The Importance of Cask Selection

Issue 10
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Cask selection is a fundamental part of our whisky making process at Sullivans Cove. Read on to learn about how we choose the very best casks to bottle.

At Sullivans Cove Distillery, when it comes to maturing our whisky, it’s never about just setting a timer. Each cask is unique, and each will mature in its own time, with a thousand little variables all contributing to each cask’s individual character and timeline. And because most of our bottlings are single cask, you get to taste that individual character in every different release. This also means that we can’t exactly predict when a cask will be ready to bottle, so we do extensive testing and tasting throughout each cask’s maturation to determine exactly when it’s ready to bottle.

Day after day, and year after year, we keep track of every single cask in our warehouses, checking for leaks, testing for problems and making sure everything is maturing according to plan. With such a limited amount of stock in bond, every cask is precious, so far from a “set and forget” method of ageing, we check every cask every year to make sure it’s on the right track.

This is one of the fundamental differences between Sullivans Cove and many commercial distilleries, who produce whisky on the basis of sales forecasts and schedules. We do things exactly the other way around, only selling our whiskies when they’re just right, no matter how long it takes.

At Sullivans Cove we only use full-sized casks between 200 and 300 litres in capacity for aging our whisky, and because our new make spirit is rich and rustic, it needs a long, slow maturation to become its best self, so we usually won’t start tasting until it’s at least eight years old. Once a cask gets to around that age, we begin sampling to see if it’s ready to bottle. Our Head Distiller Heather gives the crew a list of casks to sample based on age and when they were last tasted, and then they head out into the warehouse to collect the samples, climbing up into the racks to access the casks where they lie, and pulling samples out with a spirit thief.

Once the samples are pulled from the casks, they’re carefully diluted to bottling strength, labelled, logged in and passed on to our tasting panel, which meets at least once or twice a week to evaluate every sample. We evaluate the samples on the basis of nose, palate, finish, texture and complexity, as well as looking for any faults and trying to identify that particular character that makes a whisky unmistakably Sullivans Cove. At this point, it’s more a matter of art than science, and an intimate knowledge of our stocks, as well as other great whiskies, is key to making the right decision.

The tasting panel records their thoughts and scores, and with any luck they’ll find the next cask of whisky to bottle. The whole team from all areas of the business are welcome to sit in on our tastings. Our more junior team members learn and gain an understanding of Sullivans Cove style, while our more senior crew make the final decision about what to bottle.

It’s impossible to perfectly predict how a cask will behave and when it will reach full maturity, so we often taste the same cask over and over and over to catch it right at its peak, with the tastings getting closer together as it approaches maturity, only putting it aside to be decanted and bottled when the whole tasting panel agrees that it’s perfect. Visitors and guests have often commented on how harsh our panel is, saying that they would happily drink samples that we reject. Patience is critical, and we know that if we give them enough time, most of our casks will turn into something magnificent in the end.

Once we deem a cask ready to bottle, it gets pulled down from the racks in the warehouse and decanted. Heather will then do detailed ABV trials to determine the bottling strength of the whisky, tasting a range of samples with water added in 0.1% increments to pick the exact strength that allows the whisky to best express itself. We’re always happy to bottle our whiskies at whatever strength we think tastes best, but we generally find that 47.5%ABV is the sweet spot for most of our single cask bottlings.

Once the bottling strength has been determined, we slowly dilute the whisky over the next six weeks or so, making sure not to shock the spirit by adding water too quickly. Once dilution has finished, we allow the whisky to sit and rest for another few weeks, ensuring that everything is nice and calm and integrated by the time it goes into the bottle. When the whisky is finally ready to bottle a couple of months after being decanted, it’s handed over to Tammy in the bottling room who washes, fills, caps, labels, polishes and packs every single bottle by hand.

Because each cask is unique, each bottle gets this little side tag. It acts like a birth certificate for your whisky, telling you the exact bottle number you have, the ABV, the cask number and the exact filling and decanting dates of that cask so you can determine down to the day exactly how long each whisky has been aged.

While there are a million things that go into making a good whisky, but at Sullivans Cove the most important aspect of choosing which casks to bottle is what we call the ‘deliciousness factor’. Every whisky should be, first and foremost, delicious to drink with no reservations. When giving the thumbs up for a whisky our team will often say, “Yeah, I’d drink that.” And we’ve learned over the years that unless you can imagine sitting with a mate and enjoying a bottle over the course of an evening, never hesitating to pour another measure and enjoying every sip, well, that’s a good whisky and deserves the Sullivans Cove label.

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The History of Oak Ageing

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