London-based Caskstrength Creative, run by drinks writers Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley (authors of award-winning book Distilled) have just launched their new project which has seen them travel the length and breadth of Scotland to unearth the uncommon.
The writers turned detective as they took on the role of cask hunters on a journey of discovery searching out the most unusual of all whisky casks, the ones that had just got forgotten, destined for blends that no longer exist, set aside for customers that went out of business or that had simply fallen off stock records.
Each one has a unique story to tell of its journey from the day it was filled to the day that our intrepid hunters found them quietly slumbering at the back of warehouses or in dusty corners.
The talented duo kindly sent me a couple of samples from their new spirited adventure and took the time to answer a few questions!
Why “Exile Casks”? Why/How did you decide to make the move from spirits writers to independent bottlers?
Since 2010, we’ve been bottling whisky as part of our ‘A-Z’ series, working in partnership with brand owners to put out unusual one-off bottles at affordable prices, for people to enjoy. We started our journey with a single cask Arran, of which there were only 96 bottles. We then moved on to a wonderful 16 year old BenRiach, from 1996. This was followed by a bespoke Cutty Sark blend at cask strength, and probably our most innovative bottling yet: 3D Whisky. This was a blend of three distilleries beginning with D (Dufftown, Dalwhinnie and Dailuaine – telling you this would have us shot these days, which is why we are supporting the Compass Box’s campaign for better clarity in blends, should the bottler choose to tell you, and should it not be confusing for the consumer), which was the first food and drink product to come with printable 3D packaging. It also came with 3D glasses and a red and blue ‘stereoscopic’ label. This release, the last (until now) in the A-Z series, came out in 2013.
We weren’t sure where to go with E, and over the last 3 years have come across casks that, quite simply, have fallen off the manifest in warehouses across Scotland, but don’t all under the letter E in anyway! There are over 20 million casks maturing in Scotland, and often there are casks which have been earmarked for a certain destiny, such as for blending but have, for whatever reason, been left behind to quite literally, gather dust. (One company only introduced electronic tagging of their casks in the last few years; until then they were all registered in a handwritten ledger, so it’s easy to see how casks can be ‘lost’).
As these casks missed the chance to be included in their original escape plan from Scotland’s warehouses, and in our quest to find a single cask for ‘E’ in our series, it turned up some of these oddments and we’ve liberated them for people to enjoy under the ‘exiles’ banner. Our ethos with our A-Z bottlings has always been to release these at the best possible price points, as drinking whiskies, not collectors items. Thankfully, with the ease of digital sales we can bring these bottles direct to the market meaning they’ll come in at around £65 a bottle, plus P&P through www.exilecasks.com
Why bottling at 50cl instead of the usual 70cl/75cl standard content?
We’ve chosen to bottle them at 50cl, as when we looked through our own cabinets, we found that we had a fair number of cask strength whiskies with about 20cl left in the bottom; the sorts of bottles you want to finish up, so you can move on to something else. 50cl seemed like the best way to bring a drinking product out, so people could enjoy them and move on to whatever is next in their list to open, without too many nearly-empty bottles lying around.
During your cask discovery journey, have you faced any obstacles? Challenges?
The biggest challenge has been two-fold: firstly to make sure it is of the quality that we want. And secondly to actually get the casks released. A lot of the casks would be under a ‘blenders agreement’ to not be sold under the distillery name, so we are honouring that, but trying to give as much info about each cask as possible (The Trojan is a refill Hogshead from a Speyside distillery, filled 19th June 1990.)
What were the most important criteria you based your choice on when selecting a specific cask for Exile Casks?
The single most important thing is the flavour and quality of the liquid. Simple as that really!
How do you see the future for Exile Casks?
The future: more Scotch, if and when we can find it and if it fits our quality measure. But this is called Exile Casks… so who knows where this could go, in terms of mature spirits…. 😉
Notes from the official website: “It could only happen in the strange world of Scotch whisky production, one company’s precious liquid in a competitor’s cask. No one quite knows how that happened but since it went into the cask on a fine June morning in 1990 the whisky has developed its character of steadfastness and endurance, hidden in the dark wooden walls, waiting for the right time. We tracked this unique cask down and released its heroic contents for you to enjoy with some modern warrior companions of your own.”
The Trojan is a 25 years old Speyside whisky coming at 57.1% ABV (which distillery? Shhhh… That’s a secret!)
Nose: Frank, powerful and rich with dried fruits, nuts, plums, licorice, cider caramel, ginger bread, creamy honey, pecan pie and…Come on I know you’re waiting for the chauvinistic French reference... Far Breton!
Palate: A pure Speysidish delight of sweet spices, nutty and woody aromas. Also some old leather notes that reminded me of an American antique shop… Don’t ask me why I came up with such references but I almost felt in a Storage Wars Texas episode bidding on a dusty Chesterfield-sofa-fuelled box (don’t get me wrong… This is actually a compliment and I’m a huge fan of those lame TV shows *my bad*) – Still round and elegant with a suprising subtle salty touch (is it just me?). Could be confusing considering what I just said about Storage Wars, but this is definitely the kind of dram I’ll be enjoying on a cold winter night, fireside, under my favourite Scottish woolen blanket I brought back from Ullapool (Tourist pride)!
Finish: Warm and lingering with cloves, citrus, star anise and caramel.
Recommended Food Pairing: Austin-style Barbecued Pork ribbs