Dear friends, followers, and supporters alike! On the 4th of May 2018 I did my first visit to Swedish Distillery Agitator. If you haven’t already read my article from that visit please do so by clicking here and you will not only get some background info for this article, but also learn a bit about what makes Agitator such a unique whisky distillery.
During the end of that first visit I filled bourbon casks no.111-116 (barrels, 180L) with the newmake I had helped to produce. The new make was made from peated barley (30ppm) and the mix was 58% from the High Reflux spirit-still and 42% from the Low Reflux spirit-still. The filling strength was 55% ABV. Around one year later, Agitator and I made it official through social media that we were embarking on a joint project, namely a cask collaboration (click here to read the ”pressrelease” in swedish).
So what does the collaboration entail? Well, it will result in at least one official bottling taking the six casks that I filled as a starting point. I will be the one leading the collab and taking care of everything from maturation, to desicions on types of casks used, as well as bottling the whisky, doing the labelling, etcetera, etcetera. Of course the Distillery Manager/Master Distiller Oskar and the Distillery Technician Christian will assist me with their expertise and offer their advise as we go along.
As you can surely imagine dear readers, it is a true honor to be a part of this collaboration. The best way I can try and describe my feelings for this project is to imagine that I would ask the people at Laphroaig (my favourite Scottish whisky/distillery) if I could do a collaboration with them and that they would say: "yes!". It’s like a dream come true. And with Agitator it’s an even bigger dream come true! Why? Well, their motto is ”What if…”; they are the only known single malt whisky distillery in the world using vacuum distillation, their production process is green/environmental friendly, they are pioneers in breaking free from norms and stiff traditions of the whisky industry in using different kinds of grains (barley, wheat, oat), having great acess to interesting casks, are willing to experiment with maturation using different and new kinds of casks, all in the hunt for the best whisky possible. This is the context for our collaboration in which I have the opportunity to do precisely what I want. With that said I consider myself a lucky chap indeed.
Since my first visit I have revisited the distillery thrice. As you might have seen on my FB-page my last visit was just three weeks ago and this time around I visited both in order to check up on the maturation process of the spirit in the six casks, and most of all to really start the cask collab and take the first big step, which this article is about. But before I take you through my fourth time visiting Agitator, what we did during my visit, and what the first step actually was, let me give you some info on what happened before my visit.
In the end of September I received an email from Håkan Jarskog, the CEO of Nordic Whisky Capital (the company that owns Agitator). He invited me to join in on a tasting of cask samples drawn from the maturing stock at Agitator! The objective of the tasting was for an internal tasting panel (Håkan, two other members of the company, and myself) to help evaluate the samples and to provide Oskar and Christian with some thoughts on and perceptions of the maturation process, and tasting notes of some of the stock at a work-in-progress state. Wow, what an honour! The tasting was held on the 1st of October at the NWC headquarters in Stockholm.
The line-up consisted of 12 cask samples with spirit of different recipes (non peated, peated of different ppm, malted barley, different grains), drawn from a variety of cask types and cask sizes, at different filling strengths and ages. Among these 12 cask samples were two samples that got my attention; one was drawn from a 32 litre virgin chestnut cask that had been filled with newmake made from non peated barley from the High Reflux Spirit-still (at the time of the tasting being 9 months old and at a strength of 54% ABV), the other was drawn from a 200 litre virgin chestnut cask that had been filled with newmake made from peated barley at 40ppm from the Low Reflux Spirit-still (at the time of the tasting being 5 months old and at a strength of 57,5% ABV). Together with three other cask samples, it was the two chestnut cask samples that I gave the highest scores.
In the samples drawn from the chestnut casks I found nosing and tasting profiles/flavours that was especially interesting; grassy-ness, malty-ness, some kind of wine-yness, fruity-ness, notes of medium bold to bold vanilla, sweetness, powerful influence of cask/wood/tannins (for me meaning dryness and ”bitterness”), as well as medium bold to bold peatyness (yes, even the non peated one coming out of the HR Spirit-still was somehow peaty both on the nose and the taste). The best way that I can try and describe what chestnut matured spirit tastes like is kind of like a fusion of a bourbon cask and a european oak sherry cask, with added/extra tannins.
Some weeks after the tasting Christian gave me a call with some great news; they had recently received a shipment of a bunch of 150litre virgin chestnut casks, and since they had seen my high scoring of the chestnut cask samples he wanted to know if I would like to come visit the distillery to transfer the maturing spirit from one of my bourbon casks into one of the chestnut casks. Enthusiastically I instantly replied: ”YES!”. Furthermore, since my bourbon casks are 180 litre barrels he also suggested that we could fill the remaining spirit (estimated to be approximatly 30 litres) from the bourbon cask I chose into a 32 litre chestnut cask that currently held oloroso sherry. ”Great idea!”, said I.
So, just a couple days later, on the 31st of October I arrived by train to Arboga, and Christian picked me up at the station. After a few minutes of chatting and catching up in the car we arrived at the distillery. First we had some coffee in the control room, after which Oskar and Christian gave me a very nice Agitator-branded zipper-sweater as a gift, now that’s what I call proper attire for working!
After some talking, some more coffee, and some nosing of two samples of new style new make, we went into the warehouse. Aaaah, the scents in the warehouse… it's like coming home! In the warehouse we began with locating my casks and started to take them down from the shelves. I then took out a sample from each cask and it was time for some evaluation.
The first time that I got the opportunity to try maturing spirit from all of the six casks I had laid down was during my previous visit (the third one). At that point in time the spirit was 1 year and 10 days old. By the time of this fourth visit the maturing spirit had reached an age of nearly 1,5 years old (or to be precise: 1 year, 5 months, and 26 days old).
The evaluation (nosing, tasting, comparing of casks) showed that being barely half way to whisky, the spirit already has lots of cask influence, and the samples drawn from each of the six casks already nose and taste really, really good. In short: mouth watering peated vanilla sweetness, m-mm!
No sings of yeast or fusel, meaning nothing young-ish to be found, at all. Since I found all of the casks to be equally great I decided that cask no.111 would be an as good candidate as any of the other casks would for being transferred into the two chestnut casks. With that decided, it was time for a lunch break. After lunch we had some coffee and then went back into the warehouse. We took a stroll to the part of the warehouse where the newly received chestnut casks were located. Christian suggested that I should nose/sniff a couple of them to see which one I liked best, so I started to rip off the plastic from a couple of casks.
The one I chose had wonderful scents of autumn evening forest, green moss, fallen leaves, a tad of charcoal, and a touch of new wood.
I then carried the cask I had chosen...
and then placed it roughly in the spot were we would be doing the transfer of the spirit.
Meanwhile, Christian used the truck to pick up cask no.111
and when he had adjusted the height of the forklift so that the bourbon cask was placed slightly above the chestnut cask we used a very simple pump and started to pump by hand in order to create suction to be able to transfer the spirit. Yay! Such a great and exciting feeling to take this first step!
When I did the transfer, Christian emptied the sherry that was in the 32 litre chestnut cask, and when the big chestnut cask was as full as absolutely possible
I started to transfer spirit to the small one
It was at some point during this transfer that Christian noticed something rather critical, the 150 litre chestnut casks they had received was actually not 150 litre, but rather… 130 litre, ooops! Now the original plan was in trouble since there would all of a sudden be something like 18 litres of spirit left over; spirit that had no cask to go into, damn... what to do?
Oskar came into the warehouse to see how the transfer was coming along, and we all started to discuss and brainstorm about different possibilities and solutions. Luckily, after a while Christian remembered that they actually had a 32 litre american oak cask filled with oloroso sherry laying around somewhere in the warehouse, phew! He located the cask, and Oskar emptied the sherry that was in it, after which I filled it with the remaining litres of spirit that was left in the bourbon cask.
So, all in all this is what the first step in our cask collaboration resulted in:
Cask no.1531, a 130 litre virgin chestnut (“quarter”) cask
Cask no.1530, a 32 litre 1st-fill oloroso chestnut cask
Cask no.1532, a 32 litre 1st-fill oloroso american oak cask (filled with roughly 18L of spirit)
When we had moved cask no.111 and placed it in the part of the warehouse where empty casks wait to be filled, Christian placed all of my (big) casks back into the shelves: cask no.112-116, cask no.901 (the ex. Islay cask that I filled during my second visit), and cask no.1531. All of them are now located in the shelf closest to the door between the warehouse and the distillery, and on shelf nr.5 and 6 (the top shelves).
While Christian took care of the big casks I moved the two small ones to a place in the warehouse where small casks sleep.
To sum up, having taken this first big step in our cask collaboration feels really exciting! There are lots of possibilities regarding bottling of the three casks in this first step as well as regarding casks no.112-116; will cask no.1531 be bottled and released on it’s own, or should one or both of the small casks be part of that release? Or, should cask no.1531 be mixed with a bourbon cask or two and bottled as one release? Should one or both of the small casks be a bottling of its own? Or, should the small casks be used as spice components for one or more of the bourbon casks? Also, what will the flavour profiles of cask no.1530-1532 be like when they are 3yo? I have some ideas, but what do you think?!
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