Rum cask-finished whiskies are relatively unusual compared to those whiskies that spend their final days in casks that held port, sherry, or wine, but the pleasure they deliver is like sipping golden sunshine. Sweet tropical fruit notes bathe the whisky in lush flavors.
During the spring, the sugarcane harvest in the Caribbean is in full swing. Cane is the raw ingredient for rum, mostly produced from molasses, a byproduct of sugar manufacture. Like whisky, rum is a clear spirit when it enters the barrel: the color is generated from the spirit’s interaction with the wood over time, and depending on the type of still used and the barrel maturation, it spans light, easy-drinkers to dark, full-bodied sipping rums.
Ironically, many of the barrels used to age rum will have seen whiskey before. The charred oak barrels previously used to produce bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are as apt to find their way to the Caribbean islands as the Scottish Highlands.
In the hot climates where rum is produced—like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Barbados—spirits mature more quickly than in cooler regions. Rum producers can and do refill the barrels with new rum repeatedly, although the oak has a diminishing amount of flavor to impart each time. Blenders buying casks for rum finishing their whisky naturally check the condition of their casks carefully, but some go one step further. “Ensuring the quality and consistency of the rum casks we use in our cask-finishing program is essential, which is why [malt master] David [Stewart] and I put in place our own facility for rum maturation many years ago,” says Glenfiddich master blender Brian Kinsman. “We source the rum to the desired flavor profile then mature it in our own casks which have been carefully selected and coopered at the cooperage in Dufftown. That way we can be confident the final, finished product will be exactly what we are aiming for.”
Rum cask-finished whisky labels often lack detail regarding the provenance of the cask, including the name or even the style of the former inhabitant. Occasionally the country of origin is shown, but more often broad geographical brushstrokes, like ‘Caribbean’ or ‘West Indian,’ must suffice.
Arguably, the most collectible rum cask whisky is the pioneering Springbank 1973, released in 1991, which was fully matured, not finished, in a rum butt. Glenfiddich 21 year old Havana Reserve from 2002 also achieved collector status, although it may be partly due to its scandalous name (changed to Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva). Fortunately, Glenfiddich producer William Grant & Sons has deployed rum casks to make ever more accessible and delectable whiskies, including successive expressions of Balvenie, beginning with Balvenie Rum Cask 17 year old in 2008, and more recently Tullamore D.E.W. XO and Glenfiddich Fire and Cane. “The recent William Grant & Sons success with cask finishes has been built on decades of experimentation and knowledge that started with David Stewart creating the first cask finishes with Balvenie back in the early 1980s,” reminds Kinsman. He describes that the rum’s influence should be a subtle accent to the whisky’s distillery character, “like a halo for the flavor that had developed through the original maturation.”
The practice is not limited to single malts, since blended Scotch, Irish, and a host of global whiskies have also enjoyed a stay in rum casks. Japan’s Nikka, Kavalan of Taiwan, and India’s Amrut have released rum-finished single malt whiskies. This list of distinctive and available cask-finished whiskies suggests even your favorite whisky may benefit from a tropical retreat.
The Sweeter Side: 8 Whiskies With Rum Influence
Hyde No. 4 1922 6 year old President’s Cask Rum Finished Single Malt—92 points, $55
Soft toffee, apricot, orange zest, aromatic spices, banana custard, and butterscotch sweetness.
Angel’s Envy Rye—90 points, $90
An 18-month finish in Caribbean rum casks drapes this rye whiskey with maple syrup sweetness, citrus, cotton candy, and tropical fruits.
Pike Creek Rum Finish 10 year old—90 points, $30
This sweet, rum-finished Canadian whisky is packed with scintillating spices and dark, succulent fruit.
West Cork Rum Cask Finish 12 year old—90 points, $66
A 6-month finishing in West Indian rum casks provides honeycomb, golden syrup, fresh bread, sweet melon, orange oils, and a slight nuttiness.
Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 year old—89 points, $75
Rich honey, nougat, orange, papaya, oak, and dry spices on this follow-up of Balvenie Golden Cask.
Teeling Small Batch—89 points, $40
This Irish blend is finished for 6 months in Central American rum casks, producing orchard and tropical fruits, toffee, raisins, and chocolate.
Tullamore D.E.W. XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish—89 points, $30
Demerara rum casks suggest Guyana and they deliver flavors of mango, passion fruit, dried papaya, apple, and egg custard.
Glenfiddich Fire and Cane—87 points, $50
A blend of peated and unpeated single malts yields vanilla, pear, tobacco, cinder toffee, and ashy smoke following a 3-month stay in rum casks.