Although pretty common in the Scotch world for many years, the concept of barrel finishing and re-barreling is relatively new to the North American and world whisky scene. This process helps to introduce new flavour profiles which elevate or compliment the whisky itself. As new distilleries come online, there have been all kinds of innovations and experimentation. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what re-barreling and barrel finishing are, with some examples provided along the way.
Barrel finishing is usually used to describe the dumping of whisky from its initial maturation barrel into another barrel which used to hold some other spirit, or alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage. In the Scotch world, the most well-known finishing barrels are Sherry from Spain, Port from Portugal and red or white wine from either France or Italy. Typically, the finishing time in these barrels is on the order of a few months to a few years.
There are a few terms used to describe the characteristics of the barrel itself. I’ll save barrel sizes for another time. For now let’s focus on what is meant by first-fill, second-fill or re-fill. First-fill barrel finishing indicates that the last liquid that the cask contained was a non-whisky spirit or alcohol. For example, a first-fill Sherry cask finish indicates that the last liquid that was matured in the cask was Sherry.
A second-fill (also called re-fill) cask finish usually means that the last liquid to mature in the cask was actually whisky, but the cask was originally used to mature a non-whisky product. A second-fill Sherry cask finish means that the barrel originally was used to mature Sherry. Then whisky was dumped into it for a first-fill barrel finish. This was then dumped out and re-filled with whisky again. Technically, distilleries can re-fill a barrel as many times as they please. As the barrel is continuously re-filled, the signature of the spirit that was originally in the barrel decreases fairly rapidly.
Recently, there has also been a trend in which finishing barrels originally held whisky from a different (or even the same) distillery. A popular trend is to finish whisky in ex-peated Scotch barrels.
Re-barreling is usually used to describe the process of dumping whisky from its original cask into a brand new cask. It’s here that we turn to Buzzard’s Roost, the brand I’ll be reviewing today.
Through their partnership with Independent Stave Company, who owns cooperages all over the world, Buzzards Roost has used the power of science to develop a number of proprietary barrels for their products. Here are some examples…
Toasted barrels, as opposed to charred barrels, heat the inside of the barrel more gently so that the interior is medium to dark brown in colour. This gives the whisky a more vanilla-forward signature along with a spicier mouthfeel. Buzzards Roost also uses freshly charred barrels, but only treated with a number 1 rather than a more common number 3-4 char. This introduces a hybrid profile between a toasted and heavily charred barrel. Most intriguing is their Cigar Rye (review upcoming). This is finished in barrels which were toasted and lightly charred and then infused with cold-smoked tobacco leaves. (Sneak preview…YUM!).
That brings us to the whiskey under review. This Buzzard’s Roost Peated Barrel Rye started its life as MGP rye with a mashbill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley, aged for at least four years. It was then finished in a custom barrel from Independent Stave Company that was smoked with Scottish peat for a few weeks. It’s bottled at 52.5% ABV.
Nose: Although I’d be hard pressed to say that I get any traditional peat notes on the nose, I can certainly get the smoke. There is a subtle campfire ash to this one. As with the other Buzzard’s Roost whiskeys I have reviewed, I’m getting peaches, but this time they are charred straight away. There’s no waiting for the palate to get that. I usually don’t get a bread note when reviewing a high-rye whiskey, but I do get it here. It’s more like toast. After a while, I’m getting a little bit of Seville orange marmalade, most likely smeared on the aforementioned toast! This smokiness is really pervading everything that I got on the Char #1. Toasted cinnamon sticks rather than regular cinnamon powder, for example. Sponge toffee just on the edge of burning as well. Blackberries, raspberries and maybe a hint of vanilla round this out.
Palate: Sneak preview on the development, I definitely get the peat now! I don’t want to play this up too much as it may scare away those of you who are shy of peat. In peated scotch, there are two components, the peat itself and the smokiness. The smoky component, though subtle, is on the nose here. From my experience (and everyone’s is different), the peat component is typically most noticeable on the palate and presents itself as a sourness akin to a grilled lemon. Like the smoke on the nose, it’s subtle. If anything, the peat helps to enhance the spiciness of this particular whiskey.
The entry is lacking just a touch, but as the whiskey rolls around your mouth and coats your tongue, smack your lips a little bit to let in some air. Then you’ll be off to the races. The sourness balances the sweetness from the toffee and fruit from the nose as well as the cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. And it does so beautifully. As I take more sips, the experience gets a little drier near the end of the development. I’m also getting dark fudge mid-development which transitions to cocoa powder as I near the finish.
Finish: The citrus tang and spicy character sticks around for quite a while, lengthening the finish quite a bit more compared to the Char #1 Rye. Some cracked black pepper makes itself known mid-way through.
With water added
This has taken a sweeter turn on the nose and the smokiness has dissipated significantly. I’m getting English-style strawberry and cherry bon bons now. Merengue is in here too. The vanilla is stronger and I’m also getting some mango. I don’t know where this is going to go on the palate.
As before, the entry starts off a little flat, but the spice is ramped up even more on the palate, particularly the pepper. It is certainly less sweet and sour than before. The black pepper comes on pretty strong now.
This was a tale of two whiskies. With water, you get more of the peat character. Without, you get less, but with more heat. I don’t have the fancy cocktail gear, but I have the feeling that this would make an out-of-this-world smoked old fashioned. The ice would dilute the smoke note in the whiskey, but putting it back through infusion would give you a really spicy, smoky gem…or so my imagination tells me.
Like the Char #1 Rye and Bourbon, this one is in the $90-100 range, which is a pretty good value considering the proof and how unique this one is. If I had to pick from these three, I would select this Peated Barrel Rye, as I love rye and peat and now I know that I can enjoy them simultaneously!