Scotch and Sherry
It’s 40 years since The Scotch Malt Whisky Society launched its first bottling list, with an 8-year-old Glenfarclas ‘matured in sherry casks – hence its rich depth of colour’, according to our inaugural offering (£13.45 at the time). Cask No. 1.1 is one in a long line of highly prized sherry-matured whiskies. But how did sherry, of all wines, become so closely associated with the finest Scotch? Iain Russell has been doing some digging to find out
In the earliest days of whisky-making, the choice of whisky cask type was determined primarily by availability. But casks were not in short supply. Since Roman times, wooden barrels had been the vessels of choice for the transportation and storage of all manner of goods, from nails and tobacco to fish and butter.
Barrels were particularly well-suited as containers for imported wines and spirits such as sherry, port, claret and brandy. The contents were often consumed straight from the wood but increasingly they were disgorged and bottled here in the UK. Empty shipping barrels were then available for reuse with wine and spirit merchants sending them to distilleries for filling with whiskies.
Those who could afford to keep a cask of wine or spirits in their cellars were well aware of the beneficial effects of wood – especially oak – in the maturation process. Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus famously described her ‘Glenlivet’ whisky in 1822 as “long in wood, long in uncorked bottles [and] mild as milk”. But it was also evident that a portion of the previous liquid contents of a cask would seep into the pores of the wood and leach out to influence the flavour (beneficially or otherwise) of any substance subsequently filled into it. The influence of sherry wood was certainly seen to be beneficial to whisky.
The taste for rich, sweet fortified wines reached its zenith during the 1870s, and tens of thousands of butts of sherry alone were imported to the British Isles from Spain each year. Many of the more affluent wine and spirits drinkers came to appreciate the rich, nutty, fruity, mellow and smooth character, as well as the attractive dark golden hue, of whiskies matured in freshly-emptied sherry casks.
Irish distillers and merchants appear to have been the first to promote sherried whiskey as a particular ‘type’. In the 1850s, newspaper adverts for Roe’s, Jameson’s and others emphasised that their whiskeys had been “stored in fresh sherry casks” to produce a more mellow and mature spirit. The sherried flavours would presumably have differentiated Irish from Scotch: the latter was commonly noted at this time for its strong ‘peat reek,’ and was often said to be too ‘challenging’ for the tastebuds of drinkers accustomed to sweeter drinks.
During the 1870s, Scottish merchants began competing with the great Irish whiskey brands by developing blends of single malt and grain Scotch whiskies designed to appeal to a wider audience. One of the great challenges for these blenders was to ‘cover’ the neutral-flavoured grain spirit, which generally composed a high proportion of their blends, or to mask the unpleasant phenolic taint of immature spirit. The inclusion of a significant proportion of sherried whiskies proved well-suited for the task and helped establish blended Scotch as one of the world’s most popular spirits. As the Victualling Trades Review noted in 1906: “The taste for the Scotch article has been largely due to the softness and roundness imparted by the maturing of the article in fresh sherry wood.”
The spectacular growth in demand for blended Scotch in the late 19th century resulted in a great surge in whisky production. However, the increase in demand for sherry casks coincided with a decline in imports and availability. The competition for genuine used casks drove prices sky-high, forcing distillers and blenders to search for cheaper alternatives to provide the desired ‘sherry effect’.
The term sherry cask was frequently used generically, to refer to wood that had contained other fortified wines such as madeira, marsala and malaga. Cheaper alternatives included treating the casks with a rinse of cheap fruit wines (prune was a popular choice) or with a heavily sugared sweet wine syrup. Some sherry substitutes were simply added to the whisky itself – one heavily-promoted brand, Melline, came with the recommendation to add a gallon to every 80 gallons of Scotch.
Substitutes for maturing in fresh sherry casks may have been cheaper to acquire, but it was clear to many in the wine and spirits trade that simply swilling a ‘blending wine’ around a cask, or adding a few litres to the contents, could not replicate the genuine sought-after sherry character. An industry insider complained in the Licensed Victualling Trades Review that the “abominable black decoction” used by unscrupulous dealers turned perfectly good malt whisky into a “coarse cheap-like rum.” The National Guardian spoke for the respectable members of the trade, when it asserted that authentic sherry casks remained “indispensable to the blenders…to do for the whisky what no substitute of added wine or colour can effect”.
There was another alternative. In the 1890s, the Glasgow blenders and wine merchants WP Lowrie developed a highly successful treatment, blasting the interior of the cask with pressurised steam to open the pores and impregnate the wood with sherry or other wines, according to the customers’ preferences. Lowrie’s Patent Sherry Wine Treated Casks were in great demand for many years and the method was copied by other firms.
After the Second World War, ex-bourbon barrels from the United States became the most commonly used casks for maturing Scotch. At the same time, there was a world-wide trend, led by American consumers, in favour of lighter spirits such as vodka and white rum. Scotch brands such as Cutty Sark and J&B led a movement to a ‘lighter’ (and some complained, a blander) style of Scotch. Demand for sherried whiskies eased. But not for long.
The single malt whisky revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s was led by connoisseurs who sought out whiskies with rich, distinctive flavours. Those matured in heavily sherried casks became cult classics, and extremely profitable. The whisky industry had to meet the challenge of sourcing genuine ex-sherry casks once more.
Led by Macallan in the late 1970s, a small number of distillers formed partnerships with Spanish cooperages and bodegas, to assemble casks and season the wood using sherry wines such as oloroso or a blend made to the distillers’ specifications. After an agreed period, often up to two years, the cask was emptied and the seasoned wood shipped to Scotland.
It’s an arrangement which has become increasingly common in recent years, although it has been estimated that no more than five per cent of single malt fillings are into sherry wood.
The costs are steep, and the sherry flavours can overwhelm more delicate whiskies: many single malts and blends are vatted with only a proportion of sherried whisky or are ‘finished’ for just a year or two after maturation in ex-bourbon wood.
However, aficionados continue to seek out old whiskies that have been fully matured in good sherry wood and are willing to pay often eye-watering prices to secure them.