The French are the world’s greatest consumers of whisky, as well as the only producers of cognac, an aged spirit distilled from grapes rather than grain. When mature whisky finds its way into a used cognac cask, it’s often referred to as “cognac-finished.” While the partnership can sometimes result in two distinct flavors duking it out, a few talented master blenders have been successful in striking the perfect balance, resulting in a growing selection of opulent whiskies.
Few blenders are more qualified to explain the intricacies of cognac casks as a finishing vessel than Patrick Léger. He is both cellar master for Camus, a family-owned cognac house, and master blender for Lambay, an Irish whiskey brand co-founded by Camus and the Revelstoke Community Trust of Ireland. “There are different types of barrels in France and different types of oak, but our cognac casks for Camus are always new oak,” explains Léger, noting that toast levels may vary. By law, cognac casks are made only with French oak from the forests of Tronçais and Limousin, considered among the highest quality wood for casks in the world.
The cognac flavors retained by the cask are imparted to the whisky during the finishing process. “These barrels are at least 30 years old, so the Cognac inside was very old—the secret is in the concentration of the aromas of the cognac,” says Léger, who finishes both Lambay’s single malt and blend in ex-Camus casks for a year. “Camus is particularly rich in esters, which increases the complexity and aromatic richness of our finish.”
As Camus cellar master, Léger applies his experience, intimacy, and patience with cognac casks to finishing whiskey. “We want to go slowly to respect the product,” he explains. “We need to take time. If the product is not ready, we need to wait a while.”
Beyond Ireland, cognac casks have left an impression on a few American whiskeys, like Jim Beam 18 year old Distillers’ Masterpiece Cognac Finish, Parker’s Heritage Collection Cognac Barrel Finished 10 year old bourbon, and Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition, a bourbon finished in XO cognac casks, debuting at travel retail stores in May 2019. And from Scotland come Glenmorangie Cognac Matured, Glenfarclas 43 year old Cognac Cask, and Arran Cognac Cask Finish.
With cognac consumption on the rise, more high-quality casks will soon become available to whisky makers. And many of the biggest drinks companies produce both cognac and whisky brands, like LVMH (Hennessy cognac, as well as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg), Beam Suntory (Courvoisier cognac and Jim Beam, Laphroaig, and Yamazaki), Rémy Cointreau (Rémy Martin cognac and Bruichladdich and Westland), and Pernod Ricard (Martell cognac, and whiskies from Irish Distillers and Chivas Brothers in Scotland, among others). These synergies bode well for even more cognac-finished whisky going forward.
Chivas Brothers are raising the profile of cognac cask whisky with two recent releases: Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve and Chivas Regal XV. Director of blending Sandy Hyslop says, “The cognac cask finish brings an unexpected—often fruity—flavor dimension to our whiskies.” Hyslop explains that it adds notes of raisins and licorice to Glenlivet, while tasting more of red apples and sultanas in Chivas Regal.
“You must achieve the perfect balance between all of the components,” says Hyslop. “With cask finishes, the real secret lies in managing the fine balance between the distillery’s unique flavors and the cask influence—and in allowing both to shine.”
7 Whiskies with Cognac’s Finishing Touch
Crown Royal XO—92 points, $45
Experience dark fruits, almond, and leather on this heavyweight cognac-finished Canadian whisky, ideal for some serious after-dinner contemplation.
Lambay Single Malt Irish Whiskey—90 points, $70
After a year of finishing in Camus cognac casks on Lambay Island, this single malt delivers sweetness, tangy citrus, and peppery spices in waves.
Lambay Small Batch Blended Irish Whiskey—88 points, $35
The single malt’s blended sibling is ideal in an Irish whiskey cocktail, or simply for sipping it on its own.
Belle Meade XO Cognac Cask-Finished Bourbon—86 points, $75
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, TN, sources a high-rye bourbon and finishes it in 12 year old XO cognac casks to bring out soft fruit, vanilla, and toasted cedar flavors.
Brenne 10 year old (2016 Release)—85 points, $100
This single malt whisky, distilled in the Cognac region from local barley and matured in a combination of cognac-seasoned casks and virgin French oak barrels, has flavors of ripe fruits, creaminess, and a licorice finish.
Chivas Regal XV—Not yet reviewed, $69
A velvety smooth 15 year old blended scotch, selectively finished in Grand Champagne cognac casks, which impart an extra lush layer of fruit on the blend.
Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve—Not yet reviewed, £48
Named after the great-grandson of Glenlivet’s founder, Captain William Smith Grant, who fought on French soil during the World War I, this single malt delivers flavors of honey, mandarin orange, and juicy raisins.