The downside to single cask bottlings
This is generally thought to be a good thing by most whisky consumers. After all, those generic “bottom shelf brands” are bottlings of many barrels mingled together, not one barrel at a time. They lack individuality, distinction. And some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted have been single cask bottlings.
So, what’s the problem then, you ask? Well, let me use the analogy of a choir and a soloist. If you’re a great singer and you’re in a choir, you certainly will help make the choir sound better, but you’ll be lost in the crowd and not fully appreciated. You’re better off singing solo, so everyone can hear and appreciate your talents.
But what if you’re not a great singer and you sing solo? Everyone hears you. Your faults are fully exposed. You have no place to hide, no other voices to compensate for your weaknesses. And let’s face it: very few of us are great singers.
The same goes for whisky. Sure, I’ve had some amazing single cask bottlings of whiskies, and I am so glad they were able to “sing solo.” But for every amazing bottling I’ve tried, there’s probably ten I’ve tasted that would have been better “mingled” with other barrels before being bottled, to help hide their flaws or compensate for their weaknesses.
Sure, buying from a reputable producer (or independent bottler) increases the odds that you will be satisfied with your purchase, but each cask of whisky is unique in it’s flavor profile. That’s what makes them so much fun to try, but that’s also where the risk lies. It’s a two-edged sword.
Additionally, I find that the whiskies from many distilleries taste better when the bottling consists of a mix of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, not just one or the other. (Not always–I still love Glenmorangie aged exclusively in bourbon oak, for example.)
I was recently sent review samples of single casks from an independent bottler. One was distilled at Tobermory and aged in a sherry cask; the other was distilled at Longmorn and aged in a refill bourbon casks. The sherry dominated the Tobermory whisky, and the Longmorn, because of its extensive aging, was dry on the palate and could have used some sherry sweetness and fruitiness to balance the flavor profile. These are just two examples to explain my point, but it happens all the time.
Bottom line: buying a bottle of single cask whisky is exciting, but it’s also risky. If you can, “try before you buy” so you know what you’re getting. If you can’t try it first, stick with producers and bottlers you trust.