Sherry – The Scotch Connection
Today is St Andrew’s Day, and Scots around the world will be toasting their nation – usually with a dram of Scotch Whisky. But did you know they might also be tasting a drop of Jerez sunshine in their favourite tipple?
Some of the finest Scotch Whiskies – both single malts and a few blends – spend time in old Sherry barrels before they make it to the bottle. Most commonly Oloroso casks are used, but you can also find delicious examples of whiskies finished in Amontillado or Pedro Ximenez casks.
The ultimate in recycling
So how did this come about? Well, once upon a time, sherry was shipped to the UK still in the barrel. Since the Brits loved sherry, that meant there were a lot of barrels lying around! It was too costly to ship the empty barrels back to Spain, so a new use was needed for them. Now the Scots have a reputation for being frugal (!) and not letting anything go to waste, so they recycled the sherry barrels for maturing their whisky. The residual flavours from the sherry imparted complex new characteristics to the spirit, and the barrel also gave colour.
Sherry as a premium whisky finish
Today, 90% of Scotch whiskies are matured in ex-Bourbon barrels. They’re a cheaper option as American laws specify that they can only be used once for Bourbon. Sherry barrels, having spent many decades in the sherry solera system, are rarer and therefore much more expensive. But rarity brings exclusivity, and now sherry-finished whiskies are amongst the most expensive around. Some are explicitly marketed as finished in sherry barrels, such as the Bruichladdich Sherry Classic made with Rey Fernando de Castilla barrels and the Dalmore 15 Year Old Gran Reserva matured in Gonzalez Byass barrels. Others quietly spend years in fine sherry barrels as part of a complex maturation process.
So, what’s the verdict?
Late last year, we took a friend from El Puerto to visit our local whisky distillery – Glenkinchie. He worked in the sherry industry and was keen to see how whisky was made, and importantly the role that sherry barrels still play today. At the end of the tour we tasted a variety of whiskies, mostly matured in American Bourbon barrels. When the tour guide heard that Roberto was interested in the sherry connection, she cracked open a special bottle: 1996 Amontillado Finish Distillers Edition.
I’m not a whisky aficionado, but the difference was clear: here was a whisky with a more rounded, softer palate and less fierceness. The toasted nutty flavours of Amontillado were there, albeit subtly. Perhaps we could become whisky-lovers after all!
Raising a glass to Saint Andrew
So, when you toast St Andrew today, check whether you’ve got a little bit of Spanish sunshine in the bottle along with your whisky. And if you don’t like whisky (it’s OK, we won’t tell!), how about raising a glass of Oloroso – it goes briliantly with haggis!
Slainte, Salud, Cheers!