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Ale Cask Whisky? So what did they do with all that beer?

Caledonian Brewery and the makers of Glenfiddich have been fraternising

If a Scot orders a pint of beer and is given what he considers short measure, he may ask the bartender: "Could you put a whisky in there?" If the barman foolishly offers to oblige, he will be sharply told to fill the shortfall with beer, as he should have done in the first place.

The other Scottish way with beer and whisky is to alternate sips of one with gulps of the other: a "half and half" or, elsewhere in the world, "whisky and chaser."

In both configurations, the volume of beer is far greater than that of whisky. What if it were the other way round: a bottle of whisky and just a hint of beer?

That unfamiliar arrangement will be on sale next week in supermarkets in Britain. The packaging of this new product will look familiar: the triangular green bottle used for decades by William Grant and Sons for their blended Scotch. (Grant's also make Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malts).

The new product's label label will bear the legend: Ale Cask Reserve.


Ale Cask Reserve is a beer-tinged whisky. This is one way of cross-fertilising two great drinks.


Ale Cask Reserve is a beer-tinged whisky. This is one way of cross-fertilising two great drinks. Another is the whisky-tinged beer, as in France's Adelshoffen and Amberley, or Austria's Nessie and Nussdorfer Old Whisky Bier. These are made with peated "whisky malt", as are many Scottish Ales from American micros.

The new whisky, and these various beers, are reasonably serious. We are not talking Tequiza.

I suppose a third example of fraternisation is to be found in the handful of Californian beer breweries experimenting with the distillation of whisk(e)y, the best known example being Anchor Steam with its Old Potrero Single Malt Rye.

William Grant and Sons enlisted the help of the highly-regarded, independent Caledonian Brewery, in Edinburgh for their Ale Cask Reserve. The principal of the brewery, Russell Sharp, formerly worked in the whisky industry, for Chivas, where one of his projects was to research the effects of maturation in different types of cask.

For the current project, Caledonian made a full-bodied, malty, brew of 1070-plus, based on on its Edinburgh Ale, and filled this into empty oak casks destined to be used for Grant's whisky. The ale was left in the casks for three months, then emptied. Will there soon be a Whisky Cask Ale? Sharp smiles wrily and ducks the question.


The idea is that the beer permeates the inside wall of the cask, leaving behind some flavours, and reacting with components of the wood to create a new habitat for the whisky.


For the moment, the job of the ale is to "season" the whisky casks. The idea is that the beer permeates the inside wall of the cask, leaving behind some flavours, and reacting with components of the wood to create a new habitat for the whisky. Mature Grant's blended whisky is then filled into the casks and left for a further several months. This period of "finishing" causes further evolution in the whisky, adding new flavours.

I was given a sample during the later stages of development, and found it maltier than the regular Grant's and slightly syrupy, with fresh, nectar-like, fruity, notes. Citrus was especially evident, but also suggestions of more tropical fruits such as paw-paw.

The regular Grant's blended Scotch is matured largely in former Kentucky Bourbon casks, as are many Scotch whiskies. The Grant's Ale Cask version, and a Sherry Cask Reserve, are priced only slightly higher. As "blended Scotches with a difference", they may add new interest to the category. That is clearly the intention of the producers.

The biggest selling blended whisky in Britain, The Famous Grouse, recently launched Port Wood and Islay Cask finishes, at prices closer to single malts. "Islay Cask" refers to a vessel that was previously used to mature peaty whisky on the windswept, briney, seaweedy, Hebridean island. The Famous Grouse already contains a tiny proportion of Islay whisky, but the cask added the island's flavors in a different way.

The technique of using an unusual wood to finish the maturation was pioneered in single malts, initially by Glenmorangie. Its first essay was to take its principal product, which has ten years' maturation in Bourbon casks, and finish it in Port pipes. Since then, editions of Glenmorangie have been finished in Madeira drums, and barriques previously filled with Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone wines, among several other fruits of the vine.


As these importers also brought in a variety of other wines, some job-lots of "sherry casks" included other woods.


These experiments probably have their origins in casks that accidentally found their way into whiskey warehouses in Scotland. In the days when the Spanish shipped their sherry in wood, and it was very widely consumed in Britain, the importers sold their used casks to the whisky industry. As these importers also brought in a variety of other wines, some job-lots of "sherry casks" included other woods.

Whiskies to be bottled as single malts are typically aged for eight to 18 years, and sometimes for 20 or 30 or more. A cask can be used two or three times, sometimes four. A distillery may have been using a particular cask for 30 or 40 years, and 70 or 80 is perfectly possible. Such casks were acquired long before computerised stock control. I was challenged the first time I reported having seen Port pipes in a Scottish warehouse. Since then, I have heard of brewing group that owned a distillery trying to re-use beer barrels. Having spent years weeding such alien casks out of the system, distilleries are now going out and buying them, albeit with great care and control.

In mature markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States, blended Scotches have lost sales to more neutral spirits like vodkas and to ready-mixed drinks. The same is true in Japan, where neutral versions of shochu are popular. (Shochu is to sake what whisky is to beer).

Single malts command higher prices, and are gaining sales, but still represent only 5.0 per cent of the world whisky market. Scotch does much better in newer markets, where it is popular with young drinkers. In France, it outsells Cognac by ten to one. Spain recently became Scotch's biggest market worldwide. Young Spaniards drink it with Coke. Maybe they should add a little ale instead. At least both drinks are based on malted barley.


Published: SEPT 16, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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