The Four Stages of Cask Ownership #3: Cask Maturation

You find yourself in an enviable position: in possession of an actively maturing cask of Scotch whisky. The actual shape of that maturation is yours to influence. Take a moment and appreciate it.

You’ve selected your cask, and committed to its purchase, now it’s time for stage 3. On your cask to glass journey, Maturation is the longest stage. It’s the long train journey, the intercontinental flight – including everything from the initial excitement following departure, the bit in the middle where you’ve settled into the rhythm and the building sense of excitement as you get closer and closer to your destination. Except this journey takes years; decades even. Settle in, because this cask will be a feature of your life for a long time to come. During this period you can let the cask do its thing, or you can get more involved and order samples, regauges, or even re-rack the whole cask into a different cask type.

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Quick reference: Once you’ve purchased the cask, it will be transferred to our Cask 88 account at the warehouse in your name. For three years after purchase, we waive storage and insurance fees. Thereafter, your cask costs £65 annually to maintain and insure until the day it is bottled. Extra warehouse services like regauges will cost a certain amount to enact.

The Mysteries of Cask Maturation

What’s going on in there?

The cask itself doesn’t demand much from you. Whisky will properly mature in any size or shape of cask, so long as it’s made of oak. Wooden casks have been around since at least Roman times, but despite this long history, cask maturation is not a completely understood process.

We know some general truths:

  • Casks can breathe, losing some volume each year through evaporation, which also allows for minor oxidation. The infamous ‘angels’ share’. This is rather good for the whisky.
  • Freshly distilled whisky has no colour; this all comes from the cask. Caramelised wood sugars and wood infused with sherry, wine or port all give lovely shades of gold to bronze and russet to ruby to the clear spirit.
  • Charred wood absorbs sulphur and off-notes, so a nicely toasted cask purifies a whisky over time.
  • Aromatic and spicy compounds from the wood permeate the whisky.
  • Chemical interactions between alcohol, oxygen, sugars and acids take place at a constant rate through maturation. The aldehydes and esters which spring into being are some of the most desired and talked about flavours in the whisky.

All of this (and more) is happening while your whisky sits placidly in the warehouse. All you need to do is keep living your life and the cask will take care of the whisky. So, where is this warehouse where the magic happens?

 

Speyside. A beautiful confluence of river valleys in north east Scotland.

A Comfortable Home in Speyside

You’ll want to know is that your cask is safe and well cared for. To satisfy its legal requirements, a maturing whisky cask must remain in a bonded warehouse until it is bottled. This being the case, it’s good to know what kind of warehouse your cask spends its time in.

We are partnered with a whisky storage facility in Craigellachie, Speyside, where we have a dunnage warehouse space, bonded and exclusive for the storage of casks in our account. After the first three years, each cask you hold with us costs £65 annually for its insurance and upkeep. Your cask will be insured against theft, accidental and environmental damage, as well as any loss of whisky that cannot be accounted for as ‘angels’ share’.

Dunnage is a more traditional method of cask storage – what it lacks in modern efficiency, it makes up for in individual cask care. More on that in a moment.

Speyside is a lovely place to spend time. Your cask knows what’s good (image credit: Shutterstock)

Speyside itself is located on Scotland’s northeast coast between Aberdeen and Inverness. This fertile collection of river valleys is home to about a third of Scotland’s distilleries and the site of the first licensed distillery in Scotland. It is now the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, with more distilleries per square mile than anywhere else in the world. 

Our whisky casks are thus stored in the heart of whisky country, infused in the atmosphere of hundreds of years of whisky tradition.

 

The Dunnage Warehouse

The modern dunnage warehouse where the majority of Cask 88’s casks are under our protection.

The bonded warehouse is built in dunnage style, the traditional method for cask warehousing in Scotland. The typical view of a dunnage warehouse is a low building with a slate roof and stone walls. These are the old-school dunnage, attached to the oldest distilleries. In fact, stone walls alone don’t make a warehouse dunnage (ours has just the one stony face) – dunnage comes from what happens inside.

The floors of a dunnage warehouse are uncovered, beaten earth, often with wood ash mixed in. The interior of the warehouse remains cool and humid, an effect which the exposed floor buffers through the seasons.

Dunnage warehouses cannot match racked or palletised warehouses for efficient use of space. Casks are stacked on wooden stows to a maximum height of three, ensuring good airflow even to central casks. There are narrow corridors between the stows. This plays well with the level of individual care we like to afford each cask. Organised like this, each cask is easily viewed and inspected, so the warehouse team are able to keep a good eye on casks. 

This traditional method of storing casks requires a lot from the warehouse team. Moving casks on and off the stows is done individually, with minimal opportunity to use mechanical assistance. Though this means that it can take a long time to move casks into or out of position, the individual attention that is necessarily given to each cask during this process grants every single cask a higher level of care.

 

Cask inspection on the stows.

In short, racked or palletised warehouses are a fine choice if you’re a large industry player, with hundreds of similar casks to collectively tend. But for that hands on, loving and inefficiently individual approach to cask stewardship: it’s gotta be dunnage.

The caveat: please don’t expect  the team at the warehouse to work miracles and be able to draw samples or move casks around at short notice. Just like the casks, dunnage warehouses need time to do their work.

 

Getting Involved 

But what if you want to get more personally involved? While the cask is in the Cask 88 warehouse, there are certain services that we can provide which let you get more hands-on with your whisky’s development. You have the power to influence the flavours in the whisky to be more in line with what you imagine.

Storage & Insurance After the first three years, each cask you hold with us costs £65 annually for its insurance and upkeep. Your cask will be insured against theft, accidental and environmental damage, as well as any loss of whisky that cannot be accounted for as ‘angels’ share’. £65 per year after three free years after purchase
DRAW SAMPLE At any time during the maturation, you can request a sample to be taken from the cask and sent to you so that you can evaluate how the maturation is progressing. 

We recommend taking a sample every 2-5 years while the cask is young, and more frequently once you’re starting to think about bringing it to bottle.

There are few pleasures as joyful as having a taste of your very own whisky from your own cask – knowing that only you and those you share it with will have this privilege.

If you are able to visit us in Edinburgh, you may also have the sample at a private tasting in our whisky library. We want to help taste your cask too! Speak to your contact at Cask 88.

£60

(Excluding postage and packaging)

REGAUGE A reguage is almost like an MOT for a cask. The cask is emptied and weighed, and the contents are analysed to determine their alcoholic strength. The cask is checked for flaws and then refilled and returned to the warehouse.

A regauge lets you get the most accurate data on your whisky’s maturation, and helps you to make informed decisions based on the results. A personal sample can be drawn at the same time. 

Regauges are typically performed before changes of cask ownership and just prior to bottling, but can be requested at any time.

£100
RE-RACK Re-racking a cask is a big intervention and allows you to change the direction of the whisky’s maturation.

A re-rack involves completely emptying the original cask and transferring its contents into a new cask, of your specification. This is the way to finish a whisky in a different style – for example Oloroso sherry, or your preferred red wine.

We can help you track down the right cask for a regauge – and there are plenty to choose from. The wood must always be oak, but the size can go from the endearingly tiny ‘blood tub’ to the unreasonably gigantic ‘gorda’.

Oloroso and PX sherry are the most common re-racks, but it can be fun to scour hungarian wineries for new flavours, or try a French calvados cask to get an appley zing into your whisky. A good re-rack can elevate a whisky, not just in flavour, but also in rarity and value.

£125

(Includes regauge. Does not include cost of new cask)

CASK VISIT The ultimate privilege of the private whisky cask owner – when the cask resides in the Cask 88 warehouse, you can arrange to visit and draw a sample in person.

The warehouse is run by a small dedicated team. The dunnage design of how the casks are stored means that it is labour intensive to move one off the stows.

In short, you can’t simply drop by to visit your cask if you happen to be in the area. However, if you plan your visit to Speyside and coordinate with us in advance, we will happily help you to see and sample your cask on location.

Depends on how long you intend to stay in Speyside!


As Time Goes By

Whether you choose to intervene heavily or not at all in the life and development of your whisky, it’s entirely up to you. That’s the joy of the whole exercise! Rest assured the whisky is well looked after under our custodianship, within our nurturing warehouse space. It will wait as long as you need until it’s time to embark on the final phase of cask ownership: Enjoyment. More on that next time!

 

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