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New Arrival of the Week: Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish

“I would hate to make a whisky that is boring”.

Stephanie Macleod, director of blending, Scotch Whisky for Bacardi, has a lot of briefs and responsibilities when it comes to making whisky. She has the ultimate say on the character and style of the whisky that comes out of single malt distilleries like Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, and Royal Brackla, as well as Dewar’s range of blended whiskies.

In June 2023, she was awarded the title of Master Blender of the Year by the International Whisky Competition (IWC) 2023.  She made history in 2019 as the first woman to win the award. Then further history by retaining the award. Becoming the first person to win it three years on the trot seemed a little greedy. Her latest was an unprecedented fifth in a row. Save some for the rest of us, Stephanie. 

Her background in science, decades of experience, and appreciation for the need to collaborate and trust other’s expertise are all critical to her success. But I would say that her curiosity shines through the most.

For Aberfeldy’s most recent launch, Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish, Macleod teamed up with Finca Ambrosia winemaker Daniel Pi, himself something of a legend in his field, to add something special to the Highland distillery’s Wine Cask Collection. We travelled to the distillery to meet them both to learn the story behind a whisky that is anything but boring.

Our new arrival is Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish!

Aberfeldy and Finca Ambrosia: collaboration and passion

What was immediately apparent was their desire to create great drinks, and how it drew them together. Both wanted to hear what the other had to say about the production process, to delve deeper into the specificities of oak cask maturation, no posturing, just passion. Those of us in attendance to cover the launch were party to it all and able to join in the conversations shared over dinner tables at Dun Aluinn, in Land Rovers on Highland Safari, or touring The Dewar’s Aberfeldy Experience at the distillery. 

The connection between this Scotch whisky distillery and an Argentinian winery was a mutual friend of Macleod and Finca Ambrosia co-owner John Paterson, who saw a harmony in approach between the two brands and felt collaboration would bring out the best of both. It’s not common in whisky to see such a direct relationship. First, most casks like this are bought on the open market or are organised by a regular supplier who alerts the distillery to the availability of something interesting. 

For us whisky writers, this kind of collaboration also gave us a level of access we’re not used to. Usually, what we know about a barrel is what it previously contained. Bourbon. Sherry. If it’s the latter, you’ll often, but not always, be told whether it’s oloroso, PX, or another variety. You might even get to know if the wood was European or American oak. That’s typically where the details end. There are exceptions of course, like Gonzales Byass and The Dalmore’s famous connection, for example. But you know even less for a limited-edition cask finished expression like Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish. Most wineries, by policy, don’t allow whisky makers to disclose their names. Their call and fair enough. 

This launch wasn’t just a rare opportunity for us whisky writers to learn more about the wine previously in the cask. But for the drinks makers as well. We got to drink the wine alongside the whisky. We got to speak to the winemakers directly. For all the significance the whisky industry places on the impact casks have on flavour, you’re suddenly struck with the realisation that it is rare to know this much about a cask. I’d wager, given how rewarding each found the experience, that this won’t be the last time Finca Ambrosia and Aberfeldy work together. 

Stephanie Macleod, director of blending, Scotch Whisky for Bacardi

The workings of the Wine Cask Collection 

Macleod, a genuine lover of fine wine, tells us she started experimenting with wine casks just a year after she was made master blender in 2006. “Wine is such a rich scene. You have your French wines, Italian wines… then you hop over the pond to America and Argentina. And the casks always tend to be well-made. They’re things of beauty, lovely objects, with sumptuous liquid inside”. 

In 2019, Aberfeldy took some of those samples and turned them into limited-edition whiskies. Since then we’ve been treated to an array of cask finishes, like Aberfeldy 15 Year Old – Red Wine Cask, which was finished in Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks from the Napa Valley in California. So too was the Aberfeldy 18 Year Old – Napa Valley Red Wine, but it’s not only red wine casks, as Aberfeldy 15 Year Old – Cadillac White Wine Cask demonstrates. 

Macleod noses these monthly, sometimes weekly if she’s experimenting with a new style. She says her team has done so much work with wine casks that they know right away if it suits the Aberfeldy house style. The whisky that is finished in wine casks is aged initially in refill casks and hogsheads to ensure the distillery character (think porridge oats drizzled in rich, waxy honey) does not get overwhelmed by the wine-soaked wood. 

At Aberfeldy, long fermentation is coupled with slow distillation to create a thick body and weight to the whisky, with a waxy-like texture, which means it isn’t simply the golden sweet dram you’ve probably heard about, but a spirit of enough character that it can stand up to bold cask styles. The influence of wine casks on whisky, in particular, can be unpredictable. Factors such as the type of wine, the condition of the cask, and the duration of ageing can all impact the outcome, making consistency a challenge. A lot of whisky fans are wary of them, finding them overwhelming. Balance is key, and above all else, Macleod is credited as being a master of balance. 

High-quality wine casks can be expensive and harder to source than traditional oak barrels too, increasing the production costs and affecting the scalability of whisky production. There may be regulatory hurdles depending on the legal definitions and requirements for whisky in different countries, and you also need to make sure the casks are still fresh. They often undergo long journeys and you risk them drying out or losing their vitality after all that time. “It’s a good sign if the aroma is so mouthwatering you want to have a glass of wine at 9am,” says McLeod.

Finca Ambrosia winery

A quick summary of the Finca Ambrosia winery

Good quality casks are what she got from the Finca Ambrosia winery and those who know about the Argentinian brand won’t be surprised. Located at the foothills of the Andes Mountains at an altitude of 1250m, the estate uses organic practices and observes moon cycles for optimum harvest to produce wines with flavours that express the intricacies and nuances of the district of Gualtallary, in the heart of Mendoza’s Uco Valley, considered to be one of the finest terroirs in Argentina.

Such has been the rise of Finca Ambrosia’s reputation that, as well as producing its signature wines, its fruit has now become some of the most sought-after in the region. Winemaker Daniel Pi is revered, and the casks used for ageing these fine wines are also desired. The finishing casks for this week’s new arrival previously held Finca Ambrosia’s, Viña Unica, a “purely fruited, gently oaked red wine that delivers complexity and length”, which spent 15 months in used French oak barrels. The barrels are created by a small family-owned cooperage in Burgundy called Mercurey, and are secured from four sustainably managed forests. We’re also told they undergo a distinct toasting process to season the oak.

While Malbec originated in France, it has found a particular stronghold in Argentina, where it has become the signature grape. Argentine malbecs, especially those from regions like Mendoza, are renowned worldwide. They often exhibit a unique combination of fruitiness and minerality, thanks to the high-altitude vineyards. Expect those deep, rich flavours of dark fruit such as plum, blackberry, and black cherry, complemented by secondary notes of cocoa, leather, and tobacco, as well as smoother, more velvety tannins compared to other red wines like cabernet sauvignon.

Taste the whisky with the wine if you want to see what the cask is bringing to the table

Tasting Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish

Flavours that bring us neatly onto Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish. Distilled on 14 November 2001, it was matured for over two decades in sherry and bourbon re-fill barrels and hogsheads, then finished for around 8 months in the Finca Ambrosia’s Malbec French Oak wine casks. It was bottled at 46% ABV, non-chill filtered and with its natural colour.  

Stephanie Macleod and Daniel Pi worked together to select these particular casks for finishing as they bring classic Malbec notes to the whisky, without eliminating the Aberfeldy character at the core of the spirit. It’s a balance that I think is achieved here. There’s no doubt this is a wine cask whisky, but you’re also clear too that you’re drinking Aberfeldy. Take your tasting up a level and pair the whisky with the wine, if you can. It’s not often you get the chance. 

Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish tasting note:

Nose: Raspberry puree, red grapes, and sage kick things off in a decidedly vinous direction, backed by delicate rose and parma violet. Vanilla, buttery pastries, and honey keep things creamy and very Aberfeldy, with a deep and warming orange citrus note as well as a hint of almond adding depth to the aroma. There’s a kind of blueberry syrup on-pancakes vibe to this nose. 

Palate: Some wine finishes are sharp and tannic on the first sip but this isn’t, it’s deep and waxy with a mouth-filling texture. The palate leads with black cherry, stewed plums, and blackberry, with dark chocolate, cinnamon, orange peel, and herbaceous tobacco in support.

Finish: Black fruit and a hint of black pepper. 

Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish is now available from Master of Malt.

The post New Arrival of the Week: Aberfeldy 21 Year Old Malbec Cask Finish appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

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