Cask Selection Process

It is just over a month since I joined Duncan Taylor & Co Ltd. In the short space of time I have been here I have been astounded by the quality of the whiskies available to us for bottling. There are some remarkable casks of whisky sitting in warehouses all around Scotland and Duncan Taylor & Co Ltd can rightly be proud of the whiskies put together over the years by previous and present owners.

In order for any cask to be considered for bottling or for inclusion in our Octave cask programme it must firstly meet strict quality requirements. Casks are identified from our inventory and a sample request is generated and sent to the warehouse, this could be our own warehouse here in Huntly or to any one of a dozen distilling companies’ warehouses whom hold casks on our behalf.

Once the sample is delivered our nosing panel will set aside an afternoon to nose and taste a number of samples. There is no minimum number of samples we will evaluate, but there is a maximum, which is 8 at one time. The reason for this is as you evaluate each sample your senses become clogged and it becomes difficult to identify scents and flavours as they tend to merge into each other. We use good spring water to wash our palates after every sensory evaluation but it becomes less effective in cleansing the palate as more whiskies are tasted. Eventually we have to stop and let our palates recover, this can be a matter of half an hour to an hour, usually dependent on the whiskies tasted, and heavier, smokier whiskies require a longer recovery time.

We select and arrange the samples at cask strength from light to heavy, non peated to peated in order to help protect our senses instead of drowning them with the first whisky nosed and tasted. A sample is initially nosed to detect off odours such as butyric and feints. Once nosed for off odours we begin to break down the whisky into general scents i.e. fruity, flowery, oily, etc., then into specific scents i.e. apple, pear, rose, daffodil, olive, coconut, etc. The scents we detect are recorded to enable us to make up tasting notes if the cask is chosen for bottling, not all casks will be chosen for bottling and will be left to mature further. We then taste the whisky noting the flavours and sensations felt on the tongue, cheeks and throat. Notes like apple, orange, chocolate, coconut, etc, flavours detected on the tongue and oily, mouth coating, effervescent, etc, sensations felt in the mouth. Again all these flavours and sensations are recorded for inclusion in any tasting note.

We then reduce the sample with good spring water to around 20% alcohol by volume (abv) and repeat the process. You may ask why 20%abv, this is the strength of alcohol best suited to your nose and palate as the palate especially can be damaged by high strength alcohol to the detriment of flavour identification. Again notes are kept of the sensory evaluation and it is only after this process that we will consider all the factors and decide whether to bottle or not. All of the quality criteria must be met before we will allow any of our products to be filled to bottle and released to the market.

We have a programme for filling octave casks which allows people to buy casks of whisky at much reduced prices than if they were to buy and bottle a hogshead or a barrel. The octave programme allows someone to purchase a cask which has previously held high quality oloroso sherry or whisky which is then filled with the whisky of their choice. The same evaluation of the whisky is carried out prior to filling the octave to ensure only quality whiskies are used. By introducing the whisky to the octave we enhance the sensory experience of the whisky as it matures rapidly in a small cask and is able to take on flavours from within the wood in a very short space of time.

Each cask is used only 3 times, the first time the cask is used it will have contained nothing but sherry from a previous maturation before being emptied and shipped over to our premises here in Huntly. The whisky is allowed to mature in the octave for a minimum of 3 months prior to it being bottled, with each octave producing approximately 70 bottles. A further sensory evaluation is conducted to ensure the whisky is of the highest quality before bottling with tasting notes being produced to accompany the bottle.

The cask once emptied is used for the next maturation cycle but this will last for 6 months as the wood gives up a proportion of the flavour producing compounds in the first maturation. The second maturation cycle is extended to allow the whisky to penetrate the wood further to allow the same proportion of flavour compounds to be drawn from the wood as previously in the first maturation. Sensory evaluation is again carried out to ensure the whisky is of the highest quality prior to it being bottled. The octave will be filled with whisky for a final time and will be left to mature for 6 months, again this is to allow the whisky to penetrate the wood to release the flavour compounds desired.

I have learned in the short space of time that I have been here at Duncan Taylor & Co Ltd that quality of product is of paramount importance to each and every member of the team which I am proud to be part of. There are not many people who as part of their job get to nose and taste some fantastic whiskies, long may it continue.

All the best

Stuart Robertson

Distillery Development Manager


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