SHERRY WRITTEN BY ANDY GARRISON
he Macallan. Dalmore. Glenfarclas. Three Grand Cru producers of Scottish single malt whisky, each with a few hundred years of history and collectively responsible for some of the most expensive (and in this writers humble opinion, delicious) whiskies ever made. What else do they have in common? They all extensively employ sherry casks in the production of their whisky. These casks provide an irreplaceably rich, savory, complex aspect to the spirits they house, and American distillers are starting to unlock their potential.
SHERRY – A TALE OF TWO BUTTS A detailed description of how sherry is made is beyond the scope of this article, but if the following teaser leads you to further research, Talia Baiocchi’s Sherry provides a good introductory overview. Going deeper, Sherry — The Noble Wine by Manuel M. Gonzalez Gordon is a great history of sherry, the Jerez region, and related fields like cooperage. Sherry is a fortified wine, or a wine to which highproof brandy has been added to increase its strength and stability. Sherry is made in a small region of Spain centered around Jerez called the “Sherry Triangle.” Here, wines are typically aged for extended times in soleras, a series of casks which are never completely emptied and can be in use for many decades. Sherry is made in a number of styles ranging from saline,
bone-dry Fino to rich and nutty Oloroso to syrupy sweet Pedro Ximenez (PX). Some, like Oloroso, are aged with a great deal of oxygen exposure (unusual for wine), which promotes the development of deeply savory and nutty flavors. Others, like fino, are aged under a bacterial culture called flor that inhibits oxidation. These wines have a long history and have been an item of robust trade and export since at least the 15th century, according to Gonzales Gordon. That history of trade is how sherry snakes its way into the world of whisky, and it’s really a tale of two different casks: the solera casks used to mature the wine and the transport casks used to get that mature wine to market. Solera casks are typically 600 liters botas gordas (“large butts”) made of American oak, which is preferred by the sherry industry as it’s easier to cooper and leaks less. These casks are static, sitting in the same place while wine flows in and out of them for many decades. Unlike many red wine producers who might retire a barrel after a season or three, these casks are rarely retired, as the goal is a neutral vessel rather than one that will impart oak flavors. These precious, ancient barrels would almost never make it to a distillery, as the bodega would use them until they were beyond repair. Transport casks, on the other hand, are very different. Since it’s relatively high in alcohol (typically 15-19% ABV) and already oxidized, sherry survives transport much better than many other styles of wine, particularly in a
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