Another sherried malt after yesterday’s Balblair 21, and another K&L exclusive. However, this is not from the current run of K&L exclusives, of which I’ve already reviewed a few this month (Clynelish 23, 1995, Glen Moray 23, 1995, Allt-A-Bhainne 23, 1995). This was part of last year’s set of exclusive casks, I believe. Sherry-matured Caol Ila can be very excellent indeed. In this case, however, the maturation regime is not very straightforward. This whisky is apparently from something called a “sherry finished butt”. What is a “sherry finished butt”? In this case it is apparently a refill sherry cask that was filled/seasoned with sherry for a while, emptied and then filled with this whisky. If that seems rather bogus it’s because it is but it’s also almost certainly a practice far more rife in the industry than we would hope to be the case (see also Signatory’s “wine treated butts”. It also seems like a recipe for a whisky where the sherry will separate and float free on the palate or finish. Let’s see if that actually happens though.
Caol Ila 7, 2010 (59.5%; Sovereign for K&L; sherry finish; from a bottle split)
Nose: Medicinal smoke shot through with bright lemon and cereals. On the second sniff there’s some oyster liquor, some olive brine and then a truckload of salt. The phenols seem to get more pungent with every sniff. A few drops of water bring out some cream but the salt still blasts through it.
Palate: The sherry is more apparent here with sweeter notes sitting on top of the smoke and the phenols which expand rapidly as I swallow. The salt pops out on the second sip as do the mezcal’ish notes from the finish. Beyond a little more sweetness there isn’t much development from here: phenols+lemon+salt+mezcal. Let’s see what water does. It pushes the salt back and brings out sweeter notes of vanilla and cream here too.
Finish: Long. Hints of youth begin to emerge here (mezcal’ish notes) from under the smoke and salt which hang out for a while. As on the palate with water.
Comments: This is pretty big peat by Caol Ila’s usual mellower standards. Probably a sign of youth. The sherry aging covers up many of the signs of that youth at first but they begin to come through as it sits. Still, pleasant enough, though nothing I needed a full bottle of. And, oh yes, my fears of sherry separation did not actually come to pass.
Rating: 82 points.
The main difference between a “sherry finished butt” and a “sherry butt”, to me, is one of honesty in disclosure. A sherry butt is not meant to age sherry for the sake of the sherry, but rather to hold sherry for a while so that the subsequent whisky tastes like sherry – or simply sweet. Sure, we can talk about common practices at various distilleries regarding how long the sherry will stay in the “sherry butt” (2 years if you ask people from Highland Park), but since there is no legal definition, to my knowledge, I’d bet there’s a lot of variation, so anyone can say what they want. I’ll guess that the more scrupulous producers consider something “finished” for less than 1 year, and “aged” for longer than that.
When I referred to the practice as “bogus” I wasn’t singling this cask or bottler out. As I say, I think this kind of thing is far more rife in the industry than most people suspect. Just as “single cask” often means the “the last cask into which a number of other casks may have been dumped”, “sherry cask” can just mean “cask that held sherry of some kind for any period of time”. But unless a bottle’s label—or the marketing—explains what “sherry finished butt” means—which it may have in this case, I don’t know that putting “sherry finished butt” on the label really amounts to very much honesty.
A sherry butt is a size of cask and the number of fills determines how much sherry influence is left. In this case they took an old butt and filled it with sherry for something like 2 years and then filled it with Caol ila for the entire term. So it was the butt that was finished in sherry not the whisky which spend almost all its life in the this butt. Although more than likely the first year or two were in HHD, before being transferred over in the bottlers warehouses. All this information was included in the marketing and it’s assumed by the bottler that drinkers understand the distinction between a whisky finished in a sherry butt and a butt finished in sherry. I would say this is about as transparent as you can be without a total redesign of the label/including explanations which I would never ask my supplier to do because all my whisky includes detailed notes and descriptions.