By Gavin Smith

The Scent of Satan

Gavin is a regular contributor to Whisky Magazine
If ex-Bourbon casks are the Fiats and Fords of the Scotch whisky world, then former sherry casks are surely the BMWs and Mercedes of the industry. A Bourbon cask currently costs around £80 while one that has formerly held sherry will set a distiller back in the region of £700.

The use of Sherry casks to mature single malt Scotch whisky - once the norm, but now the exception - implies a degree of luxury, of indulgence, of 'because you're worth it.' But even BMWs and Mercedes may have their faults, and at least one influential author and commentator considers that the issue of egg-y, drain-like, sulphur notes being imparted from ex-sherry casks is so widespread that it has reached something close to crisis point.

The problem, it seems, is caused by the use of sulphur candles or 'sticks,' or sulphur dioxide to sterilise empty sherry casks in Spain prior to their transportation. This practice began during the early 1990s and is no longer widespread, but some 'contaminated' casks are still in circulation.

So is that section of the Scotch whisky industry which utilises sherry casks in danger of alienating consumers or even in deep denial, or has the whole issue been blown out of proportion?

Richard Paterson, master blender for Whyte & Mackay and custodian of The Dalmore brand has clear views on the matter. "The shipper I deal with - Gonzales Byass - has not used sherry candles for 21 years," he says. "No reputable distiller would release whiskies that smelled of bad eggs, it would be terrible for their reputation. I judge at events like the IWSC and the International Spirits Challenge along with lots of other blenders, people with huge amounts of experience, and we very rarely find a problem with sulphur in the whiskies we judge.

" Glenmorangie's head of distilling & whisky creation Dr Bill Lumsden adds: "There are no doubt some whiskies out there that are over-sulphured, I'm not saying they don't exist, but it's very definitely the exception rather than the rule. The likes of The Macallan, The Dalmore, and Chivas Brothers, to take a few examples, all use sherry wood, yet I don't recall detecting any sulphur notes in their products for many, many years.

" Lumsden points out: "All the wine casks I use are non-sulphur-treated, I specify that, but sometimes you get sulphur-like notes introduced during distillation; it's nothing to do with casks. Whiskies like Benrinnes, Mortlach and Balmenach all have a meaty, sulphur character, and they're great whiskies for blending.

" Ken Grier, director of malts for The Edrington Group, which embraces The Macallan and Highland Park, says: "We nose every cask, which is unusual in the industry. Our whisky maker estimates in a small number of casks it is possible to detect the scent of a freshly struck match. Since we estimate sulphur candles haven't been used for around 15 years, that scent would be a natural aroma resulting from an element of natural fermentation in the cask. We would not necessarily view this as a bad or negative characteristic in the nosing process.

"We feel it is important to distinguish between that 'freshly struck match' scent and a smell of 'rotten eggs' - which is a flaw and would be picked up at the empty cask stage prior to filling; the cask would be deemed unfit for filling and removed from the process.

We've never detected a smell of that kind in any cask that we've opened." Inevitably, there is a view that if you talk to distillers with a vested interest in the subject 'they will say that, won't they?' But the fact remains that a recent straw poll of independent writers, bloggers and others who regularly sample a wide range of whiskies does not reveal significant exposure to sulphur-tainted casks.

Of course, this may be, in part, because up to 40 per cent of people cannot detect sulphur notes, but as someone who definitely can detect sulphur, I have to add my voice to those who don't see the issue as a major one for the industry and its consumers. In my own experience, single malts with an unacceptable sulphur taint have invariably been rogue single cask bottlings, with none of my many favourite sherried single malts being sullied by the scent of Satan!