Kingsley Amis, writing in 1972's On Drink, relayed a recipe for a concoction he had heard to be "Queen Victoria's Tipple." Ingredients: 1/2 tumbler red wine, Scotch. "The quantity of Scotch is up to you, but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler," cautioned Amis. "Worth trying once," cringed the author, who in the same pages recommends waking up to a shot of tequila in one hand and one of tomato juice in the other.
I asked Logan Leet, winemaker at River Bend Winery in Kentucky, whose signature Bourbon Barrel Red is given a brief spin through used bourbon barrels, if he had ever heard of this kind of abomination in Louisville. "Most people like to keep their wine and their bourbon separate, by and large," he assured me.
But in truth, the commingling of whiskey and wine began long before Her Majesty played mad mixologist. It's a story that began as an expedience of intercontinental trade in the bustling 17th century and continues today as distillers and winemakers probe the possibilities of what a drink can be.
We'll return to the Bourbon Barrel Red; the more common practice is the opposite—malt or bourbon whiskey aged or "finished" in used wine barrels. The finishing process is basically just a final stretch of aging, lasting from around a month to two years, when the liquor imbibes some flavor from whatever drink previously lay in the finishing barrels.
Like fizzy Champagne, the practice began as an accident that people liked. "You had to put your liquid, when you distilled it, into something," said David King, president of Anchor Distilling, which imports The Glenrothes, GlenDronach and other Scotch whiskies. As Sherry consumption rose to a crescendo in 19th-century Britain, the distillers' attitudes followed: As King put it, "They're lying around, so we'll use Sherry barrels."
Thomas McKenzie, at Finger Lakes Distilling in New York state, probably relived the reaction of the old Scots and Irish when making his rye whiskey. "We never planned on doing a Sherry-finished rye whiskey. I had run out of places to put the rye one day, and I put some in Sherry barrels we happened to have. And when I pumped it out, it was a damn fine whiskey."
Today, the malt whiskies of Scotland and Ireland are matured either in used American bourbon casks, used Sherry casks or a blend. One consideration: Bourbon barrels flip for $80 to $120, Sherry casks for $800 to $1,200. Why? "These are bespoke," explained Colum Egan, the master distiller at Bushmills. See, while the whiskey industry is barreling along, the Sherry market has largely dried up (sorry). So the Scots and Irish contract Jerezanos to "season" barrels for them.
For Bushmills, Egan visits Jerez almost yearly, and works with a family of winemakers who mature an Oloroso Sherry in barrels for three years. For quality control, Egan and a team taste through Sherries from each of the 1,000 to 1,500 barrels he will bring back to Ireland, and the Sherry drained from them goes into the family solera or perhaps Sherry vinegar. The work of the Jerezanos is essential to whiskey. "They are just as responsible for making these whiskies as I am for distilling," Egan said, estimating the cask contributes 60 percent of a malt whiskey’s ultimate flavor, given how long it spends in one.
What is that flavor these distillers pay such a premium for? Winy, raisiny, sweet and dried fruits are a few descriptions I heard. The barrels also impart a brilliant amber color to a spirit that goes into the cask clear.
Where the long-term aging of whiskies in Sherry barrels is a long-term tradition, the practice of finishing is a newer one, still somewhat experimental. "The trouble with whiskey," lamented Egan, "is it takes so long. We have all these different experiments going. What I'm making today is something my successors will deal with." Right now Egan finishes his 16-year in Port barrels and his 21-year in Madeira, but has plans for Malvasia and Málaga wine-barrel aging too.
Locally focused, McKenzie finishes his Finger Lakes Distilling bourbon in Chardonnay barrels from nearby wineries Glenora and Lamoreaux Landing. (The "Sherry" for his rye is technically a Sherry-style wine made by Goose Watch.) GlenDronach from Scotland uses a Sauternes finish, but King wonders if some of the newer experiments in finishing, which have even come to include beer-barrel finishes, are more of "a gimmick, how sustainable it is."
Egan swears by the rich caramel and chocolate notes a Madeira barrel imparts and the "sweet Port wine [taste] in the back of your throat that rolls up to the front of your tongue," but he acknowledged another sticking point: A delicate whiskey like Bushmills is impressionable. He tastes his 16-year daily during its six- to nine-month finishing. "If I over-Port it, I say, 'Ah, what have I done after 16 years!'"
If the idea that the taste of whiskey could be smothered by a touch of wine makes you skeptical, surely you can imagine the opposite. Leet would agree when it comes to his Bourbon Barrel Red wine. "We only put it in the barrels for 30 days, at most. The bourbon is very, very subtle in it. It's probably a good bit more on the nose." Having tasted it, I'd add that a dollop of caramel wells up just a bit on the finish, too.
At River Bend (soon to be Old 502 Winery), Leet, who is new this harvest, is tinkering with the formula, and he plans to add more vinifera to the Chambourcin-based blend. His son-in-law works on the premium Angel's Envy bourbon label, and Leet is planning to source Angel's Envy barrels for the current vintage of his wine.
Angel's Envy, for its part, is finished in ruby Port casks. So toast the winemakers who use a deft and patient hand in barrel élevage—with a glass of whiskey.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.