From the editors

Port casks: what’s in a name?

  • As a huge Port fan, the headline of the press release was enough to grab my attention: ‘Port X Whisky: The Dalmore Releases Unique Vintage Port Collection.’ It even distracted me (briefly) from the clichéd, ‘press release bingo’ terminology that followed, with all of its ‘luxury’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘iconic’ and ‘crafted’ marketing BS.

    Anticipation, however, soon changed to mystification and then frustration. Yes, the first sentence of the release talked of a ‘three-bottle, limited edition collection of whiskies matured in vintage Port casks’, but the truth was hidden several paragraphs further down.

    ‘Tawny Port pipes from Graham’s vineyard in [the] Douro, Portugal, add the finishing touches…’ Eh? Tawny Port? Turns out that the ‘Vintage’ in the name of the range refers to the whisky, not the Port. Dalmore 1996, 1998 and 2001, matured in ex-Bourbon casks, then finished in ex-tawny Port pipes.

    Confused? I certainly was. And so, it seems, was the person who wrote (and signed off) the press release. But the differences here are glaring.

    Graham's Vintage Port

    Long wait: vintage Port is often matured in bottle for decades before consumption

    Vintage is the zenith of Port, the product of a single ‘declared’ year taken from the finest vineyards and bottled within two years of the harvest. Cask maturation – such as it is – takes place more often than not in huge, vertical wooden vats known as balseiros, and sometimes in stainless steel or cement. So sourcing an ex-vintage Port cask to mature whisky in would be rather tricky.

    While vintage Port is a dark, fiercely tannic wine, typically allowed to age in bottle for decades before reaching its peak, tawny Ports are – as the name suggests – gold-coloured and softly oxidative in style.

    Tawnies are matured in wood, sometimes for just a few years, sometimes for a decade or more, and bottled when ready to drink. They are almost always a blend of different years and often bear an age statement of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years (there are ‘vintage’ tawny Ports, usually called colheitas, but let’s not make an already confusing situation utterly bewildering.)

    In either case, it’s important to note that the wood is primarily a vessel, not a contributor to character. New oak plays almost no part in Port ageing and, instead, older wood is wanted to provide a secure, neutral environment, allowing a gentle, gradual oxidation in the case of tawny Port.

    What does this mean to the distiller? Essentially, that what was previously in the cask is far more important than the cask itself. Important, then, to make it clear that that cask contained Graham’s tawny Port, rather than Graham’s vintage – because the influence from the wine leached into the wood will be entirely different.

    Graham's Port balseiros

    Vast vats: Huge balseiros used to mature Port in Graham’s lodge at Vila Nova de Gaia

    There’s no doubt that the Scotch whisky industry has made massive strides in analysing and understanding the myriad effects of various cask types on spirit, from the ‘standard’ vessels acquired from the Bourbon and Sherry industries to the more esoteric wood sourced from Madeira and the fine wine world.

    But there’s still some laziness about in the way in which this is communicated. It’s all very well to talk of a single malt being ‘Sherry cask-matured’, but (without even getting into the American/European oak question) what kind of Sherry? A bone-dry fino? A nutty amontillado? A darkly unctuous Pedro Ximénez or PX?

    Most likely it’ll be the dried fruit and rich spiciness of an oloroso, for which ‘Sherry cask’ has become shorthand in whisky circles, but the imprecision is irritating and potentially confusing.

    When drinkers do discover a whisky matured or ‘finished’ in ex-amontillado casks (for instance, Glenmorangie Dornoch), or one that has seen the inside of an ex-fino cask (see Glenfarclas 1966 47-year-old), it won’t taste like most ex-Sherry drams they’ve tried. Just compare that Glenfarclas with most of the distillery’s regular output.

    Dalmore Vintage Port Collection

    Source of confusion: The vintage here refers to the whisky, not the Port

    There’s an opportunity here. Single malt Scotch is a disarmingly simple product in terms of ingredients (water, barley, yeast); one that creates a blank sheet of paper on which to tell a tale of distillery character and geographical place.

    The cask adds another layer to that back-story, enables Scotch to piggyback on the heritage of another of the world’s greatest drinks, whether that be Port or Sherry (or Madeira, or a winemaking region).

    It also adds to the broader discussion of flavour creation and the preservation, enhancement or obscuration of distillery character, but for that discussion to carry weight and credbility, let’s make sure we get our facts straight in the first place.

    And knowing the difference between vintage and tawny Port would be a good place to start.

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