Our Top 10 favourite Bourbon-cask matured whiskies
Following on from our Top 10 single malt scotch whiskies which focused more on the variety of distilleries in the different regions around Scotland, here we attempt to select our top 10 Bourbon-matured whiskies.
Maturing of whiskies in either first-fill or refill ex-Bourbon casks made from American white oak (Quercus Alba) is probably the most common type of cask maturing in warehouses across Scotland. However, bottling or purely Bourbon-matured whiskies is not that common as this stock commonly gets used alongside the less-common ex-Sherry cask matured stock to create balanced expressions.
The earliest recorded use of ex-Bourbon casks I have observed was quoted in Laphroaig’s distillery visitor centre as 1923. Most Scotch distilleries were not commonly using ex-Bourbon casks until the mid 1940’s (after the Second World War) at the earliest, when changes instigated by the US Cooper’s Union after Prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s demanded only new casks could be used for the production of Bourbon. This legislation provided a cheap source of used Bourbon casks made from quality American oak which Scotch malt whisky producers were happy to re-use.
The typical flavours generated by using American oak ex-Bourbon casks include, caramel, butterscotch, honey, vanilla, coconut, almond and ginger. Some deriving from the tight grain American oak wood with its high vanillin content and some from the mostly Corn (Maize) based Bourbon contents. Further flavours are generated by different levels of charring, toasting, use (1st, 2nd, 3rd, even 4th fill) and reconditioning such as shaving and re-charring.
For fully ex-bourbon maturation there can be little to hide behind, except in the case of first fill which can be very dominant. For example most grain whisky is filled into 1st fill casks which are then later re-used (as 2nd fill or refill ex- Bourbon casks) with a much gentler maturation effect on single malt whisky. To make great bourbon-matured single malt whisky therefore the new make spirit needs to be of top quality. Occasionally, though not always, a considerable amount of time is needed to generate a good balance between 2nd fill bourbon cask and spirit too.
Some of our favourite, or most memorable Bourbon cask matured offerings (in no particular order) are:
Produced on Islay, this smoky, briny whisky is mostly filled into ex-Bourbon casks and the standard range of 12, 18, 25 year old represent the differing maturation properties in these casks with time. A classic peated malted barley expression redolent of Islay and its environment.
“A smoky, sea-fresh aperitif from remote Islay.”
The Lowland classic, for many years I wasn’t sure about Glenkinchie and others have described it as ‘breakfast whisky’. Recently the quality and flavour have had a resurgence, possibly due to better cask quality? Again as above their standard 12 year old bottling is matured solely in ex-Bourbon casks.
“A light, floral whisky with a citrusy, creamy taste.”
Not a scotch! shock horror. Well no, not really, there is plenty of whisky made around the world that equals or betters Scotch single malt whisky. Kavalan is a relative newcomer and due to its location and climate in Taiwan experiences faster cask maturation. Their spirit and cask selections have been producing some really fantastic quality whisky which is highly sought after. If you can find a Kavalan Bourbon cask matured for sale then snap it up!
“A perfect marriage between the spirit and the cask that can only be achieved in the climate of Yilan, Taiwan” Dr. Jim Swan
Mortlach is traditionally associated with quite heavy sherry influence thanks to the discontinued 16 Year Old Flora and Fauna bottling, and to a lesser extent perhaps their new range. Mortlach’s spirit however has some stroing characteristics all of its own, which helps out heavy sherry maturation, however I feel are displayed best following bourbon cask maturation. They are not easy to find but have a look around some of the Independent bottlers for single cask examples ex-bourbon or refill casks.
“Forget the light, fruity character of the traditional Speyside: Mortlach is muscular, bold and yet with subtle, refined aspects that keep connoisseurs coming back again and again.”
I think of Linkwood as an unsung gem. I recently stumbled across an old recipe book detailing whisky recipes and 90% of them recommended Linkwood as the whisky to use due to its flavour quality and sweetness. Again Indie bottlers may be the way to go here and casks matured to high-teens to early twenties should be liquid perfection.
“A whole garden of fruit and flower scents.”
If your not a big fan of Mortlach meat or Linkwood sweet then how about Floral? Longmorn spirit is an absolute meadow and rose garden when it comes to florality. Couple this with that subtle vanilla sweetness from ex-bourbon casks and you approach the indulgence of vanilla and rose white chocolate. Official bottles usually include a substantial sherry-matured component within them, but Independently bottled Bourbon-matured Longmorn isn’t too difficult to find.
“A connoisseurs favourite, Longmorn is a cornerstone of the Chivas Brothers single malt range.”
A little bit of mainstream choice, but how can you get your hands on a bourbon cask I hear you cry? Glenfiddich’s spirit overflowing with fresh ripe pears is always matured in both bourbon and sherry casks before marrying together to make their delicious standard range of expressions, or further mixed in a solera system. Well very occasionally some stock from a single cask type has been bottled. Their Age of Discovery 19 Year Old, originally released to travel retail was an absolute dream whisky!
“The World’s most awarded single malt Scotch whisky.”
Yes I have a soft-spot for Edradour. For a long time it has been my favourite distillery to tour and its whisky is very small batch due to the scale of their production. Edradour have long released Sherry and Bourbon-only matured Decanters available at their distillery shop and now beyond.
“World renowned as the smallest traditional distillery in Scotland and arguably the most unique.”
Yamazaki is normally constructed from a trio of cask maturations including Bourbon, Sherry and Japanese Mizunara Oak wood barrels. Each year however they release their cask collection edition matured in a sole cask type. In recent years these have become highly prized not least due to featuring some heavy praise in Jim Murray’s whisky Bible compounding on the huge upsurge in interest in Japanese whisky whilst stocks, at least outside of Japan, appear to have dwindled. The used to sell for under £100 easily, they are usually more likely to be found at 5 or 6 times this price now.
“Japans oldest single malt whisky distillery and best selling whisky”
Glenrothes has a lot of fans especially amongst many whisky bloggers, but until recently it was not a distillery I had much excitement for. A few recent samplings have turned my attention to Glenrothes a little more and so it make our list here.
“What makes The Glenrothes different is also what makes it exceptional.”
Have your own favourite Bourbon-matured whisky – then let us know, we’d love to hear your suggestions too!