While the majority of whisky barrels are mass-produced utilitarian vessels, some distillers devise custom-tailored casks as they strive to make new discoveries and expand the boundaries of flavor. And, indeed, some of these bespoke-cask whiskies evince a style all their own.
Custom Cask, Standout Flavor: 7 Whiskies Born of Bespoke Barrels
Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest Edition—95 points, $280
This release came from 29 casks made from six oak trees grown sustainably in the Bluebell Forest of the Castle Blunden Estate, Co. Kilkenny. The single pot still whiskey aged for 12 to 23 years before being finished for 19 months in the Irish oak casks.
Ardbeg Kelpie—88 points, $119
Ardbeg spirit was filled into tight-grained, virgin Russian oak casks with a medium to heavy toast. The Kelpie recipe blends these Black Sea casks from the Fanagoria cooperage with classic bourbon-matured Ardbeg to produce a robust whisky with oily peat, brine, tar, pepper, bacon, menthol, and dark chocolate.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask—91 points, $54
First released in 2004. Mature peaty Islay whiskies are finished in quarter casks. The reduced internal volume of smaller barrels boosts the wood-to-spirit ratio. Toffee and caramels, soft drying oak, and classic peat smoke.
Bainbridge Yama Single Grain Mizunara Cask—89 points, $495
Using mizunara oak imported from Japan, each 10 and 15-gallon barrel cost a total of $2,000-$3,000 to produce. The single grain whiskey shows exotic spice and pretty citrus fruit, with lemon chiffon cake, marshmallow, and almond notes.
Dewar’s White Label Scratched Cask—85 points, $26
Dewar’s raked grooves through the charred layer of American white oak barrels to increase the internal surface area and enable the whisky to penetrate deeper into the wood. A smooth, vanilla-led blend with notes of fudge, milk chocolate, and cocoa that will appeal to bourbon drinkers.
Compass Box Spice Tree—91 points, $65
The original bad boy of bespoke barrels had French oak inner staves, but the Scotch Whisky Association raised objections. Compass Box tried again with a hybrid cask of American oak staves with heavily toasted French oak cask ends. Look for nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and vanilla sweetness.
(Spice Tree Extravaganza 10th Anniversary Limited Edition pictured)
Glenmorangie Astar 2017—94 points, $100
First released as Glenmorangie Artisan Cask, Astar marks the return of their original designer cask whisky. Slow-growth, fine-grained American white oak is selected from the shadiest side of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where it develops more heartwood and denser growth rings. Expect butterscotch, florals, tropical fruit, and clove, with a creamy palate and a honey-nut finish.