For a few years now, we’ve been following the development and maturation of Virginia Distillery Co., which has made a play since the day it opened to become the country’s leading provider of American single malt whisky.
To start in the usual place: American single malt? We’ve written about this style plenty of times in the past, but for the sake of getting us all on the same page, American single malt whiskies are effectively the U.S. distillery answer to malt whiskies made in markets such as Scotland. As in the whisky we refer to as “single malt scotch,” they’re made entirely from malted barley, at a single distillery, and many are aged in re-used American whiskey barrels, as is the tradition in Scotland. Others, however, are increasingly aged in different types of barrels, including newly charred oak, re-charred wine casks, and fortified wine casks (sherry, port, etc) that are also popular in Scotland. This has effectively created a new style, albeit one that is still fairly niche, despite more American single malt whiskies arriving on the market all the time. Virginia Distillery Co.’s flagship product, Courage & Conviction, is a blend of these types of barrel influences, being made from whiskies aged in bourbon casks, wine casks and sherry casks.
Until now, the only way to experience these flavors was in the resulting flagship blend that serves as the company’s public-facing introduction. However, a new series of releases has individually highlighted the component barrels that are blended to form Courage & Conviction. This allows the drinker to taste Virginia Distillery Co.’s whisky as it tastes after maturing exclusively in a re-used bourbon barrel, or a cuvée cask, or a sherry cask, before those whiskies would otherwise be blended together. It’s a valuable experience, because tasting each component whisky helps the drinker to detect how blenders bring together individual flavors to create something subtle and seamless in the final product.
The three VDC “component whiskies” (Bourbon Cask, Sherry Cask, Cuvée Cask) are all being sold now, in 750 ml bottles, for an MSRP around $85, which is about $10 more than the standard Courage & Conviction—you’re clearly paying a bit for the novelty and rarity here. All three are bottled at the brand’s standard 46% ABV (92 proof). So without further ado, let’s get to tasting all three variants and see how these cask types create unique whiskies.
The most “standard” of these releases is the Bourbon Cask variant, being the closest in its makeup to how a classical single malt whisky would be made in Scotland—in fact, aside from this hailing from Virginia rather than Scotland, there’s nothing else that would prevent it from being labeled as “single malt scotch,” given that it’s been aged for the requisite three years. This whisky typically makes up about 50% of the flagship Courage & Conviction, effectively making it the backbone of VDC’s blend.
On the nose, this is quite light, pleasant and inviting, with lightly biscuity, cereal grain notes, along with fresh vanilla bean and orange blossoms. It smells on the younger side, with inviting citrus and the suggestion of no lack of honeyed sweetness. On the palate, the honey presents itself, along with faint suggestions of fresh strawberry. Toffee-like caramelized sugar plays nicely with vanilla and citrus for a well-rounded and appealing profile with moderate sweetness, closing out with a nice hint of barrel char or roastiness. All in all, this actually doesn’t seem all that young on the palate, and it doesn’t suffer one bit from the lack of age—one of the most pleasant three-year-old malts I’ve ever tasted, in fact. Perhaps this is a factor of a warmer Virginia climate encouraging deeper interaction with the wood, but I believe that blind tasting would yield estimates that this is far older than it actually is.
This company’s use of what they dub “cuvée casks” is one of the most interesting things about Virginia Distillery Co., as these particular types of barrels are a newer innovation that hasn’t seen a lot of use in the American market just yet. These are European red wine casks, possibly French oak, which have aged wine before being “re-energized.” They don’t simply get filled with whisky after being dumped—rather, the interior is gently shaved to remove the top layer of wood, before being re-toasted and re-charred. They’re known as STR casks, standing for “shaved, toasted and recharred,” which results in a cask that retains some aspects of the wine barrel, while also being in some ways similar to newly charred, “virgin oak.” It’s an increasingly popular style of cask that is seeing use in the malt whisky industry in particular, so it makes sense that Virginia Distillery Co. would be interested. They typically use about 25% of this whisky in their flagship Courage & Conviction. This, however, is the first whisky I’ve sampled that was aged exclusively in STR casks.
On the nose, the thing that immediately stands out on this expression is that it’s been more influenced by the oak than in the bourbon cask variant. The oak has contributed considerably more baking spice notes, as well as a charred and slightly funky quality. I’m getting a lot of spice here, ranging from cinnamon to cardamom to star anise. On the palate, this one is likewise more “prickly” and less rounded, with lots of oakier flavors and a plethora of brown spice notes. There’s a more savory dimension to it as well, evoking something like cedar cigar box. I find this to be the driest of the three, and I expect that its role is to provide more spicy complexity to the flagship blend of Courage & Conviction. If you prefer more oak and spice influence, this is clearly the bottle you’d want to be seeking out.
If you’re a single malt whisky drinker, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with sherry cask-matured or finished whiskies at this point. Sherry and port are both very popular casks in the scotch whisky market in particular, being used by many distilleries to provide rich fruit, nutty, sweet and vinous flavors. Some sherry specialist distilleries will mature their entire product lineup exclusively within sherry casks, while others will merely “finish” a whisky in those casks, or use a portion of sherry-matured whisky as a subtle component in an overall blend. Virginia Distillery Co. typically uses their own sherry-matured whisky as around 25% of their Courage & Conviction blend, but this is an opportunity to see what that spirit is like on its own. It’s interesting to note that the spirit is actually a shade or two lighter in color than the cuvée casks spirit, which suggests that those cuvée casks do indeed impart the most color in the shortest timeframe—even moreso than sherry, which often imparts quite a bit of color as well.
On the nose, this one immediately presents as more round, sweet and rich, with many of the hallmarks of sherry matured malt whisky. There’s a lot of dark and dried fruit, with definite impressions of golden raisin/sultana, along with something quite similar to toasted marshmallow. There’s a butteriness that evokes biscuits straight out of the oven, and on the palate I’m getting dark fruit jam, roasted nuts, marzipan and faint mocha. This makes a particularly interesting counterpoint with the cuvée cask, as that drier, oakier, brown spice profile pulls in an entirely different direction than this more syrupy, caramelized, fruitier one. As I hoped, this series of three whiskies provides an excellent illustration of how the same spirit can dramatically change when aged in different types of casks.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.