Depending on where you look you’ll find a variety of definitions for types of sherry – from the simplistic – just sweet or dry, though to gradations which include grape varietals, aging regimes (biological or oxidative) and sweetness levels. It’s a complicated category with just as many myths as facts. Today we’re looking at one of the more unusual types – Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado is a hybrid sherry – in effect a halfway house between amontillado and oloroso, possessing the nutty nose of the former with the rich body of the latter. Traditionally, it would have been created through happenstance – with a biologically aged sherry losing its layer of protective flor and then continuing its development oxidatively.
If you believe the spiel from the bodegas, the reasons for this change are shrouded in mystery – some barrels simply transition naturally into Palo Cortado – and no one truly understands why. That might have been true once upon a time, but nowadays, most Palo Cortado is created quite deliberately - cellarmasters fortify liquid which was destined to become fino sherry (to around 17-18% ABV at which point flor cannot form) and force it to age oxidatively.
Palo Cortado’s name seems to derive from the internal classification system used by bodegas to mark barrels with their contents. A near vertical chalk line (palo – which translates as stick) indicates fino/fine sherry - this palo line is crossed through (cortado) with a horizontal or slightly diagonal line forming a cross. These chalk classifications allow the bodega’s cellarmasters to assess, at a glance, which barrels are set aside for particular varieties of sherry, and likewise to easily note fino type sherries which might be suitable for fortification into Palo Cortado.
Whilst there’s not currently an overabundance of Palo Cortado aged whiskies on the market – Distell have been producing a variety of whiskies using this particular type of sherry. Both Deanston and Tobermory have had 12 year old Palo Cortado expressions released recently, and a 20 year old example from Bunnahabhain is also on the horizon (The Dramble will bring you tasting notes of that one once it has been formally announced). Today we’ll be looking at the Tobermory Palo Cortado which was distilled back in 2006 and bottled 12 years later in 2018 as a distillery exclusive of 468 bottles. It clocks in at 53.9% ABV and, whilst the distillery is still currently closed for renovation – you can still pick this up from the shop. Alternatively, Distell are producing ‘Wee dram packs’ for £30 which include the 12 year old Palo Cortado alongside other Tobermory and Ledaig expressions.
Nose: Pronounced, but initially a bit piercing – a few minutes in the glass provides a calming influence. A mixture of sweet and savoury - hedgerow berries (particularly strawberry), red fruit jams and cola cubes alongside salted butter, cream crackers, pancake batter, cashews and hazelnuts. Deeper – notes of coffee beans, liquorice, ginger and white pepper. The addition of water further amplifies the sweet vs. savoury equation – honey nut cereals, sticky caramel and buttered toasted.
Taste: An oily and full-bodied arrival with develops down a more regular sherried whisky route than the nose. Red berry fruit (raspberry and strawberry) – both fresh and persevered as jams and marmalades – this sits alongside milk chocolate, freshly ground coffee beans, and a scattering of dried fruits – raisins, sultanas and dates. There’s a fair nuttiness here - hazelnut - this joins a slightly steeliness almost akin to salted caramel. The mid to back palate becomes increasingly drying, revealing underlying earthiness, a drop of balsamic and maple syrup. Reduced, this becomes much more fruity – poached pears and redcurrants – fresh and lively. Herbalness is also released with cut grass and touches of mint.
Finish: Medium, with chocolate, dried fruits, roasted chestnuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon. It’s also particularly dry.
This 12 year old Tobermory is quite thought-provoking when sampled at the higher strength of 53.9% ABV – the Palo Cortado cask delivers both sweet and savoury characteristics which are relatively different to the aromas and flavours you’d expect from a more standard oloroso sherry cask. Reduction brings more overall balance, smoothing out some of the rougher edges – however, it also diminishes the prominence of the interesting savoury aspects - whilst easier-going it’s less compelling and distinctive as a consequence. Sometimes life is richer if you take the rough with the smooth – this Tobermory is best experienced as delivered.