"Cracking Open The Casks"
“Surreal” is how John Glass, Malt Master at Ian Macleod Distillers, describes the feeling of seeing the inherited stocks of Rosebank for the first time. “It was hard to take in, knowing that the last drops of spirit from this great distillery were in front of me and about to be opened for the first time in years”. To the untrained eye, they were scruffy, somewhat battered wooden casks, but John was already assessing how their form might have shaped the whisky. “There are many clues to the history of the cask and what flavours it might bring, from its shape to its markings,” he says.
With the new Rosebank in mind, he thought ‘that’s the future of the brand’ as he began “cracking open the casks.” As well as taking a sample, casks were regauged, which involves estimating the contents using a measuring stick. “We acquired them not knowing if they were empty or full, or what the strength was. There was a lot riding on this, and a lot of apprehension.”
Sadly, a couple were dry. As he says: “Thirty years is a long time and all it takes is one small crack in a stave or the cask not being as tight as it should be.” But the rest were each carefully nosed and tasted. Knowing the whisky’s potential from previous Rosebank bottlings was “incredibly exciting,” he says. It meant “being light and clean but full of soul and depth, gentle but complex, citrusy, floral and vibrant.” It seems the inherited stocks do not disappoint.
Emma Newton, who joined Ian Macleod’s eight years ago and is now the firm’s blender, is another to land the dream job for any Rosebank-lover – that of sampling every cask. “It’s a unique opportunity to be able to assess maturing stocks from a long-silent distillery. I’m finding it an incredible learning experience, and feel very lucky to be part of it,” she says. As for first impressions – “I was surprised at how delicate it was, even after decades in wood.”
Nosing the casks proved to be fascinating as each one is unique and there can be huge variation between casks. “I could show you a pair at Glengoyne or Tamdhu, filled on the same day into exactly the same cask type in theory and, oh boy! Are they different!” says John Glass of Rosebank’s sister distilleries. “Staves come from different trees, each of which have grown in a unique way, with different levels of tannins and other flavours in the wood,” he says. “And then, there’s different locations in the warehouse – whether it sat near the cold floor or up near the roof where the temperature fluctuations are massive. All of these factors and many more besides will have an impact on the flavours after 30 years”
To which Emma adds: “As expected, given the length of time, the casks have taken their own paths over the years, but you can still pick up this subtle, elegant, uniquely Rosebank spirit character.” She describes this as being “very light, but citrusy-sweet and delicately floral.” Preserving that character in the new Rosebank will be the challenge for her and her team. It will depend on having the right quality of spirit, the best possible wood and choosing the right casks to marry together. This explains why the art of blending is every bit as important to single malts as to blended whisky, and why Emma skills will be so crucial to the future Rosebank.