The Last Few Drams.
Allow us to make a quick assumption here – if you’re reading this blog, and especially if you’ve come here from our scotch whisky collections newsletter, you’re probably suffering from the ‘last drams dilemma’. Not to worry – it’s a common affliction among those who have made whisky a part of their lives.
Too many bottles on the shelf, and too many of them cradling just the last few mouthfuls of Scotch whisky which is rapidly oxidising and becoming something unexpected. It’s an inconvenient truth that whisky, though it doesn’t mature in the bottle, nonetheless does change slowly once the cork is popped for the first time. This pace of change accelerates as more of the whisky gets drunk. Once the ratio of air to whisky in the bottle is strongly in favour of the air, the liquid oxidises faster and the whole character of the whisky is altered, in potentially unfavourable ways.
So what to do? Do you let your diminishing stock of malt put pressure on you to drink it as it disappears? Do you see those last few drams as an obligation with a deadline?
It all sounds a bit too much like work. Whisky shouldn’t be calling the shots as to when you want to drink it. That Scapa distillery exclusive may have been there a while, but you’re just not in the mood for it now. Those final drops of Benrinnes aren’t what they once were, but you wanted to finish it on a special occasion. Better drink that Lagavulin tonight, because it’ll go weird if you don’t.
In these situations, we would recommend setting up an infinity bottle. This is a bottle or decanter where you can add the remains of your whiskies once they have been drunk to the point where their progressing oxidation becomes a real threat. You end up creating a bespoke blend of your own whisky history. In fact, due to the fact that the bottle will never be fully emptied, there will always be a few molecules from your first whisky present in the infinity pool. From a homeopathic standpoint, you’d be generating the strongest ever expression of your original whisky.
Infinity bottling is a little like the solera system – a technique by which a series of casks maintain a regular topping up of spirit or wine to replace what is taken out. This results in a constant refreshing and blending of liquids, creating new flavours to boot. It’s a technique used to great effect by the sherry producers in Spain, and Glenfiddich famously do it in Scotland too.
The flavours will be best when well integrated with each other, so make sure to let the blend marry for at least a day before sampling.
The best reason for starting an infinity bottle is that it’s a great way to beat the oxidation game. If the bottle is kept around 70-80% full at all times, the progressive damage to the whiskies inside should be minimal, especially if you keep a good cork in the neck of the bottle or decanter, and keep the inner environment as inert as possible.
Surely this is Sacrilege!
You might feel a little squeamish about tainting the essence of some of your finest and most hard-won malts by combining them together with others and causing a de-individualisation. I hear you. Just remember, though, that celebration of the singular in whisky is a fairly modern phenomenon – for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the measure of a great whisky was in how it blended its individual flavours to become part of a far greater whole. This traditional wisdom doesn’t need to go completely out of fashion. Perhaps that rare and old Single Malt whisky still has some hidden talents to explore when it teams up with others. And surely it’s better than letting it oxidise into irrelevance.
It’s also a wonderful homage to the Master Blenders – you can be very selective about which whiskies you introduce to your infinity bottle. Will you create a core of fruity smoothness with something Speyside, introduce a little Highland haughtiness and maybe add in some smoky island highlights? Or will your bottle become more of a slurping boggy peat monster? Keep up the process and the infinity blend will continue to evolve in unpredictable directions with every new addition. But do make sure to keep it topped up.
I’d never quite had the oomph to start my own infinity bottle before. I had a lingering protectiveness of my more precious whiskies, though they were on their final few centilitres. But when looking into the subject of infinity bottles for this piece, I became convinced of their virtue. That photo to the right? That’s my new infinity bottle, every aspect of it approved by me (side note – how come all my designs are shot down by Cask 88’s design team?), constructed from the final gasps of some of my most cherished whiskies. A little Scapa for smooth fruitiness, a bit of Tormore for sharpness, a splash of Laphroaig to lend a brooding quality and some Strathclyde to make sure they all behave themselves. Some other things too, but a master blender never shares all their secrets.
Honestly, so far so good, but it’s early days yet. Early focus group studies have gone very well. I look forward to seeing how this bottle grows alongside my collection. I’ve appended a label to the rear, where every newly added whisky is recorded – a memorial wall of greatness.
The Living Cask.
Like all good ideas, this one can be made even better by scaling it up and committing to a ‘living cask’ of whisky. A small cask can be anything from a handful to tens of litres in capacity, which is a lot more spacious than a bottle. Perfect for those of you who have a larger personal collection.
While an infinity bottle keeps the interred whiskies stored in glass and unable to mature, a living cask of oak can restart maturation on whiskies that have already been bottled, allowing your home to become a new whisky warehouse – how glamorous! Not a bonded warehouse, we must stress: the whiskies you add to your personal casks will already have been bottled and had appropriate taxes paid on them. They’ve already matured, so any bonus maturation they enjoy is strictly off the record. So long as you don’t try to re-sell your creations, it’s all fine and legal.
There are suppliers out there who cater to home maturation and small businesses. A 1 litre cask may cost in the region of £50 with increasing price efficiency as the capacity goes up. If I’ve just helped some of you have an epiphany for a Christmas present for that fellow whisky enthusiast in your lives, you’re very welcome.
Since these domestic casks tend to be novelty sizes with a capacity of only a few litres, this maturation can be far more rapid than in a full sized Hogshead. Less of that tedious waiting around as a spirit explores the potential of a butt, puncheon or hogshead. Home maturation gets results, fast.
The last share of your whisky bottles, which may have been looking at a period of slow decline if kept trapped within their bottle, can find new life through the nurture of a new cask (which can, of course, be seasoned beforehand with anything you like for extra complexity).
Reinvigorating your whiskies in this way can be a little risky – who knows what might result – but the thrill of creating a new whisky that’s entirely your unique handiwork can be a little intoxicating. In many ways.
Just, for goodness sake let me repeat this, don’t try and bring your home-crafted whiskies to market in any form. The SWA will come down on you like a tonne of timber wolves.
Something a Little Larger
For the most ambitious, or for those who find themselves awash with whisky, there is always further to go. Our quarter casks at the Cask 88 office, which arrived as Pedro Ximenez soaked husks, will become living casks.
As it happens, we have a nice stack of bottles of very youthful Port Charlotte malt – enough to partially fill one of our quarter casks. A fine experiment – maturing 3 year old peaty Scotch in a sweet and spicy ex-sherry quarter cask. We won’t even have to wait too long for results. Quarter casks do their work quickly.
There’s really only one stage after this one – setting up as a full time distiller yourself, and filling full-sized American and European with your very own Single Malt. If that truly is your dream, then let this be your call to action! Let us know when your whisky’s done.