Now why would whisky drinkers need to know anything about Sherry?
Probably because Sherry and Whisky have been historically linked for hundreds of years.
The fortified wine from southern Spain has a huge bearing on the styles and flavours of Whisky that we enjoy today, The Sherry industry relies on the whisky industry and the reverse is true. Although the relationship has changed over the years slightly a codependancy still exists.
I recently attended a fascinating Dalmore tasting with the dynamic Daryl Haldane of Whyte & MacKay (also it transpires a secret sherry geek), at which we tried varying styles of Sherry, each of which had a direct influence on one or more of the Dalmore expressions that we had sampled.
Never being much of a Sherry drinker this really sparked my interest. Such deep flavours, ranging from the luxurious, fruity and thick to crisp and clean. It really got me thinking about Sherry, its intriguing flavours and the intermingled history with whisky.
I also discovered that you can buy a 30 year old sherry for less then £25 which, as a whisky drinker, is a revelation….
So what exactly is sherry? We should probably start with a definition.
What is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine that originates in the south of Spain, specifically from an area referred to as the “Sherry Triangle” It is regarded as one of the worlds oldest wines with written references going back to almost 1100BC.
The Sherry triangle runs between the Spanish towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
What grape varieties are used in the production of Sherry?
The most common grapes used to make sherry are Palomino grapes. Other grape varieties such as Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are used for sweetening or blending sherries. More on this later.
How is Sherry made?
After the wine has been fermented and reaches an abv in the low teens it is then casked and left to begin a secondary fermentation. During this time a thick yeasty layer appears on the surface of the wine. This is referred to as the Flor. To simplify the process somewhat, the Flor is essentially what dictates the style that the sherry will be. The casks with a fully developed Flor will become Fino Sherry. The Flor restricts oxygen to the liquid and as a consequence the yeast will eat the sugars contained within, leaving the wine with a dry and light flavour profile.
The Oloroso style of Sherry is much more commonly known to whisky drinkers. The maturation of Oloroso is engineered by fortifying the wine to a slightly higher abv, thus eliminating the flor, to allow the wine to mature with exposure to oxygen which allows for a sweeter, darker profile as the sugars aren’t consumed buy the Flor during its time in the cask.
Pedro Ximinez, commonly abbreviated to PX, is another name familiar to whisky drinkers and is a slight variant, in which the grapes used are sun dried to attain maximal sugar content to allow for a very sweet wine. This is bottled on its own or may be blended with other wines, to create a sherry that is sweeter in profile.
How is Sherry matured?
Sherry is matured in what is referred to as a Solera style. This system starts with a series of sherry butts containing sherries of various ages. A small amount is taken from each butt every year with the butt being replenished with the same amount of similar but much younger wine. The younger wines then take the character of the older wines over time. The solera butts are never fully emptied.
How did Sherry casks come to be used in the Whisky Industry?
Until around 1981 Sherry, rather than being bottled then transported, was historically shipped in cask and bottled in the destination country. The months that the liquid spent in the cask prior to bottling would be long enough to imbue sherry flavour compounds within the wood of these transport casks. Once at its destination the cask would be disgorged (emptied) and the empty casks would be reused. Typically these cask would make their way into the whisky supply chain and be used for maturing whisky. These casks are often referred to as transport casks.
In 1981 the Regualtory body for Sherry in Spain, The Consejo Regulador, decreed that to be called Sherry it must be bottled within the previously defined Sherry Triangle and therefore pretty much outlawed the use of these transport casks. This change in policy (designed to protect the Sherry industry) caused a huge drop in the numbers of casks available to the Scotch Whisky industry.
To make up for this loss in availability for a while in the 1980’s some casks were treated with a substance called paxarette which was essentially a dense wine and syrup mix that was placed into casks which were then pressurised to force the concentrated sherry syrup into the wooden staves of the cask. This practice was deemed illegal by the SWA in 1989 as it considered the paxarette as an additive. There are probably some whiskies still in circulation that have been in paxarette casks. These Signatory bottlings of Port Ellen and Blair Athol from around that era are labeled as being from a “Wine Treated Butt” and are from 1983 and 1988 respectively, before paxarette was deemed illegal by the SWA.
In terms of flavour then it was these transport casks that have historically made up most of the casks used by the whisky industry. These casks had both a wood influence on the spirit as well as a sherry influence. Contrast this with an ex-solera cask which has much to impart in terms of sherry flavours, as they are so ingrained into the wood after in some cases 200 years of continual use, however they have very little wood influence left. Solera casks, due to the nature of their use, are used for a long time and are often only replaced when they have either hardly any flavour left to impart or are in an irreparable condition.
A good Sherry cask can cost up to ten times as much to purchase as an ex bourbon barrel.
Where do most sherry casks come from nowadays?
The lack of transport casks and the continued demand from the whisky industry has created a whole new sub – industry within the Sherry sector. The overwhelming majority of sherry casks used in the Whisky industry today are essentially sherry seasoned casks made specifically for maturing whisky. Whisky companies will deal with their cooperages of choice who will create casks to their specifications and then fill them with Sherry for anywhere between 6 months to 2 years before being sent onwards to be used to mature Whisky. This left over sherry is used again to season other casks and thereafter will be most likely be turned into sherry vinegar.
What variations of Sherry are there?
There are several distinct styles of Sherry, but the most commonly found types you may encounter as a whisky drinker can be listed and described as follows.
Fino: a dry, pale white sherry wine. Matured fully under a Flor.
This 12 year old Tobermory expression was finished in a Fino cask.
Manzanilla: Basically the same as a Fino but produced and matured near to the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, closer to the sea, which gives it a different flavour profile.
This Bowmore 18, part of the Vinters Trilogy, spent 5 years in a Manzanilla cask.
Amontillado: A two part maturation process. Firstly under a Flor, like Fino, but then without a Flor to allow for some maturation with exposure to oxygen to leave some sweetness.
The stunning Talisker 40 year old was finished in an Amontillado cask, which had previously held a 40 year old wine.
Palo Cortado: Initially intended to be a Fino or Amontillado but loses its Flor during maturation and begins ageing like an Oloroso.
This type of cask use is quite rare in whisky but this 1997 Bunnahabhain spent the last two years of its maturation in Paolo Cortado casks.
Oloroso: Aged with an absence of Flor to allow for a thicker, heavier and sweeter wine.
This Hazelburn 13 year old was fully matured in Oloroso casks.
Pedro Ximenez: Made using the Pedro Ximenez grape, which is sun-dried to increase the sweetness. A very sweet style of Sherry typically contains up to 400g of sugar per litre.
The Lagavulin Distillers Edition is double matured, spending additional maturation time in PX Sherry casks.
So there we have it. A whisky drinkers guide to sherry. Definitely not the most authoritative guide (nor is it designed to be) but a simplified starting point for those who want to know a little more.
Now it is time to start planning that Bodega trip, who fancies joining me?
Photos Courtesy of The Consejo Regulador.
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