This week we’re highlighting the arrival of a new version of the Epicurean, a blend of Lowland malts from independent whisky bottlers Douglas Laing. It’s part-aged in Rivesaltes casks. What on earth is Rivesaltes? Read on, and all will be revealed. 

Fortified wine and whisky go together like Morecambe and Wise, or for younger readers Wallace and Gromit, or for even younger readers Charlie and Lola. Anyway! This liquid symbiosis was probably discovered by accident. Whisky would have been stored in whatever container was easily available and seeing as sherry was arriving in Britain in huge quantities in the 19th century, there were a lot of empty casks to go round. It wasn’t just sherry, other fortified wines and spirits such as rum and Cognac were also shipped in cask, so these would have been used too.

Sherry, Port and Madeira are the big three of fortified wines. But this style of wine is made all over the world particularly in hot climates (adding brandy was a way of preserving wines before refrigeration became the norm while if you add the alcohol while the wine is still fermenting, you can preserve sweetness and the fresh taste of the fruit, something that would be lost in a hot fast fermentation). There’s Marsala from Sicily, liqueur muscats and all kinds of Port and sherry-style wines from Australia (Starward whisky makes good use of such casks) and Vin Doux Naturals from the south of France. 

The epicentre of VDNs, as they are known, is the Roussillon, the part of France that was until the 17th century in Spain; there is a long tradition on both sides of the border of producing fortified wines. The best-known in France are Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes. The first two are reds wines, made mainly from Grenache Noir and fortified during fermentation to create something a little like Port but drier and less sweet. Rivesaltes is made in a similar way but from white grapes, Grenache Blanc, Macabeo and Muscat. After fortification it’s either aged in cask or in glass demijohns that are left out in the sun so that the wine cooks, a bit like Madeira or Noilly Prat vermouth.

These VDNs would have been drunk as aperitifs in France, Belgium and Holland but with the rise of beer, gin and especially Scotch whisky, they fell out of favour in the 1960s. Table wines are now the main business of most producers, but limited amounts of sweet wines are still made. These are either blended in solera or sold as vintage bottlings, some of incredible age. There are people who sniff out rare and exceptional casks and bottle them (check out this 1931 vintage from Chateau Mosse), rather as whisky companies like Douglas Laing do.

Only two casks of this special Epicurean were filled

Which, after a very long preamble, is a neat segue way into this week’s New Arrival. It’s a blend of Lowland malts, aged in, according to Douglas Laing, “traditional” casks, mainly ex-bourbon, we’d guess, before being finished in two Rivesaltes casks. Each cask produced 546 bottles at 48% ABV. The press release states: “In the passionate belief that the cask can give the spirit up to 70% of its flavour, our Limited Edition Wood Series has seen us tirelessly journey the globe, searching for the finest casks in which to finish our Epicurean spirit.” 

The flavours you get in Rivesaltes are not unlike an old Cognac or indeed a sherried whisky: nuts, apricot, pineapple, classic rancio flavours. In fact, the word ‘rancio’ is Catalan, it comes from this part of the world. These casks add a layer of dried fruit intensity to the classic citrus, honey and flowers of the Lowland style. A perfect combination, you might say.

The Epicurean Rivesaltes Cask Edition is available to buy from Master of Malt

Tasting note from the Chaps at Master of Malt: 

Nose: Sweetly honeyed with pear drops, oats and dried fruit.

Palate: Fresh oranges and lemons, followed by dried fruits like prunes, dates and apricots, rich chocolate and citrus peel.

Finish: Nut city, hazelnuts and almonds. Long and creamy.