The cask-finishing movement may have started with scotch, but the idea of delivering that extra kiss of flavor, and often, color, has made its way to bourbon, rye, and Irish whiskey, as well.
Generally speaking, good Irish whiskey already has a lighter, sweeter profile than many other grain spirits. And the regulations and traditions of Irish distilling allow for a great deal of leeway in production process and grain sourcing to produce brew that can still carry the sobriquet. So, whiskies from the Emerald Isle can vary from single-malts to blends, all-barley to multi-cereal approaches, continuous Coffey stilling to traditional single pot cooking, and so on.
Certainly, Knappogue Castle, with one of the most sought-after bottles ever distilled in Ireland, the 1951 Vintage Sherry Cask Aged, is not only one of the country’s finest makers, but also an early experimenter in wine-cask finishing.
For example, Knappogue Castle’s 14-year-old (about $65), while technically called a single-malt, is a blend of single-malt bourbon-barrel aged and single-malt Oloroso cask-aged spirits. This award winner presents abundant fruit and vanilla sweetness, with a strong undercurrent of the crisp grain distillate rising into the finish. But, Knappogue’s special flavor profile lends itself to additional casking experimentation. As generic sherry and Oloroso casking are being used by most brown spirits in some form or another, Knappogue Castle has tapped some wine cask sources that present a more interesting match for its whiskey.
The Knappogue Castle Wine Cask Finish Series ($80 each) utilizes some more exotic former wine barrels to finish the whiskey off: Marco de Bartoli Marsala (an Italian fortified wine along the lines of Port), Chateau Pichon Baron (a grand-cru Bordeaux red), and Marchesi di Barolo (a bold northern Piedmontese red).
Both the non-fortified reds lend abundant berry, fruit, and spice notes to the Knappogue Castle whiskey; we recently taste-tested the Marsala-finished version, finding it quite complex and unique. Marco de Bertoli has been lauded for “saving” the marsala wine style, which, while always of unique quality and flavor, had somehow been relegated to use in cooking for the most part. (To be sure, while some cuisine simply calls for marsala wine, do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle of the Bertoli and give it try, uncorked and uncooked). Marsala casks as a whiskey finisher proved to be very intriguing, too. Beyond the expected fruit (more towards a dried fruit flavor) and vanilla notes, there were elements of coffee and the dry oak of the marsala cask itself as well, leading to a superb overall creaminess to the drinking experience.