American or European oak casks, the whiskies are 'finished' in casks that previously held a wine.

The complementary wine cask woods have been chosen to enhance and subtly underline the personality of each individual Classic Malt. In addition to a unique batch number, each bottle carries the year of distillation and the 'bottled in' year.

Classic Malts Marketing Director Dr Nicholas Morgan, says "In our Distillers Edition expressions the character of a famous single malt whisky is further enhanced in a happy marriage with carefully-chosen casks. These expressions also add to the vertical range of our leading malts, and so extend the enjoyment that flows from comparisons at home or organised vertical nosings and tastings."

So just what differences can you expect to find when you pour yourself a glass of Distillers Edition Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Oban or Talisker? Let's take a couple of examples.

The Cragganmore has been finished in a ruby port wood cask, and the aroma is much fruitier than usual. This fruity character lingers on to the fuller-bodied palate, where oranges and port can be detected. It is notably less dry than the 'house' style, though ultimately the finish does dry considerably in characteristic Cragganmore fashion.

The Talisker has spent a period of secondary maturation in Amoroso sherry wood. Amoroso is the style of Oloroso which is sweetened by the addition of ripe grapes and dark, syrupy wine. While the dry, salty nature of Montilla Fino in which Oban is finished clearly complements the west coast malt's style, Amoroso casks give contrasting smooth, sweet, deep notes to blend with Talisker's traditional smoky, peppery, character. The result is an expression of Talisker with a sweet, clean sherry nose, and a rich, full body, where the pepper notes are initially held at bay by lush, ripe fruit and vanilla sweetness. The finish is long and earthy, in best Talisker tradition, with pepper and sea salt finally making their presence felt. Overall, a masterly balance between sweet and dry characteristics is maintained.

According to Diageo maturation expert Jim Beveridge, "The aim of the Distillers Editions was to create new expressions, to increase the portfolio of flavours possible within the Classic Malts range.

"The critical thing is the flavour of the Classic Malts. We must remain true to their core character. For example, you always recognise Distillers Edition Oban as Oban. It still has the classic Oban flavour. This is the main driver behind the choice of casks we use, and each whisky has an optimum time to be in the secondary cask.

"We use a full-bodied Pedro Ximinez sherry cask for Lagavulin, but there's no way you'd want to use that for Oban, for example. It's not about the discernible sherry but about the overall impact. We use more powerful sherries for more powerful whiskies such as Lagavulin and Talisker. It's about matching the flavours in the sherry to the whisky. The Distillers Editions win lots of prizes, so we do seem to be getting it right!"

As the Classic Malts family grows, the intention is for the range of Distillers Editions to evolve with it, and Nicholas Morgan says "There will be more of them within the year."

Already in 2006 a 1993 Distillers Edition Caol Ila has been released, and Jim Beveridge observes that "The new Caol Ila is a genuinely exciting expression. Most of the other Distillers Editions focus on American Oak. For this we focused on European Oak, and the combined effect of the Moscatel cask we used and European Oak works well with a peated, complex spirit of distinctive Islay character."

Sample the Distillers Editions for yourself and you will discover that these 'finishes' are far from being a marketing gimmick. Indeed, Jim Beveridge declares "I get quite excited by 'finishes.' You can get fantastic effects in a way you couldn't by altering the spirit character or the length of maturation time."

When the process is undertaken with integrity, experience and fine wood, as it is with the Distillers Editions range, whisky 'finishing' can definitely be seen as a positive development for the Scotch whisky sector.

(A version of this article first appeared in issue 15 of The Quaich).

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