“Drink sherry - help the whisky industry” It sounds both romantic and rather supportive – who doesn’t enjoy this story of a centuries old symbiotic relationship. Alas, nowadays it’s far from the whole truth of the matter. Whilst sherry has an image problem (despite wine educators and bartenders singing its praises, sales continue to decline) and could certainly do with you all drinking a little bit more of it, the drinking sherry industry and the whisky sherry industry have been near separate entities for many years.
Oft-times whisky drinkers are starry-eyed about the origins of sherry casks. Images abound of premium sherries resting in charming bodegas for decades before being repurposed for whisky maturation. Indeed, the whisky industry has furthered this story to fit their age old traditional narrative. Unfortunately, it’s just not great marketing to be telling your customers that the sherry used to create your whiskies will eventually end up being utilised for the production of vinegar or distillation into brandy. So much for romance.
Historically, the story is reasonably accurate. Sherry was incredibly popular in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and much of the bottling took place around the country’s ports – particularly London. Filled casks would be shipped over whole, disgorged and bottled – with little commercial value in returning the now empty vessels back to Spain for refilling. The result was an abundance of casks available for the whisky industry. But, even then, it’s important to note that these casks were not the same as those utilised in the bodegas for solera maturation (which were often many decades old, and employed because of their low levels of wood activity) – very few distilleries (there are some exceptions) ever use ex-solera casks for maturation purposes.
Fast-forward to 1986 and a change in the Spanish legal system prohibited the bottling of sherry outside of Spain. Thus ends the story of the ‘transport cask’ – wet, ready to refill casks were no longer able to shipped over to the UK and refilled with new make spirit. But, if the whisky industry is anything, it’s resourceful.
The dearth of sherry coming into the UK was plugged by the development of custom-build ‘seasoned’ casks - sourced and constructed specifically to a distillery’s specifications. Seasoned casks are filled with (generally) lower grade sherry wine for between one and two years. The liquid is absorbed into the wood – softening tannins and reducing bitter oak compounds etc – disgorged and then refilled into another cask. The sherry wine is utilised to fill several seasoned casks before it’s effectively spent for this purpose. At that point, it is repurposed to produce sherry vinegar or distilled into brandy. After all, its use in a seasoned cask prohibits its legal sale as drinking sherry.
Seasoning has become the plat du jour for the whisky industry’s sherry needs. Despite distilleries still proposing that sherried whisky is somehow limited due to the decline of the industry (again that suits their narrative – and the higher pricing for sherried whiskies) – this new symbiotic relationship is pretty big business. More expensive than ex-bourbon certainly – rare, uncommon and hard to get hold of? – not so much.
That is not necessarily to say that modern sherried whiskies are substandard compared to older ones. Whilst their creation is different and arguably less quixotic, contemporary whiskies are made with much more consistency than their forbearers. Specifications are precise and measured to meet particularly flavour profiles, are repeatable and sustainable. And hey, if it the end result still tastes good, what’s a loss of idealism between friends
Today’s sweet treat of a whisky has been partly matured in one of my favourite sherry styles – Moscatel. Moscatel is a sweet wine produced from muscat grapes – which as a broad category covers over 200 individual grape varieties utilised for both wine and raisin production as well as eating grapes. But for Moscatel to earn its official classification as a high quality fortified wine, it must be composed of at least 85% Moscatel de Alejandria. In Portugal this varietal is widely produced in the Setubal Peninsula (south of Lisbon) and in Douro in the north. It is believed to be one of the oldest non-genetically modified wines that is still persistently grown. Production is similar to that of Pedro Ximenez – sun-dried grapes and a partial fermentation which is stopped by fortification.
BenRiach 22 year old Moscatel Finish was released back in August 2016. The whisky was originally matured in ex-bourbon before being finished for an unspecified period in Moscatel sherry casks from both Portugal and Spain. The release of 5927 bottles are delivered at 46% ABV. Originally priced around £140, you can still pick this up from some of the smaller retailers – for a premium – for instance, at Robbie’s Whisky Merchants for £169.99.
Nose: Immediately expressive with an assortment of dried fruits – dates, figs, raisins and sultanas – alongside macerated cherries, orange preserve and plenty of freshly picked blackcurrants. Mushrooms present earthiness, and sit with an array of umami aromas – balsamic, soy and a ladle of beef stock. Polished leather and chocolate add additional richness. It’s all very dark and brooding until given the chance to breath, when the composition is lightened by red apples, pears, creamy mocha and cinnamon spicing. Excellent out of the bottle, fantastic when treated with patience. The addition of water is not required here, and emphasises the cask influence with spiced oak, polish and tart fruits. Better without certainly.
Taste: The arrival is voluminous – thick, textured and oily – but without the sledgehammer intensity this often is accompanied with. Defined and refined. Jamminess is up first – strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants – all heavily reduced and sweetened. Dark, demi-bitter chocolate is joined by orange segments and stewed plums, whilst spicing offers a piquant blend of cinnamon sticks, cardamom and cloves. The combination is all rather mulled wine – rich, fruity and well spiced. The mid-palate favours the cask more – a selection of leathers – suede and tanned alongside a dry oakiness. Reduction (if sparingly applied) brings out a glorious syrupy, tinned fruits aspect with apples and oranges served in their own juices – but, it’s a double-edged sword as at the same time the wood becomes overbearing, very dry and quite tannic. As with the nose – better appreciated at its 46% bottling strength.
Finish: Medium to long with chocolate and coffee ground livened by baking spices and metholated oak.
The nose of the BenRiach 22 year old Moscatel Finish is rather the dreamboat – it draws you in with its inherent quality and then steadily offers increased intricacies, and alternative (but still perfectly balanced) gradations the longer it is left to rest. The palate delivers all the rich, velvetiness you’d come to expect of a well-judged sherry finish – there are no rough edges - but sadly it doesn’t quite reach the earlier echelons of the nose. The bar was set incredibly high. Nevertheless, if opulent integrated sherry is your thing this is well worth seeking out. Production methods might have changed, but there’s still plenty of sherry amour to be had out there.