Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Will the Real Sherry Casks Please Stand Up?

Once a barrel is used to make bourbon, it can never be used again to make bourbon.  In 1935, the United States passed a law requiring all (straight) whiskies be stored in charred new oak containers.  Once used, most bourbon barrels get sent to Scotland.  In Spain, casks are used to mature sherry, a type of fortified wine.  Once used, they too get sent to Scotland.

“Not really.”

“What do you mean?”

“Keep reading.”

Sherry was transported and sold in cask form in the 1800s.  Bottling sherry would’ve made it considerably more expensive.  In 1870, Old Forester became the first company to bottle whisky in the US.  The bottle cost more than the whisky it contained.  Bottles were handblown at the time.  The first automatic bottle maker didn’t show up until 1903.  In retrospect, bottling sherry probably would’ve been a good idea.  One of the reasons why sherry declined in popularity was its questionable quality due to widespread adulteration.  In 1800s Britain, if you wanted to buy sherry, you went to your local wine merchant.  Rural customers typically bought it by the barrel.  City dwellers, lacking the space of their country counterparts, had to enjoy it by the bottle.  Once a cask was emptied, it didn’t get sent back to Spain.  It was a transport cask, not a maturation vessel.  Its job was to transport sherry from point A to point B.  Distillers were more than willing to take whatever came available.

Unlike ex-bourbon casks, transport casks only held sherry from the time they were filled for transport, until the time they were emptied by a customer or merchant.  Sherry uses a bodega system for maturation.  Casks of varying ages are used, and they all play a crucial role.  Some bodegas use casks for a century or more before retiring them.  Starting in 1981, sherry had to be bottled in Spain prior to export.  The days of the transport cask were officially over.  Many online pundits would have you believe this is when the industry stopped using transport casks, but that wouldn’t be accurate.  Transport casks fell out of favour way before then.  In order to run an effective business, you need consistency and reliability.  The phylloxera epidemic decimated the wine industry in Europe in the late 1800s.  A shortage of sherry meant a shortage of sherry transport casks.  The scotch industry had to start looking at other alternatives.

Today, sherry casks are made-to-order.  Things like wood type (American, European oak) and barrel size (250 litre hogshead, 500 litre butt) are all predetermined by the distillery.  Young wine is used for seasoning.  After a few tours of duty, the wine usually gets turned into salad dressing (sherry vinegar).  Macallan churns out 15 million litres of spirit each year.  Again, if you want to run a business effectively, you need consistency and reliability.  After the phylloxera epidemic, American oak staves were brought in, and turned into “sherry casks.”  They were seasoned with a sherry sweetener called Paxarette.  Naturally, none of this information was made known to the public.  Distilleries (then and now) want their customers to think their sherry casks once held premium sherry.  This is why they put “sherry casks” on the label, and leave the rest up to your imagination.  The Scotch Whisky Association banned Paxarette in 1990.

The Lakes is a relatively new English distillery.  In 2019, they launched a sherry-forward range called The Whiskymaker’s Reserve.  Whiskymaker’s Reserve No. 5 is 52%, and matured in ex-Pedro Ximénez, Oloroso, and red wine casks.  This whisky is oh so fruity!  I’m fairly certain most of it was matured in European oak.  It delivers a fair bit of tannins on the palate, which is usually a dead giveaway.  As you work your way down the bottle, the tannins (sadly) start to tyrannize the experience, or, as they’d probably put it, “the baking spices become more pronounced.”  This whisky, although decent, is a tad too young for my liking.

Late 1980s, northern Manitoba, Canada…

My friend and I were en route to a local tavern.  We were both 16.  I was fair with blonde hair and blue eyes.  I could’ve easily passed for a 12-year-old.  My friend was 16 going on 40.  He looked like a lumberjack.  His beard was full, and the envy of every sub-18-year-old boy in town.  We got in easily enough, but were asked to show ID once we made our way up to the bar.  More accurately, the waitress wanted to see my ID.  I did the old “check the pockets” routine, and was shown the door once I couldn’t deliver the goods.  My friend ordered without incident.  No. 5 is my friend.  It’s going to fool some people, but for those who can see past the fruit, its lack of maturity becomes pretty apparent.  He kept drinking for 2 more hours.  I sat in the car.  Stupid beard.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...