Going solo: single cask whiskies


Photo credit: Danny McManus

The Scotch whisky industry has been built on a bedrock of blends. Yet single cask bottlings are becoming more prevalent. Barbara Drew MW explains what single casks are, and why they’re so special.  

Whisky, it’s said, is about the art of the blend. Around 90% of all Scotch whisky is blended whisky and there is great skill required to produce it. Blended whiskies are made up of spirits from different distilleries, created in stills of all shapes and sizes. These spirits are then aged for differing lengths of time in a multiplicity of casks. The resulting blend of up to 100 different whiskies leads to a liquid of depth, complexity and breadth. It takes decades for blenders to master their art and choosing, or training, a new blender is a nerve-wracking decision for any distillery. 

But even single malt whiskies – representing just a small proportion of overall Scotch whisky production – are blends. This could be a blend of different ages of whiskies, with spirits that have been sat gently ageing in cask for 20 years adding depth and complexity to spirits which are 15 years old. It could be a blend of different finishes to add complexity. Or simply a blend of multiple barrels to create a complex and layered spirit. The key is to maintain a classic house style, no matter whether a spirit is 40 years old, or 14 years old.  

So what, then, are we to make of single cask whiskies? Where do they sit in the great pantheon of Scotch whisky styles? And where is the skill in opening up a single cask and tipping it into a bottle? 


I put these questions to Scott Adamson, blender and global brand ambassador for Tomatin, a beautiful distillery situated in the Highlands of Scotland, around 20 minutes north of Aviemore.  

This is a distillery that is no stranger to blends, once producing enormous volumes of mellow whisky, that provided the backbone of elegant blends such as Cutty Sark. In the 1980s though, as blended whisky fell somewhat from favour, they shifted their focus to single malts – the same beautiful liquid, but blended only with other casks of Tomatin and bottled under their own name.  

Despite the shift, the decades of expertise at Tomatin remained invaluable. They remain skilled, not just in blending, but in producing a spirit that is delightfully adaptable, taking to different casks and ageing periods with ease.  

At first glance then, a single-cask release seems at odds with this history and skill. But Scott disagrees. Whilst each cask provides an additional ingredient in the final whisky, there are a handful of casks which, when tasted, are absolutely complete. He stopped short of using the word perfect, but it seemed on the tip of his tongue.  

Finding these perfect casks that contain liquid that is in itself complex, rounded, full of character, expressive of the distillery and yet unique is certainly no easy task. Of the around 70,000 casks of whisky currently maturing in the warehouses at Tomatin, fewer than 50 were picked out last year as being special enough to warrant bottling as single casks. The skill required to identify those casks – to taste through, over the course of many weeks, the 70,000 casks and find those 50 standouts – is truly remarkable.  

What’s more remarkable is that each single cask is 100% unique. Whilst each shows the Tomatin character, they are also of their own making. Unique liquid, not to be found in any other bottle. They’re an opportunity to taste the style of the distillery, in perfect completeness. They’re a moment in time, and one that, once tasted, once finished, is gone forever.  

One such cask has been bottled exclusively for Berry Bros. & Rudd. Dating from 1995, it was bottled in June 2023, making the liquid 28 years old exactly. Aged in ex-Bourbon casks, the resulting spirit has a rich aroma of toffee popcorn and apples. The long ageing has brought out tropical notes too, and hints of dried mango. The spirit feels rich and smooth on the palate with the alcohol so seamlessly integrated it is barely noticeable. A whisper of sweetness appears on the finish and a hint of coconut. With water, the spirit opens up more citrus notes, with orange and lemon character.  

Tasting this whisky places me perfectly back in the Highlands. This may not be a blend, but it encapsulates the essence of everything Tomatin work towards. It tastes like the most magical blend of everything Tomatin do. Without any blending required.   

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