Last month, Jonathon talked about the variety of cask finishes (amongst other things) that can enhance a whiskey’s profile, flavour, colour and depth, for instance. There are many possibilities for a whiskey distiller: choosing to mature a spirit in sherry, bourbon and port being among some of the most common. But a whole different world of cask finishes is out there; all it takes is an adventurous spirit and a will to show creativity. As I’ve described before, Two Stacks fit that bill and have decided to assess the allure of brandy as a cask finish.
Most recently, Two Stacks released a cherry and apple brandy cask finish; I’d imagine that’s based somewhat on the success of the Apricot brandy release but also likely is the flavour profile that one may exude from such a cask. I find it slightly strange that this is not an option that other distillers have ventured into yet. For those unacquainted with the uniqueness and distinctive nature of brandy, it’s essentially a spirit made from distilling wine (of any fruit). Typically consumed as an after-dinner digestif, brandy can be aged in casks, most famously in South-Western France, with ABVs typically between 40 and 60%.
Barring the big brandy producers like Cognac and Armagnac, brandy production and consumption tend to have a regional character, and thus production methods significantly vary. Wine brandy is produced from various grape cultivars, giving distinct aroma and consistency. The brandy is made from so-called base wine, which substantially differs from regular table wines. Made with ‘early grapes’, the distillate produced has less sulphur, higher acid concentration and lower sugar which can elicit notes of figs, leather and vanilla with a smooth texture and a sweet and rich palate. Although the characteristics of the spirit make it a casker’s dream, it can be challenging to showcase the key notes and elements and bring out the best of the whiskey DNA. Incorporate some fruit into it, and it’s a whole different game. Around 80 kinds of fruit spirits in the European Union are registered with protected designations, such as Calvados, an apple spirit from the French region of Lower Normandy. However, the use of apple is not unique to Calvados: the fruit has been used extensively throughout the world, with the USA using it for AppleJack, and Somerset utilising it for Somerset Cider Brandy. It’s popular, versatile and a promising finish for whiskey. Cherry has been used less widely; however, some may be familiar with the likes of De Kuyper, whilst liqueur is still evidence of the versatility of the fruit and the wide range of use.
As previously mentioned, Two Stacks are no stranger to innovation. Their Polaris 1.1 edition featured an Ice Wine cask finish which probably exceeded expectations. They have also dabbled in finishes of honey bourbon, maple syrup and coffee stout, which, whilst certainly not conventional, is a testament to their pioneerism and ability to get the very best out of their Two Stacks’ base DNA whilst being finished in these casks. A reminder that the DNA is the standard 40% dark grain aged in virgin oak casks, 40% light grain aged in bourbon casks, 8% pot still aged in Oloroso Sherry Butts, 10% double malt aged in bourbon casks, and 2% peated malt also aged in bourbon casks; affectionately known as “The Blender’s Cut.”
The whiskies themselves are bottled at a salivating 63%; Two Stacks seems to have a mantra of refusing to dilute anything these days! All the brandy casks are French Oak and have held apple, apricot or brandy spirit. The apple brandy has had a full 12 months of maturation, the cherry brandy six months and the apricot brandy two months; therefore, it should be interesting to see how each has matured, given the significantly different time periods.
Two Stacks Cherry Brandy Cask
Price: £60, available in the Netherlands only.
Nose: Straight away, there’s an evident fruity vibrancy. The stoned fruit influence is almost palatable at this stage, bizarrely more ripened peaches and plums than cherries. There are some morello cherries and Tangfastic sweets, but it’s quite unnoticeable. The nose is encapsulated with some furniture polish, new leather and refreshers to complete an exciting nose.
Palate: Much more cherries come to the palate now. There is everything from flat cherry coke to maraschino cherries, with a plethora of flavours in between. More refresher sweets come through too. An exuberance of spice is sometimes overwhelming, with lots of cinnamon, cloves and pink peppercorns. I felt that when I added a couple of drops of water, the spice subsided slightly and more fruity sweet notes revealed themselves.
Finish: There’s a more pleasant warmth once the spice dwindles slightly and almost mellows with some spiced vanilla and smoky figs finishing an interesting dram.
Two Stacks Apricot Brandy Cask
Price: £79; however, now sold out, expect to pay around the same amount at auction.
Nose: A complete fruit-fest on the nose. Aromas of peeling a clementine orange and fresh marmalade; lots of evident apricot influence. Then there’s an unusual sweetness with Parma Violets, fruit salad sweets and honey, giving this a distinctive nose full of vibrancy.
Mouth: A second dose of oranges, but this time it’s more tangerines with fresh baked poached pears drizzled in cinnamon sugar—lovely texture and mouthfeel. Lots of nut flavours are coming through too, with almonds being the most distinct. The 2% peat makes it quite hard to find and is pretty inconspicuous.
Finish: Clearly helped by the ABV, which is not overpowering at all but adds a delicate level of warmth coupled with some more gentle sweetness of toffee which comes through gradually.
Two Stacks Apple Brandy Cask
Price: £66; however now sold out, expect to pay a premium at auction.
Nose: There’s evident apple influence, with fresh apple juice and apple belts taking centre stage. Lots more fruit comes through too. There’s candied lemon peel, soft peaches, ripened pear and even caramelised pineapple. It almost seems quite cakey; some marzipan in there with an added sourdough note that makes it fascinating.
Palate: How much apple do you want? Straight away, there’s a very distinct granny smith note, more fresh apple juice, apple Chewits and some American-style applesauce. Additionally, that Two Stacks DNA comes out with some complex hitting spices; cinnamon and pepper. However, this one also has a creamy texture, almost creamy chocolate-like.
Finish: Lots more heat comes through. Again, it’s more subtle. The fruit notes remain, albeit more refined with apple strudel, candied ginger and toffee apples.
First, I think it’s important to note that if these releases were terrible, I’d have still scored them well, applauding the ingenuity and innovation pursued by these guys. Irish whiskey is experiencing a resurgence which can only be maintained as long as we keep adapting and adjusting to the pace with considered and novel change.
The good news is they’re not terrible and quite the opposite, as evidenced by the scores above. I drank the Apricot Brandy release around a year ago and enjoyed it; I wasn’t alone, either. The sweetness that comes through at every stage isn’t one-dimensional. The nose is full of fruity sweetness, balanced with a sweet shop twist. Then the palate is the nose and more! Lots of sweetness again, but this time the little spice and nuttiness give it a real edge, especially with the ABV. And the finish… well, it’s so delicate with plenty of warmth.
Unfortunately, I don’t think either the Cherry Brandy or the Apple Brandy have hit that mark, but they have come pretty close. Closest to the mark is the most recent release, the Apple Brandy. It’s just an explosion of all things apple; there is an unrelenting spice there too, which I think came close to overpowering but is probably just right. The sweet notes are lovely, and it is an enjoyable dram; it’s just fun! I was looking forward to the cherry release, in all honesty, but I feel it hasn’t lived up to the hype. It is still an exciting and very complex dram, but I think it’s ever so slightly unbalanced and quite spicy. Considering I am two-thirds of the bottle down, I don’t think it’s a bad dram at all, and considering I won the bottle, I am certainly not complaining.
*I was lucky enough to win the bottle of Cherry Brandy Cask Finish that I sampled. I’ve tried not to let this cloud my judgement too much…