Glendronach Revisited: The Allure of Single Casks

Last month I made a post I wasn’t planning to about confusions about Glendronach’s prized single cask releases. You can read it and how/why I came to write it here. Long story short: the term “single cask” probably rarely means what you think it means. This may have been the most read of any post I’ve made in the year (almost) since my blog went live. It’s no real big surprise why: Glendronach is a rising star distillery among geeks, and geeks love discovering “dirty secrets” of the industry–as I’ve said a number of times in a number of places, most of us actually know very little about what goes on at the production level in the Scotch industry. The outrage that my post sparked, at least for a day or two (and, for a change, not directed at me) had its source, I think, in the fact that the “dirty secret” being revealed is connected directly to the chief source of Glendronach’s growing cult status among geeks: the cachet of the single cask. I’d like to possibly annoy you about that today.

Before I get to that though, let me finally post the follow-up I promised in the days after I made the initial post. I must warn that it is not very exciting, though in its own way it may be revealing.

As you might recall, if you slogged through the entire thing, the original post came about very quickly. Conversations on Ruben’s blog and on WhiskyWhiskyWhisky led me to email the distillery; the distillery responded almost immediately; I sent them another email asking for clarifications; they responded to that email almost immediately; it took an hour or so to type the whole thing up and another 15 minutes or so to edit it, and I hit post. In the deluge of comments (and emails and private messages elsewhere) that came in from fellow geeks it became immediately apparent that there were a few grey areas in what Glendronach had told me. The two major ones it seemed to me were these:

1) Does this mean the same practice takes place at BenRiach as well?

2) Is it really the case, as I was told, that when dumping two casks for further maturation into the “single cask” referred to on the label Glendronach do not ever mix bourbon and sherry casks. At least two people informed me that they had on previous occasions been told otherwise by distillery representatives re specific casks.

Ben Nevis 25 "Single Cask"I therefore emailed the person at the distillery I had heard from again and asked these questions and also whether Glendronach would not consider being more transparent on their labels. After all, in the case of BenRiach many casks are noted as being “finishes”, and then there are distilleries like Ben Nevis who provide much greater detail on exactly the same kind of thing (enlarge the image at left to see for yourself–this is from the little booklet thingy hanging around the neck of one of their “single cask” releases from 1984–no possibility of confusion for/of a careful consumer here).

Once again, I received an email almost immediately. This time, however, it was very brief and informed me only that they did not have time to continue to answer my “never-ending” questions. Now, personally, I don’t think three emails over a period of five days either is or threatens to be “never-ending” but that’s just me. (And you might say that from the speed with which all my emails were responded to it doesn’t seem either that the gent was so very busy with other things –but that would be rude and you should be ashamed of yourself.) It’s possible the distillery decided to curtail the transparency in the face of what they may have feared was a p.r. disaster in the making; it may be that they see it as a non-issue (and very probably far from unique to them) that they did not need to address time and energy to. Whatever the reason, I remain grateful to my correspondent for the candour of his first two emails.

So, there you have it: I have no further bombshells to drop on this subject–if that’s all you’re interested in, stop reading now.

From the non-reply that was the distillery’s third email I think you can reasonably conclude two things:

1) There is no guarantee that your “single oloroso/PX cask” of Glendronach does not contain spirit that was previously matured in a bourbon cask.

2) Your prized Benriach single casks, even when they do not mention “finishes”, may well also be the product of multiple casks vatted together in a single cask prior to bottling.

If the distillery did in fact curtail its responses with a view to not keeping the discussion going and turning it into a bigger controversy, they called it correctly: after a week or so of excitement most of us have moved on to new “controversies”: Mortlach pricing and bottle design, Tennessee whisky legalese etc. etc..

I did receive an email or three from people who noted among other things their surprise/disappointment over the fact that I did not seem more outraged. So let me briefly address that here.

It’s true, I was not very outraged, not at Glendronach at any rate. For two reasons (and I’m repeating myself here): first, this seems to me likely to be widespread industry practice and I didn’t think Glendronach is trying to pull a fast one; and second, I don’t buy Glendronach single casks because I believe and cherish the singleness of their single casks as I’d taken the term to mean, but because I like their whisky. So I don’t feel particularly cheated. I do think there needs to be industry-wide regulation of terms that consumers and the English language understand in ways other than distilleries apparently do, but there are so many areas that need greater transparency and/or regulation (“cask strength” anyone?) that it seemed disproportionate to get overly exercised about this one.

As I’ve been thinking more about this though–and now I begin to get to what I really wanted to talk about in this post–I do wonder if this labeling loophole through which Glendronach (and probably plenty of others) have been filling their “single casks” does not in fact take advantage of the fact that to the majority of those who purchase these bottles their allure very much lies in the common sense meaning of the term “single cask”. That is to say, this term confers a kind of limited exclusivity, suggests a more unique/un-replicable experience, and promises a more “organic” and pristine experience (the contents of a single cask, untouched by blenders, not smoothed out by vatting etc.); all allusions that would not be promised, at least not as strongly, by labeling them “small batch” or something else along those lines.

And it may be easier to sell a large number of seemingly unique and expensive “single casks” than a large number of batch releases. As at least one person noted in the comments on the previous post, either here on the Malt Maniacs Facebook page, if you’re not actually getting a single cask why not just buy the Parliament instead? It does seem that a number of people have been buying these thinking they were getting single casks that were in fact truly single from source to bottle–I heard from people who own bottles from as many as 45 of these “single casks”. It is very understandable if they may now not be very happy to discover otherwise.

In other words, what I am wondering about is the allure of the term “single cask”. Are we drawn to the idea of the “single cask”, as I suggested above, because it represents a product that is purer, that has not been tinkered with? Is it because in an industry that produces and is predicated on the production of vast quantities of replicable whisky from year to year the notion of the “single cask” presents a more authentic alternative? If I am right about this and if I am right that distilleries (or their owners) know this then the situation, while certainly not illegal, does seem unethical. If that’s the case though I would have expected this “revelation” to spark far more and far more sustained outrage–and it doesn’t seem to have.

So am I wrong? Or do most geeks not really care very much about these issues one way or the other? Is it that we like the idea of being outraged over something or the other every other week more than the actual issues? Or is it the case that we secretly know that the appeal of the “single cask” is quixotic and we’d rather hold on to the illusion that it allows us of being connoisseurs of a craft rather than purchasers of products made in vast volumes in factories?

I throw all these questions open to you. If you’ve made it this far, do write in below.

20 thoughts on “Glendronach Revisited: The Allure of Single Casks

  1. I do believe the main allure of “single cask” is it being synonymous with “untinkered with”. Still to cask to bottle, nothing else in between. Whisky in its purest form. Once these casks get manipulated then it’s hard to draw the line between pure whisky and a designed product.

    As to why people are not more outraged? I have three theories:
    1. We may have become cynical with an industry where every day it becomes more clear that if there are no rules then everything goes, and that for every rule there will be some producer trying to see how far it bends until it breaks.
    2. Or – and this is the healthier case – we have other things to worry about.
    3. Even if the ideal of single cask is not attained, in its current incarnation it comes pretty close: a very small batch of whisky, carefully selected and hopefully different enough and better, in some way, than a general release.

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    • Taken to an extreme, that’s why Blackadder Raw Cask releases get away with being so damned expensive – there’s the mystique of bits of barrel char, which give customers they sense that they’re getting a more ‘pure’ experience.

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      • IMHO, not all Raw Cask are pricey and the pricing does seem to align with the true nature of single cask plus age plus the 3 tier distribution model. Not sure if the price has much to do with the fact that it contains bits of cask – I feel it’s less of a gimmick as opposed to having an uber clear understanding of what you are buying. Perhaps that level of confidence and honesty may be worth something as well? What we do know (I believe) is that Blackadder Raw Cask bottlings are single cask, not chill-filtered, not bright-filtered and without coloring (I think they just have 1 sieve to filter larger wood splinters only). It’s like taking a sample straight from the bunghole itself – no?

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  2. I’m still processing the implications of your post and hoping for independent corroboration. Obviously no nation has any legislation governing the term “single cask” or “single barrel” but we all naturally came to the conclusion that such bottlings were necessarily whisky that had come off the still, been placed in a single cask, and then left there for the duration until dumped and bottled. The significant aspect being that single cask bottlings would be a pure example of maturation in a single cask with the specific signature of that one type of wood – rather than be affected by finishing in a different type of barrel. Plus there is the issue of whether there are effects of barrel averaging (of having many barrels dumped and commoned together – as opposed to having the pure and idiosyncratic results of long maturation alone). Clearly if the term “single barrel” or “single cask” is taken to mean simply that whatever happened to the whisky along the way it ends up in a single barrel for some arbitrarily short time before dumping – then the term is essentially meaningless. And that would be a real shame because there are some true single cask offerings out there. If the term is systematically abused then it isn’t fair to those bottlings, or to us geeks who want to seek them out for our own weird geeky reasons.

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  3. Hi there,

    if we look closely we might notice that all these single casks call themselves “single cask bottlings” at least most of them do in my experience.

    And that is correct. The content you find in your 150 to 300 or more odd bottles does come from one single cask prior before bottling. What you get is really what you see.

    Now that we or some of us thought it meant “single cask maturing” is quite another subject.
    Afaik only few bottlers write “matured in one single cask” onto their labels. Most call a bottling from one single cask a single cask bottling or a rose by any other name.

    What happened to the whisky in that bottling in its infancy teenage years or adulthood is quite antoher question. The only thing we know about those cherquered pasts is that at one point in time there was one final cask from which the bottles were drawn – and nothing else from another cask has been added during the process. A singe cask bottling.

    If we want certainty we would have to ask for “solely in one same single cask matured” whisky.

    Is it cheating? No, just imprecission. Is it good? Such casks can be execptional. Must it be changed? No, not really.

    One could wish for a little more clarity on the subject, especially in the high end sector. I guess I would like to know if a 40yo Brora single cask bottling really has spent that whole long time in the same cask it was filled into at the day of distillation.
    On the other hand…it would be so far out of price reach I could’t care less.

    Should the whisky have wandered from bourbon cask to sherry cask and back in port pipes in its odd years of existence or so… than I would like to know this history oft the whisky if it was sold to me as a single cask. Wouldn’t we all?

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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  4. With all the other things going on to obfuscate what is in your bottle and the general dearth of any information on many bottlings nowadays, it’s difficult to get up any ire for this small deceit/misunderstanding/misapprehension.I mean really, between finishing and ACEing and other splitting of ever finer hairs it seems the more we know and look for precise definitions the more we get led around by our nose rings by the nose stretchers foisted on us by whisky marketers.

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  5. I’m not a big “single cask guy”—I’ve only had a few IBs that were single cask bottlings and that wasn’t the reason I bought them. So I’ll just offer a minor point about what I value in single cask labelling and why I’m not outraged about the issue here.

    The main value for me is that you know for sure whether two bottles are really the same. (“Are they both cask 12345? Then they’re both the same!”) So if you get a dud, you know to avoid it next time you’re at the shop. If you find a winner, you can seek out another bottle of the same—really the same—juice. And you can find reviews online from folks who had the same—again, really the same—bottling you had.

    That perk functions identically for both single cask bottlings and “batched” bottlings. I like both equally. And because these GlenDronach “single casks” might be what some of us would call “batches,” it’s all the same to me.

    (My opinion is surely different than that of a super-geek who’s chasing single casks for “academic” reasons or to find variety from the same old OB he’s had a hundred times.)

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  6. A lot of good points made in the post and in the discussion. I think you’ve identified the “single cask allure” – it just seems more “pure” in theory. Is most use of the term illegal? I’m really not sure – where DOES the SWA stand on this again, as per its response to Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer, as quoted by him in comments to Glendronach Confusion (or What is a “Single Cask”?):

    “A single cask bottling must be a bottling from one cask only in which all the spirit has been matured only in that cask and that is what would be understood by consumers to be meant by that description. A whisky matured in one cask and then in another is not maturation in a single cask. The SWA issues guidelines on labeling and I attach a copy for your information. I refer you to page 5, dealing with the description ‘Single Cask’.”

    The SWA thing IS truly confusing (in its directness in the face of evident industry ambiguity) – I’m sorry, I haven’t followed all the discussion on all venues, is there something, some twist, I’ve missed?

    But even if not illegal, it certainly smacks of the unethical, sort of for the same reason of the Cardhu “Pure Malt” thing – if the industry uses a designation that has no legal standing (and that might be debatable – see above), it seems to mean whatever the industry wants it to mean and if consumers draw the wrong conclusions… well, wasn’t that sort of the point, particularly if it sells whisky or reinforces price premium? What is the real difference between much of the whisky sold as single cask and that sold as double and triple matured? Willingness to talk about where the whisky’s been? GlenDronach might certainly not be a lone offender here, but few in the industry have anything to be proud of.

    I agree with Florin that I guess it doesn’t really matter in the larger sense, although I do differ a little, and no offense intended, on the idea of the “attainment” of the ideal of single cask – it’s really just a decision made in production, not something that has to be strived for like a four-minute mile, reaching the peak of Everest or breaking the sound barrier; the industry has the power to make the ideal a reality, it just chooses not to do so in most cases. I certainly agree that there are more important things to worry about, but it is just another example of why my trust and faith in the industry is in decline and for the need for more legal transparency in labeling.

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    • Yes, the SWA language does seem very clear and in accord with common sense and the English language, doesn’t it? I do believe I’ve read that the SWA’s rules are merely guidelines and don’t have any coercive power. Odd how some of what the SWA says seems to have a lot of power but other things are completely ignored.

      Oh wait, I’m not sure that Glendronach is even a member of the SWA–it’s not listed here and nor is Benriach (unless I’m missing the name of the parent company). So perhaps they don’t care what the SWA says.

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      • VERY good point, and thanks for making it – the SWA is a trade association, not a regulatory body; what they think isn’t the equivalent of law. Looking over The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, I didn’t find any reference to the term “single cask” at all so, as long as other requirements are met, I think “single cask” is only a voluntary subcategory without definition or standing. I didn’t find the BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd. to be listed under SWA members either, so it might well be a case of “Pure Malt” all over again: “single cask” is an impressive sounding designation without any actual meaning, the only real weight being assigned to it by consumers, not producers – so buyer beware.

        From GlenDronach’s website on the topic of Single Cask Bottlings:

        “Each year, our Master Distiller, Billy Walker, specially selects a handful of individual casks from the warehouses at GlenDronach Distillery, to be bottled as the GlenDronach ‘Limited Release’. With maturing whiskies dating back as far as 1968, there is a vast selection of barrels, hogsheads, puncheons and butts to choose from.”

        The reference to “individual casks” is interesting, particularly in conjunction “with maturing whiskies dating back as far as 1968”. In the absence of a definition of “single cask”, the impression that’s created for the unwary is that the whisky travels from still, to one barrel for maturation, to bottle – detours to other casks aren’t specifically ruled out, but neither are they mentioned – anywhere. The only “choice” referred to is one of deciding which casks, and type, to select for bottling, not which casks to put the maturing whisky in next. Again, what single cask might mean to a consumer is, evidently, very different than what it means to GlenDronach but there’s no need for the company to disabuse anyone of their confusion – so long as it’s a benefit, and not a liability, to sales.

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  7. From the comments here and elsewhere, I think it’s pretty obvious what buyers think goes into the process of making a single cask of whisky: nothing.

    It comes off the still, goes into the cask and then gets bottled however many years later. That’s the ideal, that’s the reason single casks are revered – they’re meant to be as close to the source as possible. If you get a pair of GlenDronach Single Casks from the same year, one from a PX butt and one from an Oloroso butt, then you’re expecting to see purely the differences that the type of wood imparted.

    The current loopholes could mean that both had spent an equal amount of time in both types of sherry wood, and an even larger amount of time in multiple bourbon casks, thus completely negating the point of the exercise.

    This entire fiasco has definitely made me much more careful about who I trust with defining single casks, and I think the real winners here are reputable independent bottlers, who probably don’t try to bend the rules, because single casks are their livelihood.

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  8. My initial reaction was one of dismay that the maturation is not taking place in a single cask, but on further reflection, even without a high level of clarity as to what “single cask” actually means (matured in a single cask?, bottled in a single cask?, etc.), I still think that there is some value for the following reasons:
    1) Although I would agree that, as was mentioned in the previous posts, one may purchase a single cask bottling because it somehow seems ‘purer’ or closer to the source, another reason could be because of the ‘uniqueness’ of the cask, and this quality is independent of – and may even be enhanced by – the number of casks in which the maturing occurs. For example, if a cask had been purposefully aged in a variety of different woods (a-la Balvenie) but then bottled as a “single cask” I think that should be permissible.
    There is something cool about knowing the outturn and that once all of those bottles are gone, there won’t be any more. Whereas distilleries need to strive for consistency in most cases, single casks – whatever the term actually means – are aiming for character.
    I do think however that mixing different single casks together prior to bottling and still calling that a “single cask” however somehow crosses the line. In that case, it would be better to call this small batch or vatted or something similar.
    2) Although of course some distilleries do not chill filter/color their standard product (Glendronach), I expect that it is universally true that single casks are never chill filtered or colored. This might contribute to the feeling of ‘purity’ as well.

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  9. The only thing I would like to add is that it is my understanding that this whole discussion came about because people began to wonder about the unusually high out-turn from some of the casks being reviewed. I think the fact that it was unusual, the fact that we all have certain expectations about what number of bottles can be drawn from a certain size cask after a certain number of years, suggests that most bottlers are on the level and this phenomenon, while not necessarily exclusive to Glendronach, may be less common than I think people are making it out to be.
    While we have no legal affirmation, if a 40 year old scotch is drawn out of an ex-bourbon barrel with an out-turn of 96 bottles, I’m inclined to believe that it spent it’s whole life in that barrel. And that’s the way pretty much all single-cask releases I’ve encountered have worked.

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    • Really only in the first two notes, no? And as the first one is of one of the Cask Strength batch releases, which do not purport to be single casks it didn’t seem odd to me when I read this post back in December. With hindsight the smiley at the end of this comment at the end of the second note does seem suggestive:

      “a big sherried one that’s… quite far from most big sherried Glendronachs. Say it’s more… fresh and fruity, perhaps? Feels like ex-bourbon oloroso ;-)”

      Not sure if Serge suspected it was a double-matured “single” cask or if he knew. At any rate none of the very large number of notes that follow those two in that post note the possibility of the issue, whereas in the other Glendronach verticale he published today he notes it at the top:

      “This one’s very interesting, since most current Glendronachs are being matured or re-racked or double-matured or finished (you name it) in sherry”

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  10. This affair has kept me thinking ever since you brought it up. Like you, I was surprised the storm subsided so quickly, especially since the community knows very well how to keep the ball rolling about controversial topics. But those ‘everlasting’ topics are mostly about price hikes, taxes and political/legal issues. Throw in the weather and sports and you have the essence of human discourse, so, after all, I shouldn’t have been surprised my fellow anoraks care little for things that don’t hit them directly in the wallet. Also like you, I don’t mind the practice of ‘finishing’, re-racking, modern sherry cask preparation practices, etc, but I’d like to know about all that, so that I can learn how to relate what I find in my glass to all those variables. It is most disappointing that the industry is doing so little effort to educate us about those matters. Rather than distributing straight information to the public – via labels, inserts, their websites or interacting on fora – they dispense morsels of information to carefully selected bloggers and journalists, so it seems.

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    • It’s really just Cardhu “Pure Malt” all over again; if you use a term without a legal definition, it only means what you say it means, whether you share that information with consumers or not. That which is less than full disclosure is just spin for someone’s benefit and, as you say, the industry knows who to talk to in order to get out the message it wants to send.

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  11. Hi there,

    the community is on thing. As to the industry and their wish to educate… that can not be too great.
    Just see what happend when they told us the age of the whiskies they are selling to us!
    They even try to turn the tables and accuse us who want to know the details about the whiskies we buy of restricting the freedom of their master blenders.

    I have the gut feeling that it is all more about restrictions for marketing departements but never mind.

    Mind… I can not make up my mind if I would like the complete cask history in a bottling like Glenmorngies Ealanta or some such.
    On the other hand Signatory gives you casks and dates on the labels of their Straight from the Casks series – which all are not so straight from one casks as they all are re-casked at on point but here you know.
    That as a general rule would not be a bad thing. In standard OB bottlings I would be content with the ratio of bourbon to serry casks or something along that line.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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  12. An interesting discussion. I hope it’s not true that GlenDronach are finishing/ACEing/re-racking without telling anyone, but after reading this and the related post, it’s a rather faint hope.

    Sjoerd quotes a letter from the SWA which seems pretty clear cut in its condemnation of calling a re-racked cask a “single”.

    On the other hand, there’s this, from the Technical File for Scotch Whisky (submitted to the European Commision in support of the Scotch Whisky Geographical Indication.

    “Supplementary labelling in terms of Article 9.6 of Regulation (EC) No 110/2008.
    The labelling, packaging, presentation and advertising of Scotch Whiskies may feature additional supplementary words or terms such as:
    1. …
    3. References to the production process or part(s) of it, including reference to the type of cask used for maturation or partial maturation (“finishing”) of the Scotch Whisky.”

    I would emphasise the phrase “reference to the type of cask used for… partial maturation”

    I think the Technical File probably has more legal force than a letter to a blogger (sorry Gal).

    You can read the Technical File here: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/sdvs/techincal-guidance.pdf

    I was quoting from page 72 of that document.

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  13. For me this “single cask” nomenclature thing is a matter of potential abuse, less about Glendronach in particular. It is the principle that matters. As in case of Glendronach, they may or may not along the way have finished – ahem, I mean MATURED whisky – from mediocre ____ casks in fresher sherry cask, which imparted substantial flavour/colour to them or done other unfavorable things possible via that loophole. :-)
    Even with their best intentions (now), they may only last as long as Glendronach (or other distilleries) are stocked with enough great casks for single cask bottlings. Then things could go awry.
    The – and I paraphrase a previous post – idea of my 20 y.o. Oloroso single cask bottle having spent more time in a same age PX cask & vice versa is quite bizarre. Given the fact that ex-bourbon barrels are way cheaper than sherry casks, such a “finishing switch” would be even more upsetting to me. Since it’s rather unlikely to get educational reviews of all single cask bottlings, I’d appeal to distilleries to be more transparent on their labels. As long as the inherent quality of the spirit speaks for itself there should be nothing to be afraid of. On the other hand, if distilleries don’t want to talk more openly about the subject, i.e. telling their valued(?!) customer, why it it’s a good/valid/common/necessary practice, that will inevitably leave an unpleasant aftertaste and might be perceived as a breach of trust.

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