The Best Sherry Cask Aged Scotch Whisky You've Never Heard Of
The Flavor of Sherry
Sherry is whisky that has been matured in casks that previously contained sherry. These whiskies add the nutty and sweet dried fruit flavors characteristic of sherry to the core Scotch whisky flavors of cooked grain, floral notes and fresh fruit. They also pair exceptionally well with a variety of foods.
The term "sherry matured" denotes whisky that has been fully matured in sherry casks, while the term "sherry cask finished" denotes whisky that has been "finished" in sherry casks for a period of time, usually between six and 24 months.
Sherry is a fortified wine produced in the Jerez region of Spain. The region is loosely centered on the city of Jerez de la Frontera, located in the province of Cadiz in the southwest corner of Spain, once the ancient kingdom of Andalusia.
The wine is matured in wooden barrels with a floating layer of yeast called flor underneath. the yeast metabolizes the alcohol in the wine and produces, as a by-product, the nutty and solvent flavors typical of sherry. The covering of yeast prevents the sherry from coming into contact with air and being oxidized.
There are about a dozen major types of sherry. Stylistically, these types range from straw-colored fino (an extremely dry, light-colored wine that can be distinctly nutty and often salty) to Pedro Ximenez (PX), a dark, syrupy, sweet wine made from dried grapes.
There is also a subset of sherry wines, including those that mature under flowering and those that mature under anaphase. In the latter case, they are exposed to air and are oxidized. The degree of oxidation determines the classification of the resulting sherry.
Sherry that has undergone most of its fermentation is called Amontillado, while those that have undergone most of their fermentation are called Oloroso. This is a deeper, richer style of sherry. This is especially important to whisky lovers because Oloroso casks are most often used to mature whisky.
Most sherries are dry. They usually contain between 0 and 5 grams of sugar per liter. This is equivalent to adding a teaspoon of sugar to an 8-ounce glass of water. Fino and Oloroso sherries both fall into this category. At the other extreme, PX sherry can contain over 200 grams of sugar per liter. Whiskies matured in PX casks may be distinctly sweet, with rich flavors of raisins and plums, as well as dried figs and dates.
UK Is a Major Market for Sherry
Historically, the UK has been the main foreign market for sherry. Barrels of matured sherry were shipped to British ports such as Bristol and Liverpool, where they were unloaded and bottled. Importers had little use for the casks after they had been emptied, so they were sold cheaply to whisky distillers for maturing whisky. This was the beginning of the practice of maturing whisky in sherry casks.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The UK is still a major market for sherry, but consumption has fallen dramatically, as it has elsewhere. In addition, under Spanish law, sherry must now be bottled in Spain, so sherry casks are no longer being exported to bottlers. The decline in sherry consumption, combined with the boom in Scotch sales and the popularity of sherry-matured whisky, has led to a severe shortage of sherry casks.
To alleviate this shortage, many sherry producers will now manufacture "seasoned casks" specifically for the whisky industry. A seasoned cask is a new type of cask in which the sherry has been stored for one to three years. When the cask is ready, the sherry is decanted and the cask is shipped to the whisky distillery.
The new flavored sherry casks are very different from the type of sherry casks used in the past. Historically, the casks used for transport were made of thicker wooden staves. When used to mature whisky, these casks allowed less oxygen to seep in, resulting in a very slow maturation process. They also use cheaper European oak rather than the more expensive American oak barrels used to mature sherry. You can occasionally stumble across some of these older barrels, but their impact on sherry has long since been exhausted.
In addition, the barrels used for maturation are usually very old and have been used previously for maturing other wines. The resulting barrels have neutral wood, i.e. they do not impart much flavor to the sherry, especially the tannins.
New casks tend to bring more tannins, both in sherry and in the whiskies that mature in them later. Very often the tannin content of sherry stored in new casks is too high to be bottled. It is often discarded or used to produce sherry vinegar. Some sherry producers now earn more from producing "sherry casks" for the whisky industry than they do from selling sherry to consumers. Macallan, a sherry producer known far and wide, began commissioning its own sherry casks in the 1950s. Today, there are over 70,000 quietly matured sherry casks in Jerez destined for Macallan.
Distillers like Macallan and Aberlour are well known for their sherry-matured whiskies. So are smaller distillers like Glenfarclas or Glendronach. However, there are dozens of other distillers and specialist bottlers who produce excellent sherry-matured whiskies that are far less well known. That's a shame, because some of their offerings are excellent. Here's a roundup of reasonably priced, lesser-known expressions that are definitely worth a try.
The Difference Between Different Types of Sherry
Many whisky producers have sherry-matured whiskies in their core range. These whiskies are particularly interesting when bottled at cask strength, as the maturation of sherry can often take the edge off an over-aged whisky. aberlour's A'bunadh is the most famous and best-selling expression of cask-matured sherry whisky. Also consider trying Aran Sherry Cask, 55.8% ABV ($99). This is an exceptionally rich, full-bodied whisky with aromas of raisins, ripe figs, black cherries, cinnamon spice and candied ginger on the nose. On the palate, it offers dried fruit, orange peel, tropical spices such as cinnamon and cloves, and dark chocolate.
Specialty bottler Signatory has a line of cask strength sherry matured whiskies ranging in price from around $150 to several thousand dollars. These are hard to find in the U.S., although they are available from British mail-order companies such as The Whisky Exchange. In particular, try the Deanston 2007 12 YO, 64.5% ABV, the Ledaig 12 YO, 59.8% ABV, or the exceptional Caol Ila, 9 YO, 60.1% ABV. all three sell for less than $150.
For a real treat, get the signature bottle of 1981 Glenlivet, 47.6% ABV, 700 ml. Distilled on December 12, 1981 and bottled on April 18, 2018, only 702 bottles of this 36-year-old, sherry cask-matured Glenlivet have been released. At around $700 per bottle, this is an outstanding whisky for the price.
Other sherry-matured whiskies worth trying include Dailuaine 16 YO, 43% ABV ($100). This is another big, rich, sweet whisky, full of dried fruit and nuts and a hint of smoke. Also try Tamudu, 15 YO, 46% ABV ($75). This whisky offers flavors of dried apricots, fresh raspberries, baked apples and orange peel followed by a long, sweet spicy finish of gingerbread. glengoyne, 21 YO, 43% ABV is about $200 per bottle and offers an aged expression full of rich dried fruit and flavors of seasoned oak.
The peaty whisky combines exceptionally well with the maturation of the sherry casks. The result is an excellent combination of smoky, burnt and sweet dried fruit flavors. Think of these as "barbecue sauce whiskies". PX sherry casks do a particularly good job here, adding intense dry fruit sweetness and a pleasing dark color.
Elixir Peat & Sherry Elements, 59.2% ABV, 500 ml, ($75) is a blend of Elixir malts matured in an Oloroso sherry butt. This is a special bottling from Elixir Distillers, a sister company to Whiskey Exchange. This whisky has classic barbecue sauce flavors, from smoked bacon to raisins to candied orange peel and dark chocolate.
Ian Macleod Smokehead Sherry Bomb, 48% ABV, ($80) is a peaty whisky matured in Oloroso sherry casks from a similar specialist bottler. It combines intense smokiness with pronounced sweetness and dried fruit flavors. Also try Benromach Peat Smoke Sherry Cask Matured, 59.9% ABV. it was distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2018. It's made with lots of malt and offers classic peat aromas and flavors with sherry-ripened fruit and nuttiness.
Lagavulin's Distiller's Edition, Laphroaig PX and Bowmore Sherry Cask all offer excellent examples of sherry-influenced peaty whiskies. However, none of these are sherry matured. They are all "matured" in various types of sherry casks for several months. However, all three are superb and widely available in the United States.
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Editor: Rubick L.