The esteemed whisky writer, John Hansell, recently took time to explore the downside to single cask bottlings. There was no way we at Single Cask Nation were going to let this go by without a few comments. So, on behalf of all the members of Single Cask Nation, here is what we consider the upside to single cask bottlings.
Here's what I find incredibly cool about single cask whiskies: Assuming you have EITHER an excellent bottling OR an INTERESTING and good bottling, then you are satisfied with the purchase and can enjoy in uninhibited fashion the experience of sharing a crafted spirit with a relative handful of people.
To deconstruct further, consider two aspects to this statement; first, there is the crafted history that you are drinking, which is more pronounced in the case of a single cask than in other styles of whisky; and second, the exclusivity of the experience, which lends a sense of adventure.
As to the history, with single cask you know the precise age of the whisky and the precise provenance of the cask (whereas single malts provide an age statement that names only the youngest spirit in the blend). A History major in college and a history buff, I play a game when I drink single cask whisky. I think of what I was doing at the time period when the whisky was distilled. I think of things that have transpired in world history since the casking of the bottle before me. I picture the workers at the distillery toiling with shovels, bellows, funnels, swinging the spirit spout in the spirit safe to draw the run, rolling the barrel to its place of repose, the dust settling through rays of light onto the cask as it lay in the dunnage or stack warehouse, tapping the head of the valinch to draw tastes over time, the day they call the cask out to draw the sample for us, the bottling process, etc, etc. Maybe I embody the spirit of American individualism in this statement, but it seems the history of an individual cask is so much more rich and storied and evocative than the history even of a fine single malt from a reputable, storied distillery.
Certainly single cask is the best way to assess the influence of the wood on the spirit, and if the wood is 65% of the end product, I think there is something powerful about knowing which wood did what to your dram.
Turning now from the historical significance of single cask to the exclusivity and adventure: Any independent bottler worth its salt should not sully its reputation by releasing substandard bottlings. A consumer can limit his loss by limiting his exposure to a crappy indie bottler to a single purchase. Like Nation member Josh L said, if you get skunked, you walk away from that bottler. Once burnt, twice shy. BUT, assuming you have an established relationship with an independent bottler that you trust (not unlike a relationship with fine jeweler or art dealer), and assuming you are hunkered down with either an exceptional bottling or an exceptionally interesting (but also fairly tasty) bottling, then you can ponder how lucky you are to experience this expression of whisky. You are one of maybe 650 people AT MOST who get to experience this unique expression, in the history of the world. Assuming a bourbon cask at 12 years old or more and you are closer to only 250 shared experiences. Consider that a few folks will start hoarding up bottles of this incredible sauce, and your chances of getting to share in this unique and ephemeral experience grow even slimmer.
What are the odds that I, Seth Klaskin, have the opportunity to share in something this special; this finely crafted; this so elegantly influenced by a specific set of staves in a particular corner of a drafty dunnage warehouse on Islay, that was distilled before my first daughter was born? And who else is sharing this experience with me, both known and unknown? THAT is what I ponder whilst whittling away at a dram of single cask whisky. When viewed from that perspective, there is a sense of dignity to the dram and a simultaneous sense of privilege to the experience. When you get to that point; when you think about the folks who are sharing this experience with you, an overwhelming sensation of time and space enhances the quality of the whisky and makes you feel like a bona fide adventurer. You sought out this experience and you are rewarded by a feeling that must be like summiting a challenging peak. Only a few have attained the opportunity to breath this rarified air; to drink this incredible nectar. That's the history. That's the exclusivity. That's the adventure. That's ONLY single cask whisky.
One final note on this...one of the neatest things about this incredible Single Cask Nation journey is that it limits the field of folks who are sharing the incredible experiences we are bottling. We now have an opportunity to KNOW the community of folks who are privileged enough to taste the beautiful dunnage and barley cream of Single Cask Nation BenRiach 17 Year Old. The sweet and fruity elegance of the SCN Glen Moray 12 Year Old. The unbelievable maturity of an ex-Bourbon matured Kilchoman at only four years old. The supreme rarity of the Arran 12 Year Old, aged 8 years in ex-Bourbon and four more years in ex-Pinot Noir, for G-d's sake! Etc. We can come together in this virtual community and exchange knowing glances about common experiences.
Single Cask Nation.