To the last drop…

What impact will the rinsing of ex-bourbon casks have on aged whiskies?

When it comes to the ageing of whiskey, especially Scotch and Irish, the most common casks are ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry, with all the narrative about how the use also stemmed from the convenience of recycling and giving new life to these wooden containers when they were no longer usable (for American whiskey) or because they were emptied after bottling their contents on site (for sherry).

It is well known that former sherry casks have become increasingly rare and expensive, and the practice of having them specially made for ageing is becoming more and more common, without therefore ever having contained sherry for maturation but only for ‘seasoning’.

Luckily, there are the ex-Bourbon barrels, which the Americans don’t know what to do with after the ageing of their whiskey and which continue to arrive in abundance in Europe, full of the residues of the precious nectar… or are they?

Whether it is the global crisis or the purely economic need to maximise production (and profit), the practice of ‘rinsing’ the casks that have contained the bourbon is becoming increasingly common in the US: they fill the emptied casks with several gallons of water, and sometimes with the help of high-pressure jets extract every last drop of the aged liquid that may have remained in them. What is obtained is then used to lower the strength of the whiskey, which saves on running costs.

But then, when the cask ends up in Europe or other countries for ageing, what happens? What happens is that it no longer has the same incisiveness as a classic first-fill cask, with a corresponding impact on the ageing of the new make that is poured into it, sometimes quite unexpectedly because almost none of the US distilleries inform the purchaser of this practice, especially when the latter has bought it from an intermediary (broker) and not from the producers themself.
The difference is not insignificant, effectively creating two distinct categories of ex-Bourbon casks, with the classic (unrinsed) ones now regarded as premium and the rinsed ones, when known, seen as being of lower value. Of course, on large numbers the impact may be relative, especially for conglomerates which, being owners of distilleries in the United States as well as in Europe, can have greater control over which casks circulate among the distilleries, but for small producers, especially when artisanal, this can become a problem, obtaining results quite different from those expected as they are unaware of what type of cask they have come across.

There are those, such as John Glaser of Compass Box, who are fully aware of the problem, using it to their advantage with a conscious use of these casks for their products, such as the blended Orchard House, and who are thinking of applying to ex-bourbon casks what is already in use for ex-sherry casks, namely the seasoning process.

If not all US distilleries still use this practice, it’s only a matter of time and adequate means: the great convenience of extracting as much whiskey as possible from the cask is too tempting not to become commonplace, which will radically change the way dear old maturation in ex-Bourbon casks is handled.

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