I have recently read mixed opinions on the use of Virgin Oak casks but have enjoyed many examples myself so I looked forward eagerly to see what Billy Walker would conjure from these.
A Virgin Oak cask is a new cask, toasted and charred then used either for full maturation or as in the case of these three new GlenAllachie expressions as an 18 month finish after a full normal maturation in traditional ex bourbon casks. These are all 12 year old whiskies. The key point is that the criticism is made of their use in full maturation not finishing.
The criticism levelled is that Virgin Oak casks are used to ‘imitate’ a full maturation by adding rapidly barrel notes and effects. This is certainly not the case at GlenAllachie.
Virgin Oak used for full maturation is criticised for delivering:
A very one dimensional whisky with overwhelming similarities between different whiskies.
Over strong oak notes
Over prevalent notes of coconut and vanilla
A lack of barrel maturity depth and cask notes
I have praised some Irish and English whiskies recently for their excellent use of Virgin Oak so I will be wary of not falling into the controversy trap.
12 year old French Virgin Oak 48%
Initially matured in ex bourbon American Oak barrels then finished for 18 months in hogsheads made of French Oak (Quercus Robur) sourced from the Haute-Garonne region close to the Pyrenees. The French favour fine grained oak because diametrically opposite to the Scottish whisky industry they do not want oak notes in their wines. This oak gives of itself slowly.
Nose – Initially a slightly closed nose. Persevere and it gradually starts to open up nicely, with peanut shells, floral perfumed notes, tangerines, golden syrup. A light complex nose
Palate – peppery spice, mint toffos, cinnamon, oranges, a tasty palate, virgin oak quite prevalent bringing complexity with lots of flavours.
A bright layer on top of the standard matured spirit, delivers a style that is popular now with lots of flavour and a little burn.
Mellows it down but still peppery, its flavours remain strong, smoother and more creamy.
Gets better for time in the glass. With time and water the spirit shone through creamier more toffee and chocolate orange an earthy note on the palate and finish.
Given time to deliver this is a lovely GlenAllachie.
12 year old Chinquapin oak 48%
The cask was dried for 4 years then given medium toasting. Matured initially in American Oak Bourbon casks then finished 18 months in casks made of Chinquapin Oak (Quercus Muehlenbergii) sourced from the Northern Ozark region in Missouri. (If you missed the Netflix series – I can recommend it, best with a glass of GlenAllachie!) Chinquapin is a sub species of Quercus Alba and delivers spicy flavours and aromas.
Nose – citrus grapefruit, dry orange, coconut plenty of aromas to enjoy.
Palate – creamy toffee, light spicing ginger and cinnamon, stewed apple, hint of walnut great mouthfeel quite chewy.
Finish – I got oak spicing but no overly woody notes, I am getting berries and some light cereal notes certainly multidimensional. Completely different to many virgin oak finishes. Billy Walker – a master at work aware of the pitfalls and using the opportunities to the full. There are coffee notes with more layering of dark chocolate. A long finish nothing ephemeral about this expression .
It is a interesting contrast from the French much more complex for me more giving possibly a medium grained oak
With Water – not much difference initially then really soften these down and adds more creaminess and chocolate biscuit notes and enhances the spicing on this expression.
After time and water the nose and palate explode but the layering and complexity take exploring. At times through its development it lacks balance but then this resolves into a lovely dram when you have the time to appreciate it. It often tastes more alcoholic than it is due to the spicing.
I absolutely loved this dram but it took time and is not for the gulper, the impatient or inexperienced.
I prefer this one a real triumph but take a full 30 minutes over each dram …… and be careful of what you read! Highly recommended.
12 year old Spanish Oak 48%
An Oak from the Cantabrian mountains in northern Spain
Nose – honeycomb sweetness, mandarin oranges, coconut
Palate – white chocolate, ginger snaps and mocca cinnamon
A lovely progression creamy spicy and fruit with American spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. An excellent sweet dram balancing spices and fruit with a good finish. Again multi dimensional.
I didn’t feel like it needed water but I tried a drop
Water – supported the nose well and separated the aromas nicely without revealing many more.
On the palate more complexity emerged confectionary, spices and mixed orchard and tropical fruits . This would be a popular whisky for many who love the sweet spicy variety. A quality dram.
I personally love meaty heavy bodied drams so this is not entirely my preferred style but I do respect the art of the distiller in creating these lovely varied expressions. The best Virgin Oak finished expressions I have tasted.
I enjoyed all three greatly and I have no hesitation in recommending them as premium expressions. The 18 year old GlenAllachie remains my favourite. All of these expressions deliver big time but their price is impacted by the cask cost and he slightly higher ABV. They are competitive in their class without doubt.
As Serge Valentine said ‘the successful use of virgin oak depends on the distiller’ and you can trust Billy Walker to deliver. Be patient and enjoy!
Many thanks to GlenAllachie for the samples.