Whisky Connosr

Maturing in port wood

By Dominic Roskrow

Peter Kay is arguably Britain's most popular stand up comedian and a few years ago he wrote and starred in a television comedy called Phoenix Nights, about a traditional Northern working men's club.

are we starting an exciting journey or driving towards a dead end?

In one memorable scene two security guards are standing at the door of the club when a bus arrives full of what the politically correct would call 'vertically challenged people' but which are better known as dwarves. As they climb out of the bus one of the security guards squints at them and then says to the other guard, 'is it me or have they parked a long way away?'

That security guard would feel very much at home at the Lark distillery, a few miles outside Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. Lots of what could be referred to 'vertically challenged' is on offer here. The stills are exactly what you'd find in Scotland, for instance, only like they're all set to star in 'honey, I shrank the stills.'

The there is the maltings. In Scotland these are known as floors as they tend to be the size of a basketball court. At Lark they consist of a beehive with removable tray to put the malted barley on. Not so much small batch, then, as eensy-teensy batch.

Both the stills and the unique maltings no doubt contribute masses to the flavour of the final whiskey - but the main reason for Lark's unique plummy, apple and menthol flavours is almost certainly down to the third 'mini malt' ingredient - the small casks stacked neatly to one side of the distillery floor.

These are specially made quarter casks made of port wood - and they're arguably the key to the developing flavour not just at Lark but across the entire Tasmanian whisky producing sector.

Lark whiskey is a little like Australian sport - big, brash, bruising and macho - and that's just the ladies' netball team. But it's also exciting, dynamic, different and new. And it's spearheading a movement in to a new flavour direction within which port has a crucial element.

And Tasmania's not on its own - India, Wales, the new wave of american craft distillers and even small Scotland are using port wood to take whisky in to new areas. So is this a conscious move to explore new flavours, or is it born out of necessity and more general wood shortages? And are we just starting out on a new and exciting journey for port wood matured whiskies, or are we driving towards a dead end?

Port is a fortified wine, which is normally but not exclusively red and which, like sherry, comes in a range of styles, ages and qualities. The name strictly is an 'appellation controlee' which means in Europe at least, the name can only refer to a drinks made and matured in Portugal, and specifically the Duero region.

But as is common with most other drinks types, it is made across the world, often to very high standard. And it's not uncommon to find port-style drinks which have been matured in oak for decades, or even upwards of 100 years. Lark matures some of its whisky in casks specially made for it out of Para Port casks which have contained century-old Para Port. This is an essential part of what Lark is about, argues founder Bill Lark, who has been to some extent a victim of his own success because a new wave of Australian distillers has taken his advice and is in the market for port wood themselves.

"When we first started we were the only distillery in this modern era in Australia and we had to look at all options, not for the sake of learning in general but also to try to define what Lark Whisky would be into the future," he says.

"We always knew that to succeed we had to produce a big bold whisky and my experience with the wonderful world of Scottish malts made me aware of the prolific use of ex bourbon barrels now dominating the Scottish scene and we wanted to be different. In those early days we had relatively no trouble in obtaining both sherry and port casks but we also put down a few ex bourbon barrels as well.

"We now have an exclusive arrangement with Asutralia's leading and oldest port producer, Seppeltsfield Winery in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. Joesph Seppelt had the foresight in 1874 to commence laying down barrels of his famous "Para Port" barrels ensuring that a large number of these barrels each year were not be decanted for at least 100 years. We now have exclusive access to these barrels as they become available with the added bonus that the Cooper located on site just loves cutting them down to quarter casks just for us."

For Lark, then, port was a natural source of wood, and indeed, was easier to get than sherry wood. But the flavour advantages have had a major role, too, and that has been key to what the distillery is all about.

"Now that we have an exclusive with the only winery in the world that has such a unique lineage of port going back over 100 years we should not have a problem for the foreseeable future," says Bill Lark.

"We still like to lay down the occasional sherry barrel but we really have to dig deep for those. Seppeltsfield has a good supply of Oloroso Sherry barrels but they are not being decanted as frequently as the Para Port barrels. One thing we are now able to guarantee is that we will always fill newly decanted para port barrels and not refilling first whisky fill barrels. We are lucky at Lark Distillery as we also produce our own dark rum distilled from Australian molasses and we are now using our decanted first 'whisky' filled barrels for maturing our rum."

In general port pipes are ridiculously difficult to get hold of these days. Huge, long-staved casks capable of holding 550 to 600 litres, they are hard to work with and store, and are in short supply.

But distillers in other parts of the world are also seeking out port pipes and they're doing so specifically because they feel they play a special role in the development of flavour. Amrut in India uses some port wood and according to the distillery it certainly isn't a matter of convenience - far from it. "Port pipes are difficult to source these days and more difficult than sherry and you have to pay premium price for them but with time, money and effort you can get them," says Amrut's Ashok Chokalingam.

"We use them because they make for a different ball game. They produce a different flavour profile as compared to sherry casks. Certainly it is different from other woods and our distillery can produce a different variant and from that perspective it is very useful.

"What we hear is that most of the port houses these days are using 225 liter or 250 liter barrels as compared to Port Pipes. Port Pipes have lengthy staves and with a capacity of circa 550 to 600 and are unique. We use and are certainly only interested in using port pipes at the moment. In our climate we have got to watch the maturation carefully and literally need to draw sample every month after five months. In our first edition of Portonova we have matured the matured whisky only for eight months in port pipes. I have to say we were about to spoil the entire stock through over-maturation in port pipes. We just pulled the whisky in time. If it were matured for another two or three months, it would have gone."

Perhaps ironically, then, you're more likely to find port pipes in whisky production in Asia pr Australia than you are in Scotland, where they are used but only sparingly, and Ireland, where you won't find them at all. What port wood there in in Ireland and to a great degree among craft distillers in America such as Angel's Envy will be from 225 litre wine barriques.

So does that come with any negative drawbacks? On the contrary, says small and relatively new Scottish producer Kilchoman, which has used port for some maturation from its earliest bottlings. The distillery sources port wood directly from Portugal and doesn't bother with pipes because few of them are available - port producers age for long periods of time because oak is not a big influence in port, drawn as it is from casks that have been used many, many times before. What there are, more often than not have problems.

"Without doubt the biggest problem is quality," says Kilchoman's Anthony Wills. "The old port pipes are almost history now with the modern port industry preferring the 225 liter wine barrique. Old pipes are often musty and sulphury and we need to avoid such flavours. Barriques are preferable. Very few pipes have been made in the last 30 years. With barriques we get a nice oxidation to extractive effect as well as fresh port flavors."

So what exactly are those 'port flavors' and what do they bring to the malt whisky party?

Gilian MacDonald might well be in a unique position to pass comment, having worked in a small non-Scottish 'international' distillery (albeit one just down the road from Scotland, at Penderyn in Wales) and is now working g alongside Dr Bill Lumsden, one of the truly great pioneers of wood management, at Glenmorangie. At Penderyn she worked on some of the distillery's best ever bottlings using port, including one fully matured in port pipes which found its way in to a cask strength bottling of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. But port offers different things from different expressions.

"Port offer a different flavour spectrum to sherry with red berry fruits, dark chocolate and lots of fragrance," she says. "Port can offer flavors you can't get anywhere else. The intense dark chocolate flavors in Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban are derived from the port wood. Maturation is affected by the quality of port, the style of port and the country the port has come from. My preference is to use younger ruby port as opposed to older tawny ports as I believe we get a more interesting range of flavors." ?It's when you start to talk about the flavour specifics that you start to realise that what's happening in the older territories and in those that we can call 'new world', are very different. In other words, the port wood whisky category is reaching the stage of its evolution where it can only be considered seriously by breaking it down to sub categories. While the likes of India, Australia, American craft distillers and to a great extent even Wales are actively seeking out big, bruising flavors from port wood, established distillers in Ireland and Scotland are seeking out port barrels which offer a more delicate flavour. Noel Sweeney is master distiller at Cooley, a distillery that has done masses for innovation within the Irish whiskey category, but port has only a limited role. "Port gives the whiskey a distinctive sweet dried citrus fruits style," he says. "There are differences in different ports. You can have the rich colour associated with a ruby port, but I prefer the flavor offered from the vintage or crusted port style. There is also the Tawny port which can be aged up to 20 years this tends to be more difficult to get but can also has a very powerful flavor."

In Scotland the three great innovators with port are Glenmorangie, David Stewart of Balvenie, and Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay. When any of them talk about port it's all about nuance and sophistication.

The Balvenie 21 Year Old in particular has set the benchmark for port-influenced whiskies but is a completely different whisky to anything that Lark is producing. In fact they are exact opposites, ones from radically different environments and backgrounds but both equally valid in their own way. David Stewart, marvellous innovator that he is, is a distinct traditionalist, not even recognising port from anywhere but Portugal and certainly not acknowledging new port pipes from other territories, and therefore treating port as a subtle and less dominant force on whisky than sherry. Bill Lark would argue the opposite. For Stewart, though, port wood can play a key but supportive role.

"The key is the cask itself," he says. "Port casks are typically very old and therefore lacking oak impact on the whisky, unlike sherry casks.  Sherry casks add deep, oaky  notes from the youthful, vibrant oak but port casks are more subtle, less oaky and add fruit notes from the grape residue soaked into the surface. But with port the combination of old wood and grape residue is quite unique."

Richard Paterson, who has just created The Dalmore Constellation range, a collection of 21 different whiskies, each one crafted over decades and subtly mixing flavors while staying close to the core Dalmore flavors, also believes that port is for nuance but that it has a crucial role to play. But he believes a lot more work has to be done with port.

"You have to be very careful with all this sort of thing and monitor it very carefully. It's important that you much the style of port very artfully with the whisky," he says. "It's very important that casks are matched carefully to the whisky and are left as long as it takes until they are ready.

"When I use port I'm looking for specific flavors to complement whisky and it might take years for it to get there. I'm looking for a delicate plummy veneer, a sheen to cover the whisky without dominating the character of it. It's all about taste and I don't car what people say after five, six or seven years about the whisky being ready. If you know what you're doing you can tell straightaway whether that whisky's right. You taste the delicate flavors in Balvenie 21 year old port wood and it's all there. It's great whisky.

"It takes years to find that combination and get it right - and when you do you stay with it. It's like spending years finding the right woman and then marrying her and staying with her. It's about choosing carefully and then being loyal to your choice."

What this research has revealed is that there is no battle at all between the tried and trusted ways of using port in the parameters laid down in Europe, and the exploration going on in Asia and Australasia. While Europe might call rank through age and experience, the Australians would claim they are ploughing ahead in to unchartered territory.

Leadfing innovators Lark and Amrut would argue that they are not reinventing what has already happened in this field but are crossing new frontiers. Bill Lark in particular points to the new vertically challenged casks made from quality port wood and argue that the journey is only just beginning. The general view is port won't replace sherry as a secondary source for casks after bourbon, but in select markets that might not be the whole story.In some places such as Tasmania it may well be setting new boundaries.

"This is an interesting question and here in Australia I certainly think port will be just as important as sherry for maturing our whiskies," says Bill Lark. "I guess that it may replace sherry in Australia simply because of the fact that port barrels may well be more readily available than sherry. Interestingly we have been experimenting with ex Australian red wine barrels and treated in a similar manner to our port and sherry barrels above, they are proving to produce equally great whiskies and luckily in Australia there will never be a shortage of fantastic red wine barrels.

"For us we are very proud and excited about our relationship with Seppeltsfield Winery and we will continue to produce our award winning malt whiskies which seem to be just getting better and better all the time."

Amen to that. To paraphrase our Northern club security men, is it me or is the port wood revolution parked a long way away?

Vertically challenged it may be, but it's off the bus and marching purposefully towards the whisky club doorway…