Glendronach Confusion (or What is a “Single Cask”?)

[Update: See the follow-up post here.]

Warning: this is long and symptomatic of obsessive compulsive disorder, and in any case may be something you already know or don’t care about. If you do choose to read the whole thing what are you going to find? Well, after a long’ish setting of the stage in which I describe how I came to think about this issue at all and the conversations that led me to explore it further, I detail how I came to discover that the term “Single Cask” may not refer to a whisky that was matured for its entire life in one cask; and furthermore that the cask type stated may not refer to the only type of cask in which it was matured. My chief reference here is to the Glendronach distillery but I suspect this is far more broadly applicable.

glendronachsinglecasks

The Part Before The Interesting Part (But You Should Read It Anyway)

As I’ve noted before, I am a big fan of the Glendronach distillery in its current incarnation (I have little knowledge of the malt put out at Glendronach before it was taken over and revamped by Billy Walker and co. from Benriach). I enjoy the 15 yo Revival and 21 yo Parliament in the core range but it is the annual releases of batches of single casks that most excite me. I’ve not had so very many of these compared to some, but I’ve had more than a few and I’ve found them to run the gamut from very good to excellent. And that, by and large, has arguably been the response of most whisky geeks (well, maybe not of the few who insist sulphur taint is an ongoing problem at Glendronach).

As such, it was a little jarring to see a poor review of a Glendronach single cask at Whiskynotes earlier this week, a 21 yo cask from a single PX puncheon (#5405)–this was of interest to me as I recently purchased a bottle from a 23 yo PX puncheon (#1240). Now a poor review in and of itself is not such an interesting thing–though when it comes from a source as influential as Ruben at Whiskynotes it means more than it normally might (and after the fact I see that Serge didn’t care much for that cask either). Things got more interesting in the comments where Arild Een pointed out that 702 bottles from a puncheon after 21 years seemed like a lot, and pointed readers to a negative review by Ralfy Mitchell of another PX release (alas, my cask 1240). In this review Ralfy raises the issue of cask 1240′s unusually high outturn of 647 700 ml bottles from a puncheon and speculates that what may be happening is that more than one less successful cask had been re-racked into a larger puncheon for a short period of time. This he suggested would explain both the large number of bottles and what he found to be an overbearing PX influence.

[A quick pause for arithmetic: 647 700 ml bottles is about 453 liters of whisky. The typical puncheon holds 500 liters of spirit (as far as I know). Spirit loss during maturation (the so-called Angels' Share) is said to be 2% a year. A loss of only 47 liters over 23 years, and almost all of it alcohol--the cask was bottled at 50.8%--seemed weird.]

In the comments on Ruben’s post I speculated that another possible explanation for the high outturn and low abv might be that the cask had not in fact been bottled at cask strength. In fact, those words don’t appear on the label (probably true of all in this series). It was possible, I thought, that after 23 years the PX had completely overpowered the spirit and thus it had been diluted to make it more balanced. Another commenter (MARS) noted that puncheons can apparently be as large as 600 liters and that there was therefore no reason to think that the bottle reviewed by Ruben (and extension the one reviewed by Ralfy) was from anything but a single cask.

Flash forward to a brief discussion of the issue on the WhiskyWhiskyWhisky forum where I brought up the issue of cask 1240′s outturn and Ralfy’s speculations. Another member (Bobag) weighed in to note that they had purchased a bottle from a 20 yo single cask from 1993 (Batch 9) and that the cask number (Cask 5) was the same as that of the 3344 yo Glendronach Recherché released the prior year (Cask 005; this can be verified on Glendronach’s website). Bobag noted that the staff member at the store the bottle came from had said that he thought that the 20 yo, 1993 from Batch 9 had been “finished” for an additional year in the cask in which the Recherché had been matured. This seemed dubious to me, not least because a cask that had held spirit for 44 years seems like a poor choice for “finishing”, as it would doubtless have little to impart.

The Interesting Part

At first I thought I would just throw up a brief blog post and invite people to shed any light they could but on second thought that seemed irresponsible. I did not wish to invite public speculation on a distillery’s practices that might erroneously put them in a bad light. Instead I sent the distillery the following email:

I have some questions about some of your single cask releases that I am hoping you may be willing to clear up for me:

1. Are your single cask releases (in the various batches) bottled at cask strength or are they sometimes further diluted?

2. Your 1968 Recherché is said to come from cask 005, an oloroso butt. but there’s also a single cask 1993, 20 yo from the 9th batch which is said to be from cask 5, also an oloroso butt. Are these the same cask? If so, was it the case that the 1993 20 yo was matured in some other cask(s) and then finished in cask 5?

3. What size are the puncheons used at Glendronach in the past? I ask because I have a bottle of the 1990 23 yo from a single PX puncheon #1240. This produced 647 bottles at 50.8% which seems like a very high number of bottles from a 500 liter cask (as I assume most puncheons are). Or is this kind of an outturn normal even from a 500 liter cask?

I would really appreciate any clarifications you can offer about these questions. I am a big fan of Glendronach and as I’ve seen doubts raised about these issues recently I am hoping to arrive at some understanding of them. I am considering writing a blog post about these conundrums and would prefer to have input from the distillery before I proceed.

The following morning I received a very detailed response. I had a few follow-up questions and in asking them I asked if I could quote the email I’d been sent (as I do not wish to inadvertently misrepresent the distillery). While the contact at the distillery once again answered all my follow-up questions in great detail he asked that I not quote his emails. I am therefore providing only a summary of the key points in his responses to the questions above and also to my follow-up questions. I found the answers fascinating and I was very appreciative of the speed and detail of the replies (though I don’t quite understand the refusal to be quoted; I think his willingness to respond clearly to a customer only puts the distillery in a good light). It raises for me questions that go well beyond Glendronach (but more on that below).

Here is what I took away from our email exchange:

1. Cask numbers at Glendronach are re-allocated each year that they are filled and thus there’s a Cask 5 every year that casks are filled.

[So Cask 005 from 1968 (Recherché) is not the same as Cask 5 from 1993 (Bobag's 20 yo from Batch 9).]

2. The bottles released in the single cask series are never diluted and are always bottled at cask strength, unless a specific retailer asks for a lower abv of 46% for an exclusive bottling.

[This means my dilution hypothesis above was entirely wrong.]

3. Glendronach does indeed re-rack more than one cask into a fresher cask in its single cask batch releases. The vintage listed on the bottle is the original vintage but the cask number is of the latest cask used. Therefore if you have a bottle of Cask 8383007 from the 1990 vintage this means that all the whisky in it was distilled in 1990 but it is entirely possible that more than one cask of whisky bottled in 1990 was matured for an additional period in Cask 8383007 which may have been filled in 2000 or 2006 or whenever before being bottled in 2012 or whenever. I was given to understand that such re-racking at Glendronach occurs many years before the re-racked spirit is bottled.

[This would additionally rule out the notion that the 20 yo from Batch 9 was re-racked for only one year in the Recherché cask.]

Now this is where it gets a little muddier.

4. There is no guarantee that all the whisky that may have been re-racked into a PX or oloroso butt/puncheon at some point in the maturation was originally in the same kind of sherry cask.

oloroso19What all of this amounts to is that “Single Cask” does not necessarily mean what you might take it to mean. It certainly does not mean what I had always taken it to mean at face value: the contents of a single cask matured for the full term in that cask before being bottled. Your bottle that says 23 yo Single PX Puncheon #12345, 1993 on it will only have 23 yo whisky from 1993 in it but that’s about as much as you can take for granted. It may not have started out its life in PX Puncheon #12345 and indeed it may have started out its life in an oloroso butt or possibly even a combination of cask types before being re-racked into PX Puncheon #12345.

px23There may, however, be clues on the labels. If you had been able to zoom in on the group picture of a bunch of bottles from various single cask releases at the top of this post you would have noticed that only one of the labels states explicitly that the whisky was matured in one cask for the years stated. The rest merely state the cask type and age. Unless told otherwise I am going to assume that this is how we can know if a bottle is from a full-term matured cask or not. Click on the thumbnails at left to enlarge and see for yourself (look at the sentence below the vintage statement). This, I should clarify, is my own reading of the discrepancy in the label text and not anything that came out of my correspondence with the distillery. If you have any of these single cask bottlings in your collection perhaps you could check to see if any of your labels also seem to specify single cask maturation.

The Part after the Interesting Part (Now That You’ve Come This Far You May As Well Keep Going)

Now, how do I feel about all this?

1. Well, I feel surprised but not cheated. I am not buying these whiskies because I think they have been full-term matured in a single cask but because I expect them to be very good whiskies. The practice itself seems entirely legal, and it is seemingly required that the cask number and type refer to the last cask. And I suspect that it may turn out to be common practice across many distilleries. Indeed, I am surprised in retrospect that I didn’t follow this train of thought further when reviewing this Ben Nevis 25, 1984.

2. I also don’t think that it necessarily follows that the “bad” Glendronach single cask releases are from such hybrid maturations whereas the “good” ones are from full-term single cask maturation–as Ralfy’s review perhaps implies. My sense from the email exchange is that this kind of re-racking is just part of the normal cask management regime at Glendronach and indicative for them of the exacting care they take of their casks.

3. The other takeaway is that one should not shy away from a cask only because it lists a particular type of sherry on the label and you don’t care for whiskies matured for long periods of time in that kind of sherry casks. One should also not be quite as confident in asserting characteristics of full-term maturation in specific sherry casks to whiskies that may in fact have more hybrid origins. If you hate PX matured malts but have been trumpeting your love of an oloroso matured single cask Glendronach, then, for all you know, you may have been praising a malt that spent more time in a PX cask than in an oloroso cask.

4. The chief takeaway, though, for me, is that the Scotch whisky industry needs clearer and more transparent and consistently used definitions for the terms distilleries use. Whether it be “Cask Strength” or “Single Cask” or a reference to a cask type, consumers should know what these terms mean and they should not find out that the common sense meaning is not the one the industry uses. Otherwise this could lead to a sense of suspicion even where one is not warranted. And, again, it seems likely that the practice is far more widespread.

All this said, I would urge Glendronach and other distilleries that do this kind of thing to be more transparent. Describe the maturation regime clearly on the label as Springbank, for instance, do for their Wood Expressions line. You may need to print custom labels for the bottles from each cask but that seems a minor burden in the service of transparency. The more upfront and forthright you are about your practices the more customers will appreciate you, and this will do more for your brand, in my opinion, than secrecy or coyness ever will.

So, do you (my readers) know more about this kind of thing? Have you (and everyone else) known it all along? How do you feel about it? Is my view too naive? I look forward to reading your views in the comments.

[P.S: I am also looking forward to opening my bottle of Cask 1240 soon. It has a very different rating on Whiskybase than the usually generous Ralfy gave it and I'm intrigued. I'm hoping, of course, that my experience will be closer to those of the Whiskybase raters.]

[Update: See the follow-up post here.]

55 thoughts on “Glendronach Confusion (or What is a “Single Cask”?)

  1. Very, very interesting. Just to clear up I didn’t say the cask had been reused just the number and a new cask. (I edited my first post on the 12th to make this clear as you had miss read it and posted again that I thought it was fresh cask later on).

    Did they actually give you an explanation for the two cask fives?

    • Sorry about that.

      Yes, they did explain the two cask fives. It’s in the post: they basically start the numbering anew for every year that casks are filled. So there are lots of cask 5s out there in the Glendronach warehouses.

      • Interesting numbering system.
        Thanks for taking the time to find all this out. Looks like a lot of people have been adding 2′s and coming up with 5(Including myself). Although admittedly Glendronach have not helped things.

        • The numbering system whereupon each year, cask numbers start #1 again is quite common. That’s why often on the casks at the distillery you will see a year and a cask number, so they can differentiate cask #101 from one year vs cask #101 from different year. As most distilleries do not frequently release single casks (GlenDronach the obvious exception), this isn’t usually an issue with consumers as they don’t see duplicate cask numbers.

          In your research etc. did you come across any indication that two casks (for example in ex-bourbon) could be filled into a single ex-sherry cask, and then eventually bottled as a ‘single cask’? I’ve always wondered about that. Or is it clear that it is single cask from day 1 even if filled into different type casks, it is the same original volume untouched with whisky from a different cask?

          • Let me clarify that I sent two emails with questions to which I received detailed answers. This doesn’t quite rise to the level of research or investigation and I don’t want to present an inflated sense of my activity.

            But to answer your question, I was given to understand that for the single cask releases, at least, they don’t mix cask types when re-racking–keeping in mind that they seem to mean bourbon and sherry by cask type; they noted that they mix oloroso and PX. But in the comments above someone else notes that they contacted Glendronach about the Whiskybase cask–the label for which says oloroso sherry–and was told that it started out in bourbon and was then re-racked into sherry. So this is a grey area. I am going to email my contact again with some follow-up questions. If they remain as forthcoming (I suppose they may not be entirely happy with my airing this out–though I hope not) I will make another post.

          • If you look at the 25yo Ben Nevis releases from a couple of years ago, these were labelled as Single Cask and Cask Strength. Ben Nevis described the whisky as having been initially matured in bourbon casks and then vatted into sherry casks about halfway through the maturation period. As the releases were typically 600+ bottles there is no doubt that more than one bourbon cask contributed to each final single cask release.

            I remember being quite impressed by the information provided by Ben Nevis (and by the results!)

          • Yes, I alluded to this towards the end of my post. At the time that I posted the review of the Ben Nevis 25 I was a little foxed by the language on the label. That’s because I hadn’t looked at the booklet thingy (is there a name for those things?). I usually skip these as they generally contain colourful stories and tasting notes that seem more aspirational than real. But the booklet does in fact explain it as you say: three bourbon casks matured separately for 14 years and then vatted together into a single sherry cask for 11 years (or maybe I have the years reversed–I’m not at my shelves). So in that case even though they say “single cask” they explain things very well and I’ve not heard anyone complain. If only Glendronach and everyone else who does this sort of thing would be as transparent.

            And, as you’ll see from my review, I love my Ben Nevis 25 too.

  2. By the way, MAO, nearly all the whisky being bottled at Glendronach was produced under the previous owners. I believe the recent 8 Year Old Octarine was entirely made under Billy Walker’s ownership. This is why I think Glendronach is doing considerable re-racking since there must be some mediocre or poor casks produced under the previous owners (as was the case with Bruichladdich).

    • Hi Eric, I do know that almost everything put out by Glendronach since the takeover was made by the previous ownership. I meant only that I’ve not had anything put out by Glendronach before the takeover (under the previous ownership).

      • I made a bit of a error in my post. Billy Walker bought the distillery in 2008 so none of the whisky his company has produced is of age yet. I should of said since the distillery reopened in 2002.

        Indeed, I would love to find some old label bottles of Glendronach to compare. There are sure to be some interesting differences.

  3. When it comes to American whisky, geeks will recite to you chapter and verse of the Federal Standards of Identity (which are for the most part clear and concise). What is the group knowledge of the Scotch rules governing single barrels etc.? I never see discussion on these.

    On the other hand, every time the distillery re-racks whisky they must keep track of it well, since it’s all done in a bonded regime, and they must have proof that every drop is of the indicated age or older. I’m sure there’s an industry-wide SoP involved.

  4. I did not know that, and I do feel a bit deceived by it, because it seems incredibly dishonest.

    Ultimately that means you could, potentially, dump the contents of 5 20 year old refill bourbon casks into a sherry cask, leave it for a year and then call it a single sherry cask.

    Of course, I’m not saying GlenDronach are doing that, because I don’t think they are, but as long as there is no legal definition for the term “Single Cask”, there’s no guarantee that less scrupulous distillers or bottlers aren’t doing this exact thing.

    For GlenDronach’s Single Cask bottlings, I think they should go into excruciating detail about their casks, because there’s no doubt that these bottles are all going to enthusiasts who do care. If it comes to light that this sort of practice is more commonplace, then I think it would significantly erode trust in their Single Cask brand.

    • I was told that they never change the type of wood in re-racking casks. Now, it seems to me important if a whisky sold as a single cask of X type sherry spent a fair bit of time previously in a cask of Y type sherry but there is apparently no instance of whisky from bourbon casks being re-racked into sherry casks in this series.

      • I know they do this (reracking two or three bourbon barrels into a sherry butt) for the newer single casks (2002+, the bottling for whiskybase is an excellent example and its bourbony taste was the reason for me to inquire on this a month or so back), this was confirmed to me by a contact at the distillery. So, I would be douibtful it has never happened with older casks.

  5. Just reading this comment

    “This would additionally rule out the notion that the 20 yo from Batch 9 was re-racked for only one year in the Recherché cask.”

    The Recherché (a 44 year old) was taken out of cask 5 in 2012 nearly one year on a 1993 20 year old was taken from a new cask 5. Only one year that it could have been in the cask.

    The other option I had considered at the time was that the 1993 20 year old was in cask 88886756657234(random number!) and thinking that cask 5 would sell better they moved the number over.

    • I’m not sure I follow your first point. I think what happened in the case of the 1993 20 yo is that at some point between 1993 and 2013, and probably well before 2012, it was re-racked into a fresh cask that happened to be the 5th cask filled in whatever year that was: hence the cask 5 coincidence.

  6. Very good information indeed. Thank you for your curiosity and the investigation that followed.
    I cannot contribute to further clear up the matter (although it seems rather clear no, i.e. nothing can really be taken for face value any more).
    What I can do is share how I felt while reading your post. At first I really felt disappointed and somehow cheated – not cheated in whatever I have bought, but cheated in my belief. Yes, I know, this is my problem :) Why do I feel that way? Well, GlenD have a certain reputation within the whisky enthusiasts circle, and that is a few thousand people buying their special releases. If they are oblivious about this, then perhaps they do not deserve that reputation. So I take it that they are following what is happening in the aforementioned circle and are well aware of how people perceive them. Here is what makes me a bit disappointed in them – knowingly of people’s trust in them, they are being a bit cheeky of not being entirely open.
    As you said, they are not doing anything illegal and all the information they put through is true. However, it seems it is not the whole truth.
    My question to them is – why put so much information on the label when it does not really tell the entire story? Should be consider this an effort to be better in giving information? A first step perhaps? Or should we consider it as smoke and mirrors?
    So my gripe is not with the whisky – the whisky is great. It is with the approach. I could simply be an oversight by them. But they should respond to it and make amends. I am still holding judgement on the matter. I am just sharing my feelings. :)

    • Yeah. In fact, they don’t put very much info on the labels of these bottles. Most of it is templates that must be re-used from batch to batch for every cask. So, it may well be that they don’t want to get into the hassle of printing a new label template for each batch. But as I say, even if the intent is not to deceive–which I don’t think it is (I mean, why give an anonymous, minor blogger like me all this information if it’s felt to be a deeply embarrassing company secret?)–it can end up giving that impression.

      • In my contact with the distillery I got two reasons why they don’t state all the casks on the label. The first was that it would be an extra amount of work, which can be sortya understood, I guess.

        The second however, took me by surprise a bit: apparently they could mention the different casks, but they may not mention the different maturation lengths as a label (per the 2009 SWA regulations) may only contain a single age statement.

        I am a bit doubtful about this, as it seems like a cop-out and I’m sure I’ve seen labels with multiple ages mentioned (perhaps not on the front).

        • You’re right. As I alluded to in the post, Springbank’s Wood Expressions labels state clearly on the front that the whisky was matured for X years in bourbon and then Y years in Calvados/Burgundy/Sauternes/Whatever. So I don’t think the rules forbid this kind of clarification. I think Glendronach’s position is that since they are not going from bourbon to sherry but occasionally from one kind of sherry to another kind of sherry it’s not such a big deal. The question we might ask then, however, is that if the type of sherry is not a big deal why mention it at all on the label?

          • Also, different types of sherry produce *significantly* different kinds of whisky, hence Springbank and Bruichladdich’s sherry series releases (has someone else done this?).

        • My understanding is that the regulations from 2009 concerning labelling (which took effect in 2011 after a grace period) say that only one age statement may be declared, which must be the age of the youngest whisky.

          Thus, detailing the years spent in different casks of a ‘single cask’ whisky should be fine if there is an overall age statement. Likewise, where a batch of whisky has been matured in one set of casks for x years and finished in another for y years.

          However producers now can’t detail the ages where more than one cask or batch has been used, e.g. Balvenie Tun 1401 used to have such details, some Compass Box releases too. In effect the SWA shooting themselves in the foot… again!

  7. Rather excellent on the anorak scale. Perhaps they could do something akin to the balvenie tun series except tracking against cask type and time throughout maturation. More effort but of great value to the whisky geeks.

  8. Another very thoughtful post.

    You bring up a few of the many unanswered questions surrounding the Scotch whisky industry. I’ve been known to trash Canadian distillers for many things but the Scots play similar dirty tricks on the consumer.

    For an industry that wants us to believe that casks are lost in warehouses only to be found 50 years later, how can we trust the age statements they put on bottles. Sure, they keep “detailed records” but who polices this?

    I’ve heard from several people that sherry casks aren’t always what we assume them to be. For one thing, it is fairly common knowledge (I think pointed out by Ralfy as well) that casks are filled in Spain with “sherry” that is used simply to season the wood – the “sherry” is then either discarded or put in another cask for more seasoning. How about the practice of taking ex-bourbon or re-re-fills, re-charring, then spraying with “sherry” before next use?

    We all know that most of the flavour is drawn from the wood itself but how do we know the casks are completely emptied of previous contents? How do we know they don’t dump a bit of sherry/bourbon/other into the cask just prior to filling?

    Teaspooning is common knowledge (i.e. a drop of glenfiddich in a cask of balvenie to prevent an independent bottler from using the term “single malt”) and yet casks are shared between distilleries all the time. Should a Lagavulin aged in a re-fill cask that previously contained Caol Ila be allowed to be called a single malt?

    Most whisky is bottled in plants that bottle whisky from many distilleries. How well can the pipes really be cleaned between casks/batches/different distilleries?

    Ambiguity in the terms “single cask”, “cask strength”, “un-chillfiltered”, “traditional cask”, “ex-fill in the blank sherry”, etc should all be taken with a grain of salt.

    Bottom line …. the Scotch Whisky industry regulations have more holes than Swiss cheese and the marketers play as many games with the consumer as do the Canadians and Americans!

    portwood

    • “Should a Lagavulin aged in a re-fill cask that previously contained Caol Ila be allowed to be called a single malt?”

      A very good point though the example is perhaps most likely to be the other way around. I have seen it stated that all of Caol Ila’s casks are refills (is this true?), meaning that they all had to have come from another distillery beforehand.

      A good example of this practice might be the Balblair 1990 1st release, which was filled into casks that had previously held peated whisky. The result was sold as Balblair Single Malt but the influence of the casks was clearly prominent and it could probably be asserted that the amount of liquid drawn from the wood during maturation would technically make it a blended malt.

      http://misswhisky.com/2013/05/28/peated-balblair-1990/

  9. Hi there,

    I did know that some distilleries do start their cask numbes afresh from number one each year when production stats again in January and that there are probabaly very few who have numbered their casks consecutively from their day of first opening.

    I did know that leaking casks or casks which seem to be no longer in a good condition are re-racked in the warehouses.

    I did know that cask numbers can be repeated in single cask bottlings of a distillery having come across this phenomenon once or twice already.

    I did know that Duncan Taylor for example give the cask number from the last cask used in the finishing as number of the single cask from which the Octave bottlings are drawn.

    I am aware that by this procedure (octaves hold 80 litres or so) you can start with a pretty full or not so full hogshead of 250 litres and end up with 2-4 single cask Octave cask bottlings – depending on how old your starting cask was and what the angels have taken.

    Many of the things you mentioned above were new to me.

    Greetings
    kllaskander

  10. While I did not contact any distilleries about this, I did dive into what a single cask actually is a while ago (http://maltfascination.com/2012/12/06/what-is-a-single-cask-whisky/).

    I was discussing this issue prior to my post with @galg and he decided to email the SWA.

    The interesting bit is that, according to the SWA’s answer there is no rule on this, but they did state that they would ‘take action’ if someone labels their bottles wrongly.

    A quote from the SWA’s answer on this:

    “It would be illegal to do so because it would be a breach of other consumer protection laws which protect the public from misleading labelling. If we found a Scotch Whisky labelled as “Single Cask” when it had not been matured in a single cask we would take action against the responsible party.

    A single cask bottling must be a bottling from one cask only in which ball the spirit has been matured only in that cask and that is what would be understood by consumers to be meant by that description. A whisky matured in one cask and then in another is not maturation in a single cask. The SWA issues guidelines on labelling and I attach a copy for your information. I refer you to page 5, dealing with the description ‘Single Cask’.”

    I find this all very strange, since almost all distilleries are guilty of mislabeling according to the SWA’s rules. No action has been taken so far. I sent them an email asking them to clarify this, but I have not gotten any response.

  11. This is all very informative. I remember reading in Dave Broom Whisky Atlas that when the new managing team took over, they re-racked a number of casks, since the old regime had been filling many (most?) bourbon casks. I also think the varied expectations among consumers are fascinating. For my part, I never assumed a single cask bottling to have been matured entirely in the same cask for its entire life. I guess I just always assumed that a single cask could have been a marriage of other casks.

  12. Hi,
    thanks for your very interesting post.
    since a couple of weeks we have the same discussions in our german speaking forum and find it quite irritating what is happening right now thanks to the lack of regulations when it comes to the definition of a single cask bottling. we are sure than many other distilleries are using the same method, but it seems that Glendronach is doing it very intensely and without even trying to give us other explanations.

  13. as the first batch of their cask strength was released, I tasted some kind of freshness or underlying tropical fruitiness that didn´t go together with what I expected of a PX & oloroso vatting. so I asked, and really got the honest answer that it´s first matured in bourbon casks, then split and reracked into PX and oloroso. here we had the reason for the ´different´ and great taste.
    I have posted it on the MM forum back then by the way. conclusion: surely lots of cask tech involved at Glendronach, but their releases rock, so, thumps up!!!!!!!!!

    • Yes, but their Cask Strength batch releases are not labeled as single casks. However, the labels (on the tins and bottles) do proclaim them as being matured in a combination of oloroso and PX casks–no mention of bourbon. That seems like a big fudge too, and quite unnecessary.

  14. I was wrong (even if some puncheon and butt contain more than 500 liter).
    I have to admit that I got some doubt, but especially on the more recent filled cask(2002 and after) as most of the cask filled from 2002 to 2009 were bourbon cask. (and from 2005 to 2009 suposedly all of them).

    Talking about cask number, It’s not new that they are using the last cask number. It’s very easy to see when they talk about finishing. The last cask being more than often pourred with whisky coming from more than one cask. And with no indication of the previous kind of casks.
    An example :
    http://www.whiskybase.com/whisky/43313/benriach-1977

    It’s annoying when you have to decide wish whisky you are going to buy without any note anywhere. As I prefer some kind of cask to other (as most of us, I believe).
    But, at the end of the day, the most important thing is the result and glendronach is proving to give very good result at the moment.

    MARS (who is also a huge glendronach addict)

  15. I have a bottle of GlenDronach 1989 23 year old from cask 5470. It clearly states on the bottle: Matured in the Finest Pedro Ximenez Sherry Cask for over Twenty-Three Long Years. Now the whisky may not have been in the same cask for 23 years, but surely every cask had to be a Pedro Ximenez cask.

    • I think in that case it’s more likely that it was full-term matured in the one cask. Then again I may be giving too much importance to the phrasing.

    • Yeah–I don’t think anyone is surprised to learn that re-racking happens at Glendronach or anywhere else. I think the surprise–at least for me it is–is at discovering that a) the single cask releases may not only have been re-racked but may be from multiple casks being re-racked together and b) that the cask type on the label may not necessarily be the only type of cask in which the final whisky was matured over its lifetime.

  16. ““Single Cask” does not … mean what I had always taken it to mean at face value: the contents of a single cask matured for the full term in that cask before being bottled.”

    I’ve known this for a long while. I used to ask the SMWS staff about their bottlings and it was clear that the practices and available history of the releases varied by distillery and that the cask declared by SMWS was simply the last cask that whisky had ended up in. As a general rule I would think it safe to assume that “ex-Bourbon” means the whisky has only seen the inside of Bourbon casks, whereas anything else could be fully matured in the stated cask, or has been finished, perhaps even reracked multiple times. It’s helpful when some detail is supplied, Glenmorangie are quite good at this and the Dalmore 15 comes to mind (12 years Bourbon, 1 year each in Apostoles, Matuzalem and Oloroso).

    However I think expecting a full cask history could be to open a can of worms and can, in itself, be misleading. For example, even among Bourbons there is a lot of variation but the term “Bourbon cask” seems to cover ryes, Tennessees (technically, Bourbon) and I assume Canadian casks too, which have different mash bills. They may have been pot still or column distilled, may have been subject to the Lincoln County process, may have rested for anywhere from 4 to 20 years. Are we to assume all Bourbon barrels are constituted entirely from the staves of the original barrel, as they are broken down before transit? Hoggies are often made from staves from more than one barrel. The end result is we see “ex-Bourbon” or if we’re lucky, whether its a barrel or a hoggie. If the number of fills is stated I guess we can only assume that to reflect the last cask it was in. And, if it’s a refill, did it come from another distillery?

    When it comes to sherry it gets even more complex: the range of sherries from fino to PX; the range of quality of those sherries, e.g. filled simply to season the wood; the variations in maturation between bodegas, of which I know little but the solera system is one example; European oak or American; the age of the wood itself; variations in toasting or charring of the wood; number of fills; etc.

    And let’s leave the spirit aside for now (length of wash fermentation, stillman’s cut, etc).

    Where distilleries have good control over the wood they can produce very consistent whisky, e.g. Glenmorangie have their own forests and specific barrel production techniques and then lease the barrels to Heaven Hill and Jack Daniels. Dalmore and Glenfarclas seem to work very closely with particular bodegas to source their sherry casks. However the impression I get is that these are quite rare scenarios. Jim Murray, love him or loathe him, has been calling for better wood management and disclosure in the Scotch industry for years. He is a big fan of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project and says the approach taken by Bourbon producers has resulted in great bounds in quality:

    https://www.buffalotracedistillery.com/brands/single-oak-project

    At the end of the day Scotch is symbiotically premised upon other industries and is subject to whatever vagaries those industries have. Layer up the vagaries of the Scotch industry and the intransigence of the SWA on top and, in many cases, trying to understand the provenance of a single cask is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

    • Just before someone else points it out, the examples of Glenmorangie and Dalmore I used above aren’t really appropriate when talking about ‘single cask’ releases, I got a little off-topic there.

      I saw a tweet from SMWS to someone today, referring to 5.36 (Auchentoshan 14yo Sauternes cask):

      “Everything we do is single cask so it would have spent its whole life in the cask”
      @SMWSUK

      14 years in a Sauternes cask? I’m not sure I believe them!

  17. Very interesting. After reading your explanation (based on glendronachs reply) I realize there is always more to learn. I agree that distilleries should explain in detail the process on the label. Not as much for transparency as because it adds to the enjoyment of the product.

  18. It is disappointing, given that, after the smoke clears, “single cask” doesn’t really mean anything more than the contents of any given bottle occupied a minimum (but not a maximum) of one cask at any given time. I sort of already had that worked out for myself anyway, knowing it had to be true of any bottle; they have to keep the liquid in SOMETHING.

  19. Maybe the “route” taken by the Whisky of Glendronach is too intricate to put on a label. Maybe they should have a database on their website to clarify the “route taken” of a particular bottling to those who take an interest in this kind of information…

  20. Good discussion. I think in many cases “single cask” is a bogus labeling. For me, it should mean that the whisky in the bottle has not been mixed with whisky from any other cask, during its entire aging lifetime Best would be the same barrel from initial fill to bottling. But, since some whiskies are designed to be finished in another cask type, fine. Finish it in another cask, go ahead, but no mixing.

    This does *not* preclude lessening the strength, in my opinion that should be OK. But ‘Cask Strength’ on the label should mean the strength in which it came out of the cask, within a very small variance, for consistent labeling, for example.

  21. Thank you very much for the fantastic, detailed information! As a big fan of all things Glendronach, I found this incredibly helpful and interesting.

    I too had wondered about cask # 5 and this has also helped me make sense of the 1987 split cask from the latest Batch 9 release.

    I picked up a bottle which says it’s from cask #1035, a Pedro Ximenez Sherry Puncheon. However, the other half of that cask (also numbered 1035) appears to have been bottled back in 2010 from an Oloroso Sherry Butt (Willow Park Wines & Spirits exclusive).

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the info and comments, so I could have that slightly wrong, but again, thank you for the information.

  22. You’re welcome.

    The cask #1035 seems like a bit of a conundrum. If you take what I was told by the distillery at face value the only possible explanation is that these are two different cask #1035s (i.e filled in different years). Because if the cask number refers to the last cask filled then the same cask #1035 can’t have been both an oloroso cask and a PX cask.

    The other explanation would seem to be ruled out by what I was told: that is, that cask #1035, an oloroso cask, was partially bottled and then dumped into a PX cask for a secondary maturation and bottled again. If that were the case it would have to be the second cask’s number used to designate the “single cask”. It seems highly unlikely that they would have had a PX cask #1035 waiting for the remaining contents of oloroso cask #1035 to go into.

  23. The new Glendronach “single cask” releases listed on TWE use very specific language claiming single cask provenance. I’m not sure if this is distillery provided copy or TWE copy but does anyone know if anything has changed?

    See, for example, this:

    “A 24 year old Glendronach from the 10th batch of their single cask bottlings. Distilled on June 13 1990, it was matured in ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry puncheon 2970 for 24 years before 630 bottles were yielded in June 2014.”

    • As per Billy Abbott this is almost certainly copy generated by TWE and not Glendronach. It is probably just someone unaware of the controversy using the common sense understanding of “single cask” in describing these whiskies.

      It will be interesting though to see if Glendronach will ever address this in their labels.

  24. Actually, the label text from previous batches, “Matured in the finest sherry cask for over twenty-four long years” now reads “Fully matured in…”

  25. Piet: Thank you.

    And following on from Karsten’s comment, I got this from Billy Abbott of The Whisky Exchange on Twitter:

    “We’ve dug into this a bit more, and they now say “Fully Matured” or “Finished” on the labels. So, they are now specifying.”

    It would appear then that Glendronach have addressed this issue on their labels. As to whether they’ve addressed it fully I don’t know, and it would be great if someone who has both types of labels in front of them could tell us the full language and if the question of casks being combined in the “finishing” stage is clarified. If not, and if there is very high outturn for those relative to age, I suppose we should assume those are vatted prior to finishing.

  26. But does “fully matured” necessarily mean “matured only”, or could “fully matured” mean something more subjective like, essentially “brought to the peak of its quality potential through maturation”? Is “fully” being used here as a description of the conditions of the maturation process itself or as a description of the results of that process?

  27. I’m not sure but as I don’t have the language in front of me I don’t want to speculate. It may be the new labels obfuscate in some new way; but it also could be that they are being transparent now a la Ben Nevis with their 25 yo.

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