Opinion: Sherry casks are misunderstood – and we need to change that

Opinion: Sherry casks are misunderstood – and we need to change that

The future of our favourite sherry cask-matured whiskies depends on it.
That sherry cask maturation is a point of difference and a ‘value enhancer’ is undeniable, and proudly loving ‘sherry bombs’ comes with similar status in the whisky community as being a peat head. The rich flavours – so often described as ‘Christmas cake’ and the like – of these drams have huge appeal, and, over time, have become associated (rightly or wrongly) with the better whiskies in many distilleries’ stables. Brands like The Macallan and The Dalmore’s use of sherry casks helped to build this maturation style’s premium status, and the increasing scarcity of old-school sherry cask-matured whiskies, like the legendary Black Bowmore expressions, made these indulgent drams even more desirable.

The recently released Black Bowmore 1964 DB5 Edition.

A decade ago, accessibly priced expressions like the Flora & Fauna range’s now mythical Mortlach 16 Years Old and the Aberlour’s ever popular A’bunadh series, hooked me, like so many others, on the heavily sherried style of single malt. Even the storm-in-a-teacup over sulphur taint somehow helped add to the mystery and allure of sherry casks. Ultimately, this bad press got people talking, tasting and asking questions, which is a good thing. Though it also led to many misconceptions about sherry casks being assimilated into the whisky gospel as the blind led the blind. In particular, the idea that the use of sulphur candles was and is common practice for casks destined for the Scotch whisky industry. (Spoiler: it isn’t. While sulphur candles are still occasionally used before refilling solera casks for sherry production, Jerez cask suppliers and whisky makers learned decades ago that a small amount of ‘shipping sherry’ left in the cask not only keeps the staves moist but, by virtue of oloroso’s 17-22% ABV, also keeps acetic acid bacteria at bay. Efficient logistics and quick filling on delivery also prevent infection from being an issue, especially for the rarer shipments of casks seasoned with lower ABV sherries, like fino or Manzanilla.)

Sulphur candles are occasionally used by sherry makers when reintroducing a previously used cask into a solera system — but these casks rarely find their way into the hands of whisky makers.

At the time, looking to answer a few questions myself, I was surprised to find that, despite all the buzz around sherried whiskies, I could discover very little information about the sherry casks used by the whisky industry. To its credit, The Macallan communicated transparently about its use of sherry-seasoned, new oak casks prepared by the likes of Tevasa (a Spanish company that handles sherry cask production from tree selection to sawmill, coopering to seasoning), but the information shared wasn’t comprehensive and lacked context. What’s more, the legendary Speysider was the exception – almost all other whisky makers said very little, if anything, about the provenance of their sherry casks.

The information I did find was frustratingly superficial and quite often contradictory. Attending brand-led tastings didn’t help, either. Older whisky makers cryptically mentioned ‘the old shipping butts’ without going into detail – I later learned that these were the staple (though not the only) sherry casks used by whisky makers from the early 19th century onwards. Younger ambassadors would shift from saying how wonderful and expensive their sherry casks are – £1500 vs just £150 for an ex boubon barrel, don’t you know? – to suddenly clamming up when asked for more detailed information about where they came from and how they were made. Embarrassingly, many (even senior) representatives would repeat the old idiom that ‘we need to drink more sherry so we can keep getting casks’, which even then I knew was nonsense. It was vexing.

Narciso Fernández Iturrospe, owner of Tevasa, explains the sherry cask seasoning process at one of his seasoning bodegas in Jerez de la Frontera.

Not much has changed since. It’s a rare thing to see or hear the words ‘sherry cask matured’ accompanied by any kind of explanation. What’s more, terms like ‘Spanish cask’, ‘Spanish oak’, ‘European oak’ and ‘sherry cask’ are often, to my dismay, used interchangeably. Even more confusingly, terms like ‘bodega cask’ and ‘solera’ crop up on labels with increasing frequency, and in other cases the styles of wine associated with (but not exclusively made in) Jerez, like oloroso and Pedro Ximénez, are used without the word ‘sherry’ at all. There are many good and bad reasons for all of these things, but the lack of explanation has led a growing number of whisky drinkers to feel increasingly frustrated.

Though the Consejo Regulador, the sherry industry’s equivalent of the Scotch Whisky Association, took action in 2015 to regulate the production and supply of high-quality, bona fide seasoned sherry casks to distillers, this only tightened things up at the Jerez end of the supply chain. Of course, it had almost no impact at all on Spanish cooperages and seasoning bodegas located outside of the sherry region, like those in Montilla-Moriles, that produce very similar, high-quality casks seasoned with wines very similar to sherry. The only real change was to make it clear that these casks are not sherry casks – which the ones I’ve spoken to never claimed in the first place. In Scotland, where most seasoned sherry casks are used, not much has changed at all, though a few distillers have wholly embraced the verification scheme and now only buy seasoned casks that carry the Consejo’s tracking QR code.

New oak casks seasoning with sherry for Ian Macleod Distillers at a bodega in Jerez de la Frontera.

Around the same time that the new sherry cask rules came into force, the way many whisky commentators spoke about sherry casks began to change – mostly for the worse. Unfortunately, the uncertainty that’s sprung from unclear language on whisky labels, the never-ending storm-in-a-teacup that is the sulphur taint scandal, scepticism about exactly what ‘seasoned’ casks are, and questions about the quality of the wine used to season them has provided the spark and tinder that’s in danger of sending the sherry cask’s reputation up in smoke. Rumours that not all purported ‘sherry casks’ even came from the Jerez region, confusion around where PX grapes are grown, legitimate discrepancies between the types of wine shipped in butts to the UK in the past (it was mostly medium-sweet) and the dry oloroso that’s mostly used today, and half-understood truths around ‘bodegas’ in Scotland’s central belt have made matters worse. Meanwhile, the term ‘sherry rinsed’ has become the cynical whisky drinker’s phrase of the week – often accompanied by a knowing look. Unfortunately, some well-meaning but ill-informed blog posts threw fuel on the fire to boot.

Though cynicism about sherry casks seems to be becoming trendy, I take an optimistic view. I genuinely don’t believe the whisky industry has tried to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Instead, my impression is this: until we started asking questions of the distillers, nobody had given much thought to the topic. Only a handful of people understood the supply chain, a handful more knew the history, even fewer had a grasp of both, and only one or two had all that knowledge and experience plus fluency in Spanish. Having been around for a couple of centuries, sherry casks had become part of the furniture. I know for a fact that, until pretty recently, most Jerez cooperages hadn’t been asked about things such as oak species, stave thickness, toasting temperatures, or where the seasoning wine came from – and certainly not what it tasted like. Distillers just ordered up sherry casks like they always had and the industry in Jerez happily obliged.

Partially built, new oak casks at the Tevasa cooperage in Jerez de la Frontera.

After all, sherry cask seasoning for the whisky industry dates back to at least the 1930s and probably the mid-19th century – though its modernisation came in the 1970s, during the end times of sherry being shipped in cask, and it has expanded greatly in the past two decades. Often, distillers didn’t (and still don’t) even deal with the suppliers directly and instead put their orders to brokers, who’d fulfil orders however they could. It’s easy to see how falsehoods like ‘sherry casks are all made from Spanish or European oak’ or ‘all our sherry casks were used to make sherry’ could take root. That lack of in-house knowledge in Scotland and, probably, some grains of truth seeded by people with an axe to grind, also allowed more insidious lies like ‘seasoning sherry isn’t really sherry’ (the 2015 regulations put that one to bed) to flourish in absence of any firm words to the contrary.

More needs to be done to educate both the trade and consumers about sherry casks...

Thankfully, the Consejo’s own website (sherry.wine) is now a fantastic resource and has an entire section dedicated to seasoned sherry casks – it should be mandatory reading for all trade and enthusiasts. In-depth articles by Ruben Luyten (on his excellent sherrynotes.com and whiskynotes.be blogs) and Billy Abbott (on The Whisky Exchange’s blog) have been vital in helping to demystify the sherry cask and refute some of the most common misconceptions. Tamdhu has also made a noble effort to educate its followers and has been a key supporter of my research, which has yielded an evolving essay on the topic, which is now online in its most up-to-date form. And yet, the average enthusiast is still just as confused about sherry casks as they were 10 years ago.

More needs to be done to educate both the trade and consumers about sherry casks before they go from being prize bulls to black sheep, along with caramel colouring and chill filtration. The whisky industry knows this and so does the Consejo Regulador, which has recently initiated talks with the SWA about what the future of sherry cask-matured whisky might look like. What that will mean for our favourite drams, however, remains to be seen.

An abridged version of this column appeared in Whisky Magazine issue #188.

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