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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Single Cask

Cask customisation: have your whisky made bespoke

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available….

Bourbon hogshead or red wine barrique? Limousin or American oak? For devoted whisky lovers keen to call a barrel their own, there’s never been quite so many cask options available. As Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery launches its custom cask programme for 2020, inviting buyers to tailor every aspect of the process – from yeast varieties to distilling cut points – we take stock of the evolution of cask ownership…

Laying claim to your very own cask of whisky is a dream shared by many. But what if you could choose the precise type of malted barley you’d like, and pick out the yeast used for fermentation? What if you could tinker with the distillation process – cut points and flow rates – choose the cask type, oak species, size and previous fill? What if you could tailor the whisky from start to finish, becoming involved in every stage of the production process to create your ultimate personalised dram? 

At Edinburgh-based Holyrood, you can do just that. “We thought, rather than just making hundreds of the same cask, why don’t we ask people what they would like to make?,” says distillery co-founder David Robertson. The process starts with an in-depth consultation and sample tasting, in order to identify exactly which flavours you’re looking for. From there, the team will come up with several recipe suggestions based on your preferences. “You might say, ‘I’d rather have an extra yeast in it,’ or ‘I’d rather pick that wood rather than this wood’, and eventually we’ll land on a recipe,” he says.

Holyrood boy: David Robertson talks a client through the options

Got your heart set on rare Japanese oak, barley from a bygone era, or a cask that previously contained beer? Whatever the request, the team will help you make your dream into reality – but they’ll also guide you to make sure it tastes good. “If someone said, ‘I want you to have a cut point from 75% down to 42%, I want you to put it into a Tokay cask, and I want you to mature it for 247 years, we’d be going, ‘Yeah… That’s probably not the best idea’,” Robertson says. “We want to be there to guide, make recommendations and make sure there’s no mistakes.”

Besides offering more choice for whisky fans, there are other benefits to offering such tailored cask choices. Giving whisky fans control over the whisky-making process provides a unique jumping off point for learning and experimentation. “It’s a real two-way collaboration,” Robertson says. “We might have ideas and suggestions, but we won’t be smart enough to come up with all the best ideas and suggestions. The people we meet through this programme give us stimulus, inspire us and push us in different ways that we maybe hadn’t thought of ourselves.”

It also presents an opportunity for distilleries to engage with fans and expand their community. “I love getting a request from a potential customer to source a unique cask,” says Elliot Wynn-Higgins, cask custodian at Lindores Distillery, which has one of the largest and most diverse private cask offerings in Scotland, and allows buyers to choose from metrics such as cask size and flavour profile. The ownership scheme is seen as “an experience, rather than just a sale,” he says. “Each year we host exclusive cask owner’s events at the distillery, and they also get exclusive early bird offers on our whisky releases in the years to come.”

Casks in the warehouse at Lindores Distillery

It could be argued that an element of personalisation acts as a deterrent to those viewing cask ownership solely as a money-making endeavour – the type of buyer David Thompson, co-founder and director of Spirit of Yorkshire Distillery, is keen to avoid. There, the team offers buyers a choice of first fill ex-bourbon and various ex-red wine casks. “The secondary market worries me to an extent,” he says. “If someone said to me, ‘how much money am I going to make?’, I probably wouldn’t go any further with [the sale], because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I’d much rather someone bought a cask because they wanted to get involved in our business, our philosophy, the people.”

While distilleries selling private casks is nothing new – “this was quite a big deal in the nineties,” John Fordyce, director and co-founder of the Three Stills Company, informs me – today’s interested buyers have more say than those in previous decades when it comes to the final liquid. At Borders Distillery, Fordyce and his fellow directors have released 1,837 private whisky casks for sale by invitation only, allowing buyers to choose their preferred filling date and cask type across rum, bourbon, rye and Douro wine. “Not every distiller wants to do this, and those that do tend to engage in an quite intimate way,” he says. “One of the great things about the drinks industry is that you’re always in a position of moving with the times. And these waves sweep across us all, and some react and some choose to stay out. And that’s what provides all the variety and choice for the consumer.”

Having only been distilling for a year, the Holyrood team can afford to be more experimental than most. “We’re lucky in that we’re new and we’re small, which means that we can be as flexible as we want to be,” says Robertson. “If you’re a large, established distillery, you probably have a style of spirit that people expect you to produce. We don’t have that kind of heritage or history. We don’t have a core range that we’re known for yet. Now, that might be different in three, four, five years’ time, because we’ll have to start putting out whisky that defines Holyrood Distillery’s style. But at the moment, we are playing at the edges.”

Holyrood Distillery manager Jack Mayo peers into a still

As distilleries become more established, and their spirit comes of age, the custom cask market will inevitably change again. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, many current distilleries offering cask ownership will no longer be doing so, or at least be offering a reduced variety,” says Wynn-Higgins. “The reason being because their whisky will have hit the market, and the majority of their spirit will be required to satisfy customer requirements in bottles on shelves rather than entire casks. This makes now an even better time to buy a cask, as opportunities to do so will become ever rarer.”

It’s a delicate trade-off, acknowledges Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery. Each year, the team offers up 60 casks for sale, allowing buyers to choose which type of cask you want and which of their two new make recipes they’d like to fill it with. “The cask sales are important, obviously, for cash flow,” she says. “And also, we end up with an amazing community of cask owners around us, which is a really important part of that whole process for us. On the other hand, we can’t spend the whole year producing private casks, because we have to actually have whisky to put into bottles at the end of it!”

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Hey big spender: private cask sales part two 

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers,…

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers, big spenders and fat cats.

As we moved into the final years of the twentieth century it may have seemed that the private cask [read the first part of the story here] would become little more than a curious historical footnote to whisky’s story. But the industry is nothing if not cyclical. Though most larger distilleries eventually closed their doors to the private clients, fresh opportunities arose, slowly at first and, from the turn of the millennium began gathering pace. New distilleries, some actually opened and some merely a glint in a promoter’s ambitious eye, began to sell casks of whisky yet unmade to finance their construction or expansion.

Not all were successful. There were some very suspect deals around and, on occasion, well-intentioned failure, such as the Ladybank Company of Distillers. In 2003 it announced plans “to create one of the world’s greatest single malt whiskies” at a proposed micro-distillery in Fife, charging their founder members an initial £3,250 for the promise of future bottles. Perhaps the 15% commission on offer to intermediaries should have sounded the alarm – in any event, by 2007 problems were apparent and the business placed in liquidation by 2011, with investors losing their entire stake.

However, the sale of single casks to the public has gained renewed impetus and, if willing to risk your money to a start-up at some historically rather inflated prices, there are several offers from new ‘craft’ distilleries available on the web. But what if you would like a cask of something special from a recognised distillery?

Macallan cask, probably worth a bit

Well, once again you can but this side of the business has changed a lot since the 1980s. Not just anyone can buy. It helps to be VHNW or, better still, UHNW (that’s Very or Ultra High Net Worth – filthy rich to the rest of us) for this is where the private cask action is to be found today.  Macallan appears to have started the trend, launching their En Primeur programme in April 2007 with a large and very tasteful brochure. At 30 x 41.5 cm it was indeed very large, but then ‘go large’ was clearly the message: prices started at £5,000 (presumably for the 200 litre ex-bourbon barrel) with more to pay on delivery after the recommended 12 years maturation. 

This was a whole new level of pricing for new fillings and, in retrospect, may be seen as a landmark in the transition of certain whisky brands to Veblen goods, where the marketing becomes as much about the trappings and experience of purchase as the product itself. We enter here the world of luxury and high-end marketing. Macallan maintains that the scheme proved a success, stating that they “took the decision to close the En Primeur programme in 2019 indefinitely due to unprecedented demand and an extensive waiting list of over five years.” Currently, no new applications will be considered.

But then, very quietly, something really interesting happened: brands noticed that very old whisky, long rather looked down on, could be very valuable indeed especially if it could be sold direct (just think of the margin). So single casks are once again available for sale. Not new make, however, for the new class of very wealthy buyer does not want to wait while their purchase matures – no, the demand now is for exceptionally old casks from distilleries with an established reputation that can be enjoyed as trophies.

Now let me stress that there’s nothing illegal going on here, though very few of the companies involved in the business want to talk about it. While multiple anonymous sources maintain that “everyone’s in the game”, I’ve seldom encountered such a wall of silence.  However, both Whyte & Mackay (W&M) and Diageo were willing to describe some aspects of their operation to provide a glimpse of this market.

Your own private label whisky would look splendid on your yacht

Both have identified that there is a small group of intensely private buyers prepared to pay handsomely for exclusive access to rare single malts. They may contact the distillery but, more likely, the marketing team have tracked them down to make a personalised approach.  As W&M’s Rare Whisky and Private Client team see the business, it’s more of a relationship than a transaction and they look to trade with “the right people for the right reasons”. That definitely precludes flipping these precious bottles for profit and it’s stressed that the whisky is sold for drinking not for investment, with prospective buyers carefully vetted as to their suitability.

Be clear that we’re looking at a minimum of six figures to pay to play, and frequently the transaction will run well into the millions including bottling and bespoke, customised packaging.  But then the likely client may call up from his superyacht (the typical client does appear to be male) where the whisky will be served to his guests while glancing casually at his million-pound Patek Philippe. Some of the figures quoted were eye-watering – one deal was mentioned at close to £20m!

Diageo, too, is represented here with a Rare & Collectable Spirits team established in 2015. It offers the Casks of Distinction – described as “special, old and very rare; entirely unique and individual in character… representing the most exceptional and singular expressions of their distilleries’ character.”

Feis Ile

You could even have your very own cask of Port Ellen

What distilleries? Well, any of them it seems. According to James Mackay, the head of rare & collectable spirits, nothing is off limits, and includes “some of the most famous Scotland has ever known; Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, Talisker, Mortlach and Cardhu, Clynelish and Brora, Oban and Royal Lochnagar on Royal Deeside” as well as “Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Carsebridge, Convalmore, and Dalwhinnie to Dailuaine”.

Like W&M, marketing is very discreet. “Casks of Distinction are offered only by appointment with one of Diageo’s network of private client teams in various cities around the world,” says Mackay, adding that “because Casks of Distinction is such a very small and niche programme, addressing the needs of a community of individuals who tend to be quite private by nature, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to promote it widely.”

So there you have it. If you haven’t been asked, don’t keep a Bugatti as your weekend car and consider flying in First Class a tiresome economy, you can probably forget access to these exceptional whiskies. In the words of an old song, “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure” but whether or not you find it all a “blooming shame” probably depends on the state of your bank balance.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

 

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Brilliant boozes for Bonfire Night!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November fondly this year with these cracking tipples… Bonfire Night, or as those who own cats and dogs presumably call it, National Scare the Crap…

Remember, remember the Fifth of November fondly this year with these cracking tipples…

Bonfire Night, or as those who own cats and dogs presumably call it, National Scare the Crap out of My Pet(s) Day, has come around again. This is great news because Bonfire Night is brilliant. Countless fireworks lighting up the sky. Heaps of amazing autumnal food. Plus there are the actual bonfires, carrying that fantastic scent and welcome heat through the crisp night air.

For some people, it’s all about the festival atmosphere at parties and displays. For others, it’s all about wrapping up warm and snug at home, enjoying the spectacle from afar. Ultimately, we’re all going to take advantage of another perfectly good excuse to indulge in some spectacular seasonal spirits. Right?

For those nodding enthusiastically in agreement, we’ve decided to round up some of the best Bonfire Night boozes and fireside beverages, each with an appropriately smouldering serve. Enjoy!

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36 New Master of Malt Single Cask Series Bottlings!

Hear ye hear ye! We have a brand new selection of Master of Malt Single Cask Series Bottlings, so flock to MoM Towers my fellow whisky-lovers – you don’t want…

Hear ye hear ye! We have a brand new selection of Master of Malt Single Cask Series Bottlings, so flock to MoM Towers my fellow whisky-lovers – you don’t want to miss out on this lot…

Our Single Cask Series is bigger than ever, with a whopping 36 new whiskies for our Single Cask Series!

Who wouldn’t want to savour the joy of a single cask whisky? The following editions have spent years maturing in a specific cask and now each idiosyncrasy is ready for you to interpret and enjoy. Each and every bottling here is truly unique. Once that cask is emptied, there is no more, people!

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Master of Malt-exclusive Redbreast 16 Year Old 2001 Single Cask!

Bear with us while we compose ourselves – the latest Master of Malt exclusive bottling is here and it’s so good it’s got us in a right fluster. Behold: Redbreast…

Bear with us while we compose ourselves – the latest Master of Malt exclusive bottling is here and it’s so good it’s got us in a right fluster. Behold: Redbreast 16 Year Old 2001 Single Cask!

Lingo that we like here are MoM Towers: whisky. Irish whiskey. Single pot still. Single cask. Cask strength. It’s like the most wonderful game of word association.

So imagine the joy – nay, near-frenzy – when the fruit of our intrepid spirits buyers’ latest adventure found its way into the office. Redbreast 16 Year Old 2001 Single Cask is a delectably divine single pot still showcase – and it is also a Master of Malt exclusive, which sent the excitement levels well and truly through the roof!

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Nine new Master of Malt Single Cask Series Bottlings!

Gather round dear friends of the whisky-world – for I bring delightful news… We’ve got nine brand new Master of Malt Single Cask Series bottlings! Independent bottlings are such an…

Gather round dear friends of the whisky-world – for I bring delightful news… We’ve got nine brand new Master of Malt Single Cask Series bottlings!

Independent bottlings are such an essential and brilliant aspect of this beautiful industry of ours, so much so that sometimes we can’t help ourselves and we have to do a few of our own! We’ve taken time out of our busy Christmas* schedule (we’re past Halloween, we can talk about it – that’s the rule) to bring you a whopping nine new whiskies for our Single Cask Series.

These newest releases include an exquisite, 28 year old example from Miltonduff, a delightfully youthful pair of Rock Towns (as they are only 1 year matured, these technically aren’t whiskies) and a sumptuous offerings from Cragganmore!

All of these fine examples, and more, can be viewed below – complete with tasting notes and links to the appropriate beverages!

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The tasty trio: New Master of Malt Single Cask Series whiskies revealed!

They say good things come in threes and today’s dose of deliciousness is a trio of Malt Single Cask Series expressions – incredible single cask Scotch whisky bottlings from some of…

They say good things come in threes and today’s dose of deliciousness is a trio of Malt Single Cask Series expressions – incredible single cask Scotch whisky bottlings from some of Scotland’s most exciting distilleries. And yes, that includes a Port Ellen!

We love independently-bottled spirits. Someone – in this case, our ace buying team – has gone out of their way to pick out and purchase each cask because it’s got a real point of difference. Want to experience a whole different aspect of a distillery’s character? Check out independently bottled single casks. They act as a snapshot in time – quirks and eccentricities blended out in a brand’s usual vatting and marrying processes shine through. Each is unique – and in the case of these three, our latest Master of Malt Single Cask Series releases, downright delicious.

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6 New Master of Malt Single Cask Series Bottlings!

We’ve got 6 brand new Master of Malt Single Cask Series bottlings! Independent bottlings are always very exciting, and we’re particularly excited about these ones – because they’re ours! Yes,…

Master of Malt Single Cask Series

We’ve got 6 brand new Master of Malt Single Cask Series bottlings!

Independent bottlings are always very exciting, and we’re particularly excited about these ones – because they’re ours! Yes, we’ve been very busy indeed and bottled 6 new whiskies for our Single Cask Series.

These newest 6 releases include a pair of Aberlours, a very old Bunnahabhain, an Ardbeg, a Speyside and a Benrinnes! Feast your eyes on all of them below!

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Our English Whisky Co. Single Cask Bottlings & an Interview with Andrew Nelstrop!

Long time readers of the Master of Malt Blog will know that we visited the home of the English Whisky Company in Norfolk all the way back in 2009 –…

English Whisky Company

Long time readers of the Master of Malt Blog will know that we visited the home of the English Whisky Company in Norfolk all the way back in 2009 – over 6 years ago! Ben had a look around the awesome St. George’s Distillery, saw a dog and definitely didn’t get told off by a colleague for having to be physically dragged away from their cask storage containers.

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Gascony Calling: A Single Cask Series Armagnac!

So it may be gorgeous, So it may not be famous, Armagnac, twenty-one years old. There’s a new release in the Master of Malt Single Cask Series charts, and the…

Château de Castex Armagnac Master of Malt

So it may be gorgeous,
So it may not be famous,
Armagnac, twenty-one years old.

There’s a new release in the Master of Malt Single Cask Series charts, and the artist isn’t even Scottish! In fact, it’s not even whisky. (We do have some more Single Cask whiskies on the way shortly though… and not necessarily all from Scotland…) Extending the range into different spirit types entirely, we’re delighted to present our very first independent bottling of Armagnac!

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