For the love of sherry…

Ian Robinson @poshscotch

Sherry remains deeply unfashionable amongst British (and presumably many other nations’) drinkers. I had some friends round for dinner recently, and offered some sherry as a digestif. They looked at me like I had just suffered a stroke. I then made the mistake of telling them this was a 30-year-old Palo Cortado from one of the finest Bodegas. They definitely thought I had just had a stroke by this point!

These friends weren’t particularly whisky drinkers, but it’s a viewpoint that I see time and time again. Whether it’s the more casual drinker, the whisky enthusiast, or the speculator, darker is “better” for so many people right now when it comes to their whisky. Yet I can almost guarantee that 90% of these people say they don’t or won’t drink sherry. A similar number don’t care about how that colour was imparted. Even fewer start to think about the provenance of the cask. Drinkers of 2021 seemingly look more for colour, rather than flavour, and there seems to be a shrug of the shoulders even from the distilleries themselves when questioned about how their casks came to be in their possession. The standard response is generally somewhere between mumbling around “our finest oak” (really bad) to “sourced from the finest Bodegas in Jerez” (not much better). This romanticising may have worked a decade or more ago, but when whisky producers themselves are pushing terroir, sustainability and production details, this lack of transparency is no longer sufficient, especially if one is to believe the old tour guide adage of “80% of the flavour comes from the cask”. Whether that statistic is true or not, why tell me about how much longer your fermentation times are, why the shape of the stills affects the flavour, or the exact PPM when you won’t tell me what you’ve then stored the whisky in or why?

Most whisky enthusiasts are aware that the practice of using “transport casks” stopped back in the 80s, when Spanish legislation changed, meaning that the bottling of the sherry had to be done on the Iberian peninsular rather than the intended sales destination. Afficionados will be further aware that as a result of this (and the decreasing popularity of sherry in Europe, which in Britain is still really seen as your nan’s drink) that the overall supply of casks (pun intended) dried up. As a result, you now increasingly see the term “sherry seasoned”, whilst some distilleries, like The Macallan, took matters into their own hands and have even opened their own Bodega to craft their casks to their own specification.

 

I have three problems with the sentiments above. The first is actually with the Twitterati, who sit and moan about these seasoned casks. Given the circumstances I’ve described above, we don’t have very much choice in the whisky world. Remaining transport casks will be nearly 40 years old (or more!) by this point and inevitably the majority will have been retired, whilst those that remain have been used to within an inch of their lives. “So why not use solera casks?” reply the keyboard warriors. Well, these casks were never really historically used for whisky anyway. With the way the solera system works, by the time a cask was ready to retire, it was knackered wood. Putting whisky in it would be a risk – it could be leaky or leave the spirit green. Whilst that’s generalisation, the few quality casks that are taken out to be resold to distilleries are ferociously expensive as a result. There’s simply neither sufficient quality sherry production nor enough casks to go round as whisky production (and the desire for darker whisky) has increased exponentially, whilst sherry remains in the doldrums. These people want quality casks but there seems to be a lack of understanding about how to go about this.

I can blame the drinkers, but, secondly, it’s the lack of transparency shown by distilleries. I appreciate there are a myriad of legal and business decisions involved in cask procurement, even apart from the fact that casks are often traded across distilleries, whilst sourcing approaches also vary, with some distilleries buying from multiple bodegas or even cask brokers. With wine casks, for example, the contracts normally state that the vineyard (and sometimes even the varietal) cannot be named. However, distilleries have often found workarounds in this area, such as Bruichladdich, who tend to use abbreviations, for example. So, when they released their Port Charlotte MRC, and announced it was from a famous Premier Cru winery, it’s not too hard to guess where the casks were sourced from…

But, when Macallan have their own bodega, why hide behind the “sherry seasoned” wording? Surely you know everything, nor would there be a legal nor commercial impediment to displaying the information. It strikes me as a choice rather than anything else. Many distilleries don’t even hint at the sherry types involved, so the drinkers presume Oloroso. But how long was the sherry in the wood? A year? 3 years? Longer? What was the quality of the liquid? Will it actually be bottled for drinking, or was it vinegar, or even just dumping quality? Was the cask brought back to Scotland whole (i.e. wet, with a bit of liquid left inside), or was it broken down into staves and re-coopered? Was it re-charred before use? I appreciate that answering all these questions would likely take up the whole box and not leave space for any marketing blurb, but it wouldn’t be too hard to land up at a compromise solution where the whisky fan gets more information than current. 

The SWA could mandate that the type(s) of sherry (or a simple cask breakdown for vattings or finishes like Balvenie Doublewood) used are documented somewhere on the box or label. This wouldn’t take up a lot of space, with even the aforementioned dram changing its current labelling to something like “A rich and complex dram achieved by a decade in traditional whisky casks, followed by a secondary maturation of two years in a combination of fresh and refill oloroso sherry casks”. Personally, I’d like to see even more information, where feasible and possible. Glendronach Revival and Parliament, for example, is matured in both Oloroso and PX casks. It would be great to know that the 2021 batch was, say, 15 oloroso refill hogsheads, 5 fresh oloroso butts, and 8 fresh PX butts. The geekiest of us like to compare batches, and this kind of information would be extremely helpful in helping determine batch variation. I think that the SWA actively work against innovation here with the current rules. The Balvenie Tun series, for example, is a NAS whisky, and some people won’t buy it because of the price and that fact. But look at the back and it’s one of the most generous whiskies you can buy in terms of the information offered up by the distillery.

Thirdly, it’s the continued disdain for sherry amongst the people that continue to demand ever more sherried whisky for their collections. This was made very clear to me in a recent post where I shot the latest Bimber x Selfridges collaboration. This was a whisky finished in a Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado cask which had been filled in 2010, and sold as a package so that people could try both the whisky and the sherry. Numerous comments asked why I had bothered to buy the sherry, and basically decried it as a waste of time. Well, firstly, without that sherry, the whisky wouldn’t exist. Secondly, with the current climate crisis, the energy and effort that went into crafting that sherry should not be wasted. Some people seem to think that sherry is almost a surplus product of the whisky-making process and there is no harm in discarding it. But at the end of the day, we are contributing to emissions by felling oak trees for their wood, farming the grapes intensively, and in the production process. Those casks then need to be shipped all the way to Scotland, and it’s irresponsible to neither consider the craft nor the impact. 

Personally, I think Bimber should be applauded for their collaborative approach, and I would love to see further releases both in that series, and similar attempts from other whisky producers. Bunnahabhain (and the wider Distell family) are also worth mentioning, because they highlight many different kinds of sherry casks in their annual special releases and Warehouse 9 bottlings. A small subset of these releases even highlight specific sherries, with a PX Noe and a Canasta Butt maturation helping identify the exact cask type and bodega used. A recent WH9 set even highlighted the influence of Oloroso over time on whisky, whilst Facebook tastings through the Bunnahabhain Appreciation Society have included sherries as part of the set. So, it’s great to see these companies really highlighting sherry, and the casks they use, even if they are an unfortunately small percentage of the overall market. 

I strongly believe that Sherry is nearly as versatile a wine as whisky is a spirit, and for those of us that love a sherry bomb, it would be remiss of us to neither drink more sherry (of course in a responsible way) nor to demand more transparency about the casks our whisky are matured in. Sherry is a delicious tipple in its own right, and the best way to go about ensuring that casks are available for whisky is to ensure that the sherry industry itself is well supported. So, please join me in raising a glass to the sherry producers of Jerez, and to all they do to help create the spirit we all love.

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy these ones on Arbikie and Catoctin Creek.

You can read our free whisky magazine here