The contemporary spirits world seems to be full of pale, interesting whiskies, often young and vibrant. They are presented with a minimal influence of ex-Sherry wood in their vattings, majoring on former Bourbon barrel maturation, which theoretically allows the subtleties of the spirit to shine through.
So are the big, heavily-Sherried beasts of the whisky jungle in danger of being seen as irrelevant and old-fashioned, and why are there comparatively few of them today? In order to understand the present situation, where little more than a handful of well-known single malts are clearly identified with the committed and widespread use of European oak ex-Sherry casks, it is necessary to delve briefly into the past.
It has been known since medieval times that whisky, when stored in casks which had previously contained sweet wine, port or Sherry, became smoother and mellower and gained positively in flavour. Britain was a major importer of Spanish Sherry during the 19th century, and as that Sherry was shipped into the country in casks, the Scotch whisky industry had a ready supply of relatively inexpensive containers available for maturation.
Ex-Bourbon barrels were first used in the Scotch whisky industry during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, but their widespread adoption came about from the 1950s onwards, as the Scotch whisky industry rapidly expanded. By this time, the British love affair with Spanish Sherry had diminished significantly, and ultimately virtually all the Sherry shipped into Britain had either been bottled at source or bulk-imported in stainless steel tanks.
Scarcity inevitably equals expense, so it is not surprising that more and more distillers embraced Bourbon barrels rather than Sherry butts, and as a result, there was a profound, yet rarely commented upon, character shift in many single malts.
Ken Grier is malts director for The Edrington Group, whose flagship is The Macallan, and he considers that: “Many manufacturers made the conscious decision to use ex-Bourbon casks for maturation, purely due to lower costs and their availability. Also, as blended whiskies grew in importance in newer, emerging markets, there was a demand for lighter styles, and that demand made distillers want to fill their single malts into ex-Bourbon casks anyway. When single malts really began to sell in their own right – that was the stock they had.”
Which poses the question, why did some producers, such as Aberlour, Dalmore, Glenfarclas, GlenDronach and The Macallan not follow their fellow distillers and switch to the primary use of ex-Bourbon barrels?
“Great brands at times don’t walk the common path,” declares Grier. “They curate the products in which they already have confidence.”
When asked about the continuing relevance of heavily Sherried single malts, he adds: “We’ve come from being a respected niche brand to the number two single malt by value in the world. We have been growing at between two and three times the rate of the category for the past five years.
However, The Macallan has acknowledged there are consumers who prefer a lighter style of whisky, and as a result introduced its Fine Oak range during 2004. The bottlings in this line-up contain a significantly smaller proportion of Sherry wood-matured whisky than the Sherry Oak expressions, thus proving the versatility of The Macallan spirit.
Apart from The Macallan’s booming sales, evidence that the world has not totally fallen out of love with Sherry wood-matured malts comes with the investment made in ex-Sherry casks by the latest owners of GlenDronach distillery.
Billy Walker, managing director of the BenRiach GlenDronach Distillery Company points out: “Our planned investment in ex-Sherry casks will be a rolling £750,000 per annum. All the casks which we source will be fresh, ‘brand new’ Sherry casks, both Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso.”
Walker says: “There has certainly been a drift away from richly-Sherried whiskies, but this has probably been choreographed more by the distiller than the consumer, with John Grant, chairman of J&G Grant, owners of Glenfarclas, adds: “Any move away from Sherried whiskies is probably due to the initial cost and supply of the wood.”
That cost is a significant one, Ken Grier notes: “We buy around 90 per cent of all the Spanish Sherry oak used by the Scotch whisky industry, and we pay between five and ten times what you pay for a Bourbon cask, depending on the exchange rate.”
John Grant declares: “Cost is not a problem. Like all things you have to pay for quality, but we expect to get 40 years worth of maturation from the butts. The cost per litre is in the region of 12 times that of Bourbon wood.”
Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson is responsible for the Dalmore single malt, which is also notably associated with Sherry wood maturation. Indeed, the percentage of Sherry wood-matured whisky in the core Dalmore 12 Years Old was recently increased from 30 to 50 per cent. “That has added more nuttiness and marmalade notes,” explains Paterson, “the additional expense of using Sherry casks has to be reflected in the price of the whisky to the consumer.”
However, it seems that those whisky drinkers who love a strong Sherry influence are not put off by the necessity of paying a premium for their favourite tipple, and it is not just ‘house’ bottling that are in demand.
Des McCagherty of independent bottlers Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky Co Ltd notes: “In our experience, Sherry bottlings are highly sought after, and certainly sell quicker than the equivalent in a Bourbon cask. It’s partly the rarity factor, but also the colour is very alluring, and you get such intensity of flavours.
“There’s not a lot of Sherry stock that comes to the market. We have bought a large parcel of 1995 Glenlivet and such has been the demand that we have bottled 10 butts in six weeks. A good Sherried whisky is hard to beat, and people are prepared to pay the extra.”
McCagherty says: “Essentially, a good whisky is complemented by a good Sherry cask and in our experience there are no whiskies that don’t work well, if the Sherry cask is a decent one. We’ve done Sherried bottling from distilleries like Rosebank, Cardhu, Tamdhu and Miltonduff, and they’ve all been excellent.”
However, certain styles of spirit are complemented by ex-Sherry casks, and McCagherty adds: “The heavy, oily type of spirit made at our Edradour distillery interacts very well with Sherry wood, and we are filling it primarily into first and second-fill Sherry casks. Signatory has also bottled some very good Sherried Islays.”
Billy Walker concurs with McCagherty, saying: “Most malts can develop nicely with maturation in Sherry casks. However, the more substantial Highland malts provide a natural substrate for rich Sherry wood maturation.”
For Ken Grier: “The Macallan carries it off so well because of the ‘weight’ of the spirit. Its heaviness and oiliness can counter the liveliness of the Sherry wood.
“The spirit profile is partly to do with our use of Minstrel barley, the small size of our stills, and the narrow cut of spirit we take. It can stand up to extended ageing in Sherry casks, whereas some lighter spirits filled into Sherry wood collapse with age, and all you get is a mouthful of mahogany.”
Richard Paterson says: “I see Sherry wood as a way of dressing my whiskies in the right clothes. If Sherry suits your style of spirit then use it – if not, leave it alone. Dalmore loves Sherry wood. The 30 Years Old, for example, works perfectly with an oloroso Matusalem. But I have to pay to get the effect. It’s like an Armani suit.
“Dalmore does well with Sherry because there is a citric, lemongrass note in the new make spirit which interacts beautifully with oloroso Sherry casks to give that lovely marmalade and Christmas pudding character. We take a few fino and amontillado casks, but the bulk is oloroso. That really gives the style we want.”
The same is true for The Macallan, Ken Grier notes: “We have carried out lots of experimentation over the years with different Sherry types, such as fino, but we keep coming back to the fact that oloroso is the best to give us the ‘liquid Christmas cake’ character we are seeking.”
Producers across the board deny that heavily-Sherried whiskies appeal to more mature drinkers, as is sometimes surmised, with Ken Grier declaring: “In terms of consumer age profiles, it’s certainly not just more mature drinkers who go for Sherried malts. It’s everyone from the young, Californian kick-ass designer, male and female, to elder statesmen.”
“We find they appeal to all age groups,” claims John Grant. “In Taiwan the younger generation favour Sherried malts, whilst our more mature customers appreciate us sticking to tradition.”
In Richard Paterson’s experience: “Germany and France love Sherried whiskies. These are drams to sip and savour, and appeal to sophisticated drinkers. If you want luxury in your older whiskies then Sherry will give you extra silkiness and sensuality.
“However, you must never lose sight of the character of your whisky – you must dress it, not drown it.”
Ken Grier adds” “For me, one of the great things about Sherried whiskies is the richness and sensuality.
“It’s the equivalent of cooking with a really well-aged piece of beef. Sherried whiskies are complex, indulgent and authentic, and with consumers becoming more demanding as a result of the recession and focusing on what really matters to them, Sherried whiskies are actually more relevant now than ever before.”