More than a decade after it became standard for Scottish distilleries to plump their product lines by finishing their signature single malts in wine and bourbon casks, industry old-timers and other purists are still wondering whether the practice dishonors whisky traditions.
"If it's all about finishes, I get a little depressed," Mike Nicolson, former master distiller for Lagavulin, Rosebank and Glenkichie, told a group of Whisky Festival attendees gathered for a side-by-side tasting of classic malts and their cask-finished versions.
Distilleries such as Glenmorangie have embraced cask-finishing as a relatively affordable and efficient way of luring new customers without adjusting their longstanding recipes. In response to increased competition, Glenmorangie has issued whiskies "double matured" in port casks, sherry casks and Madeira casks. Its Nectar D'Or -- just released this month in a 15-year edition -- spends five years in Sauternes casks after an initial 10-year mellowing period in ex-bourbon barrels. Brand ambassador David Blackmore calls the result a "perfect breakfast whisky."
"It's like the drive-through window at IHOP," Blackmore says, explaining he rejected his patisserie analogy after realizing many Americans weren't familiar with the term. "It's pancakes and syrup."
Nicolson isn't opposed to cask-finishing in principle -- he's found a few malts he thinks are improved by a follow-up stay in a different kind of cask -- he doesn't like when strong wine notes overtake the flavors he worked hard to cultivate as a distiller. He also wonders why a whisky should be subjected to so many different treatments.
"A dozen finishes make my head hurt," he says. "After a certain number, does it not diminish the liquor you started with?"
According to Nicolson, it's unclear who's pushing the cask-finish trend. He doesn't know whether consumers are buying the whiskies because distilleries are making them, or distilleries are making them because consumers demand it.
"It's one of those difficult chicken and egg questions," he says. "I'm not sure who's doing it."