Richard Mayston  •  Expert Senior  Senior Expert

About RichardMayston:

SMWS and Cadenhead Club member. Run a whisky group at work. 

(keep scrolling down, there is a LOT of information here)

My rules of thumb are :

1. If you can't tell the wood/age don't buy.  This is the safest one to follow in the absence of any other information (such as reviews and scores from others you trust)

2. 1st fill 11yrs+. Age costs, the best quality young stuff will state 'first fill'. Seek it out. But eventually you will become tired of the dominant vanilla.

3. 2nd fill 15yrs+ There be magnificent stuff here, more variety and complexity than the first fills, but age pushes cost up.

4. Avoid finishes. Strong indicator the first cask was too tired to do its job, and now a spoonful of sugar is required to help the medicine go down. 

5. Alcohol carries flavour, choose higher. But don't get hung up on it, there are lots of fine 43%, its just a 60% will allow you more choice to dilute to your preference, and the water will unlock the smell and flavour.

6. Independent Bottlers are preferred over Official Bottlings. The big conglomerates are making 95% of their money from blends, single malts are a sideshow for them, they don't have to try, and they premiumise the single malt price. Independants have to try harder, so they make better products.

7. Single cask bottlings are preferred, because you generally know more about the wood. Wood is 70%+ of the flavour, it is hugely important, pay attention to it.

8. Tasting panel selected bottlings eg SMWS are preferred. There are plenty of problems that can befall a single cask. The SMWS onsell about 50% of the casks that do not make the grade, so you are assured of a better product.

9. Add water until you can hold it in your mouth for 1sec for each year of age without discomfort. It is not a he man competition on who can drink the strongest whisky, it is childish to never add water. Water does unlock smell and taste.

10. Use a glencairn glass or an xl5 nosing glass. The glass does improve the nosing experience.


The cask performs subtractive maturation, removing unpleasant smells and tastes from the new make spirit. Toasting and charring perform carbon filtering, slow oxidation occurs with varying porosity, wood absorbs compounds in its pores. It removes soapy green flavours from the spirit. Subtractive maturation takes about 8yrs to complete in a fresh 1st fill cask. It takes a lot longer in a more tired 2nd fill cask.

The cask also performs additive and interactive maturation, adding complex wood sugars and aromatic compounds. Toasting caramelizes hemicellulose into aromatic componds. Furfural=almonds, maltol=toast, cyclotene=caramel. Lignin breaks into aldehydes and phenyl ketones=vanilla, guaicol=smoky, eugenol=clove. Wood extractives lactones=coconut, polyphenels=tanins, terpenes and lipids.  Additive and interactive maturation take even longer to reach its peak. Hence the 11+ 1st fill, 15+ 2nd fill principles. A 2nd fill at 12yrs has not completed subtractive and additive maturation, and will have residual solvent metallic, unpleasant notes.
There is a peak, too long in a cask and the whisky risks becoming over oaked, bitter, mouth puckering. Each cask will have a peak. A 14yo first fill is not necessarily better than a 11yo. European oak is stronger, requiring only 6-8ys for 1st fill peak. You need some degree of critical detachment the blind worship of seniority in whisky.

Each type of oak is very different. Quercus Alba american white oak is very vanilla. Quercus Robur and Quercus Petrea europen, usually spanish oak is more spicey and tannic. French limousin oak, medium grained porous, tannic. Japanese mizunara oak, very porous, usually used only for finishing, very vanilla and blossom.

Your nose and tastebuds can detect substances at 0.2 parts per billion, equivalent to 1 second in a century. If a whisky has bad stuff in it, you can tell. This is true for nearly all whisky, much you have to drink with a grimace.

If you put bad spirit into a good cask, you can get a decent result. But putting the best of spirits in a bad cask will always end up with shit. 

There has never been more pressure or demand on the supply of oak casks. From 2002-2015 single malt sales grew by an amazing 182 percent. World whisky, Japan, India, Australia, Korea, and many more countries compete for access to casks.

The production costs of casks account for a considerable part of the overall costs of whisky production. Increased demand for casks in the whisky industry has also contributed to the rise of cask prices. That's why it makes sense to reuse casks several times. Casks can be used three to four times for single malts, then the wood has lost most of its flavours. Grain whisky reuses casks up to 7 times.

Bourbon is stored for 2-4yrs.

First use of the cask for whisky is typically 12yrs.

Second use of 12yrs, the influence of the barrel is typically around 25-30% of the first fill.

Third use of 12yrs, the influence would be around 10% , fouth 5%.

European oak sherry casks are stronger, second fill influences 50% of the first fill. 

The terrible truth of Vatting (Official Bottlings): A typical still run of 300 barrels will have only a small proportion of first fill barrels (if any). A 1st fill can typically achieve a very good rating (75), but for a vatting of largely 2nd and 3rd fill tired casks, reductive and additive maturation have not had time to complete at 12yrs, and your sensitive noses will detective it. Most 12yos are really unacceptable, and even many 18yo Official Bottlings barley scrape a pass mark.

There are 20 million barrels currently aging whisky in Scotland. Some are over 100yrs old. 

In 1990 the Scotch Whiskey Association acknowledged there were insufficient fresh casks to satisfy demand. Their solution was the introduction of double maturation, finishes. Where the first cask has been too tired to produce a good result, mask it by sweeting it up with a brief period in a first fill cask, or a finish flavouring. Finishes include fortified wine, often sherry, port, madeira, wines such as red burgundy or chardonnay sauternes, rum, virgin oak, double cask, double wood, triple wood.

All signs of trouble. Lipstick on the pig. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

No two casks will be the same, each will be unique. Not all single casks are automatically good. SMWS reject 50% of the casks tasted. 



My scoring system:

I don't really understand why almost everyone else just uses the 80-90 range, where anything below 80 is a fail. So you might need to translate my scores. 

0-30+ Appalling/Faulty

40+ Poor, marginally deficient I'll drink it but don’t like something about it

50+ Average, meets in full but at a minimal level Probably wouldn’t buy again, why bother

60+ Pretty good, would like to drink infrequently

70+ Really good, I like it, and want to drink more frequently

80+ Great, want to keep on hand permanently

90+ Wow, superb. This is awesome, wish I could afford it most likely.

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Latest news

210.000 bottles milestone release

A new release for the 210.000 bottles milestone. We just passed the 210.000 registered bottles, which calls for a new whisky. We selected an M&H pomegranate wine cask, which matured at the dead sea (the lowest point on earth). It is a huge flavor bomb. However, with only 255 bottles available, you should not wait too long.



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