Drink: Spirit of adventure

In the final stages of distilling, it is common practice to put whisky in casks rich in other flavours. Now, a whole new set of barrels are being rolled out
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My friend Ms Timidity Thinlady will drink only white wine. (She wrongly believes it to be less alcoholic than red, and somehow slimming.) Her requests for Chardonnay have the reassuring familiarity of a mantra. What, I wonder, will she make of a "Chardonnay-mellowed" single-malt whisky?

If I were to attempt such a confection, I might use a sunny, ripe, rich, Chardonnay from Australia or California to soften the muscle of the malt - though not one of those that seems to have been dosed with oak chips. Let us not be choosy. A lighter, more acidic, style of Chardonnay, from the Loire, has been selected to mellow the whisky of the Glen Moray distillery. Glen Moray is near the Highland town of Elgin, in the whisky heartland near the river Spey.

Is its Chardonnay-mellowed whisky an attempt to turn Ms Thinlady on to single malts? Glen Moray spokeswoman Cathy Law denies such sexism. "We would not set out to target women, but the Chardonnay-mellowed whisky has proven popular with female drinkers at introductory tastings." At one such tasting, in a gallery of modern art, Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay served grilled red mullet on a bed of caviare with beignets of langoustine. No wonder palates were tickled.

How does the producer achieve a confluence of the Loire and the Spey? It is a question of the wood used in maturation. Scottish malt whisky is a delicate drink (whatever Ms Thinlady may think) and has difficulty standing up to the powerfully vanilla-like flavours in new oak. For this reason, second-hand casks are usually employed. Often, they are barrels that have already given up their most robust flavours to Kentucky bourbon during its maturation of four years or more. The vanilla works well with the sweeter, corn-based, flavours of bourbon. The Scots and Irish introduced whisky-distilling to Kentucky; now the Americans send us their empty barrels.

Glen Moray's original, 12-year-old, whisky, aged in bourbon casks, has an aroma of new-mown hay; a light but firm body; a ripe, fat, flavour of Scottish barley (from which, of course, it is made); and an oatmeal-like, grainy, dryness in the finish.

The new version (pounds 15.99, Oddbins) has six to 10 years in bourbon and six months in Chardonnay barrels, during which it clearly picks up some wine fragrances and flavours from the wood. To my nose, its fresh, fruity, aroma is reminiscent of unpeeled grapes, though perhaps a variety for eating rather than the scenty Chardonnay.

The body of the grapey Moray is softer and more layered; the palate suggests bananas, cream, white chocolate and shortbread; with the grainy character of the whisky re-emerging in the dryish, crisp finish. A rival distiller who tasted the whisky felt that its own character remained to the fore, with the wine influence more subtle.

Wine-writer Margaret Rand, who edits Whisky Magazine, is hesitant about the influence of the Chardonnay. Her argument is that, without the influence of the terroir of Chablis or the Cote d'Or, the grape itself does not contribute a pronounced flavour. Margaret preferred two more versions employing barrels that had contained Chenin Blanc, with its deeper flavours.

A 12-year-old Glen Moray mellowed in Chenin Blanc (not yet available) has, indeed, some honey flavours, along with peaches and mint. In the introductory tasting, Ramsay served it with terrine of foie gras layered with mango, over a rocket salad. A 16-year-old (pounds 24.99, Oddbins) in the same type of barrel has more peppery, resiny, flavours. With this, Ramsay opted for a truffle consomme and venison with raspberry sauce.

White wine is a new element in whisky-making. The wine more traditionally used has been the sherry that once fuelled English gentility. It was imported to Bristol and bottled there, leaving casks that could be bought cheaply by Scottish distillers. Some whisky is still aged entirely in sherry butts and some wholly in bourbon barrels. Often, bottlings are made from a proportion of each, with the sherry providing a nutty weight and the bourbon a restrained vanilla.

There has always been much juggling of casks in Scotland, but the notion of using one type for the main maturation and the other to impart a "finish" has evolved in the last five years. It has now become high fashion in the world of whisky.

The pioneer has been Glen Moray's sister distillery north of Inverness. This distillery, with the coincidentally similar name of Glenmorangie, is noted for the perfumey elegance of its whisky. The principal version is a 10-year-old in bourbon wood, but there have also been "finishes" in fino sherry (toasty and rhubarby), port (fruity, toffeeish); Madeira (cakey and buttery); and claret (raisiny, spicy, cedary), among others.

In the Western Highlands, the Oban distillery has an edition of its salty malt finished in Manzanilla (flowery). Skye has its peppery Talisker given a touch of toast and chocolate by an Amoroso sherry; and the island of Islay's peaty, smoky, Lagavulin becomes sappier in Pedro Ximinez.

In the Western Lowlands meanwhile, the Auchentoshan distillery has a version matured in three woods: ten years in bourbon, a year in Oloroso and six months in Pedro Ximinez. The original whisky, light and lemon- grassy, struggles to make its presence felt among the interplay of flavours, but there is no lack of interest: hints of apricots, marshmallows, dates and cashews.

Even the Irish are at it, with a version of Bushmills Malt that also has three woods, in a different arrangement. Equal proportions of bourbon cask and sherry-wood whisky, both aged for 16 years, are married in port pipes for six to 12 months. The finished product has complex flavours; and a delicate finish.

It is Miss Thinlady's birthday soon. What do you think? Glen Moray Chardonnay, that fruity Auchentoshan or a loving Amoroso from Talisker?.