SOURCING BUTTS ABROAD Once you know what type of cask you want and how you’ll use it, finding them is the next challenge. While new “transport” style casks are available from several cooperages, Westland and Stranahan’s are both sourcing old solera casks which were used in bodegas for many decades. “They can be elusive, and it’s not something that’s always available,” says Annette Barret of Premium Wine Casks, the U.S. agent for Cognac-based barrel broker New Alternative Oak (NAO). She says timing and communication are critical, advising customers reach out to their source at least a quarter or more before you need the barrels. Demand is high for these solera casks and the supply is uncertain, so it takes time to find them. Barret doesn’t stock sherry casks to prevent them for spoiling or drying out in a warehouse, so they are only imported by request. For many smaller operations, a broker like NAO or RMBC is the easiest solution, but for Westland, who knew from day one that sherry would be an important component of their program, building a direct relationship with a supplier in Spain was critical. Developing an exclusive arrangement with a supplier there has given them reliable access to great barrels, as both partners understand the timing and volume required. Although sherry is quite a bit more durable than typical wine, the empty casks are still susceptible to spoilage and drying out. Standard practice for shipping empty wine casks is to gas them with
sulfur dioxide (SO2) to control bacteria and prevent spoilage. However, SO2 will impart a taint to spirits so it is critical that the shipper does not gas the barrels. Most suppliers who deal with distilleries are aware of this, but it is worth specifying to them. Without SO2, the cask will be more prone to spoilage during transit so it’s advisable to schedule the shipment during a mild time of year. Westland times their shipment to arrive in December or
fragile than a new cask. Everyone I spoke with recommended having some basic leak repair skills before bringing in sherry barrels, as they are easily damaged and prone to leaks. Expect to tighten the hoops, and be able to seal leaks around the croze. The casks should also be filled promptly, as the large 500-liter butts can be difficult to rehydrate and may have structural integrity issues if allowed to get too dry. Using older sherry casks is more chal-
Artfully used sherry casks have the potential to elevate a maturing spirit in a way few other cooperage types can match. January to avoid hot weather which might dry out the barrel. Most casks are shipped intact, although they might have been rebuilt from the staves of different casks at the cooperage to repair any damage. The barrels are leak tested and receive ~5-10 liters of ‘maintenance liquid’ prior to shipping to prevent them from drying out during transit. Upon receipt of the casks, Dietrich gives the barrels a hot water rinse to remove excess shipping liquid and then fills them immediately. Weekes of RMBC says while some customers are concerned about “rinsing” away the flavor, only about 4% of the sherry is on the surface of the stave, with the rest impregnated in the wood. Gonzales Gordon estimated a well-used solera butt might absorb 25 kilograms of wine. Leak testing these older barrels is important, as they are inherently more
lenging and significantly more expensive than using new barrels. Artfully used, however, sherry casks have the potential to elevate a maturing spirit in a way few other cooperage types can match. There are doubts about the sustainability of sourcing these old casks, and the final impact of a shrinking sherry industry is uncertain. For now, though, these old barrels are a link to centuries of history in the wine and distilling industries and offer a flavor and story which consumers love.
Andy Garrison is Head Distiller at Stone Barn Brandyworks, where he’s worked since 2012, and has distilled at a few other Portland-area distilleries including New Deal Distillery and House Spirits Distillery. He likes PX Sherry and thinks you should too. For more information, email Andy.email@example.com.
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