What are sherry cask whiskies? A guide to sherry matured whisky
I love a sherry cask whisky. Particularly at this time of year. The sherry influences brings red fruit, body, and spice. Great when it's cold and dark, and suitably festive for Christmas.
In this blog I'd like to take a closer look at what we mean by sherry cask whisky, and some of the key styles you may come across. It's a fascinating area. While many whiskies carry the sherry tag, there are many subcategories and nuances within this style.
What is sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes in Spain. The key sherry producing Spanish region is Andalusia. It starts life much like a wine. But after fermentation grape spirit is added to the base liquid. This increases the alcohol content, earning it the name "fortified" wine.
What is sherry cask whisky?
Sherry cask whisky, also known as sherry-matured whisky, is a type of whisky that has been aged in casks that previously held sherry. The casks are typically made of European oak and have been used to age sherry for several years before being used to age whisky. The ageing process imparts unique flavours and characteristics to the whisky, such as nuttiness, dried fruit, and spice notes. Sherry cask whisky can be made from malted barley, wheat, rye, or corn, and can be distilled in a variety of ways. The ageing process can vary in length, but it is typically aged for at least three years. Sherry cask whisky can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of water, and can also be paired with a variety of foods such as cheese, chocolate and game dishes.
What do sherry cask whiskies taste like?
Sherry cask whisky has a distinct and complex flavour profile that can vary depending on the type of sherry used to season the cask, the length of ageing, and the type of whisky. Typically, sherry cask whisky has a rich and full-bodied taste with notes of dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots, and nuttiness, such as almonds and hazelnuts. The sherry cask also imparts a certain sweetness, with a hint of vanilla, caramel, and honey. The oak from the cask gives it a hint of spice and a characteristic dryness. Some sherry cask whisky can also have dark chocolate, coffee, and even leather notes. The finish can be long and warming with a distinct sherry influence. Overall, the flavour profile of sherry cask whisky is complex and layered, making it a favourite among whisky fans.
How did sherry cask whiskies first start?
This style of whisky was discovered somewhat by accident. Historically, sherry was a popular import into the UK. It arrived 'in bulk' in wooden casks, and was decanted into bottles when bought by customers. This left the empty casks as a by-product. Some canny soul saw an opportunity to reuse those empty sherry casks, rather than let them go to waste. And while it may have started as simple convenience, people soon realised the whisky was actually enhanced by those sherry casks.
How is sherry cask whisky made?
At it's simplest, a sherry cask whisky is made be ageing whisky in a wooden cask that has previously held sherry. Sherry casks can be used to make whisky in a few ways; three common approaches are:
- Full term maturation in sherry. This is where the whisky is put into a sherry cask on Day 1, and stays in that cask until it's bottled.
- A sherry finish. InThe key difference between a sherry finish and full-term maturation in sherry is whether the whisky started and finished in the same cask. In the case of a finish, the whisky ages for a period of time in an initial cask, often ex-bourbon. The whisky is then transferred (or "re-racked") into a cask that held sherry. This approach layers the sherry flavour profile onto the whisky, building out the overall character. How long the whisky spends in the sherry cask during this finishing period can vary greatly. An average would be around the 3 to 6 month mark. But it could be up to a year or two in some cases; almost a second maturation period.
- Sherry casks within a cask recipe. A single malt may draw upon a number of casks to create the final whisky. Including a portion of sherry casks in the recipe is a way of introducing this style of flavour, together with other flavour profiles - for example ex-bourbon.
What types of sherry cask are used to make whisky?
As with whisky, there are lots of kinds of sherry. Each has its own character, and each imparts it's own influence onto a whisky. The two most common sherries used in whisky making are Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez.
Here's a list of the types of sherries used to make whiskies, and the effect they have on whisky's flavour:
- Amontillado: notes of dried nuts, tobacco, and floral herbs
- Fino: notes of almonds, pastries, and grassy herbs
- Manzanilla: a dry characteristic with salty notes, and a floral edge.
- Moscatel: dry, delicate character with floral notes.
- Oloroso: notes of red fruits, berries, milk and nut chocolate.
- Palo Cortado: rich and sweet with notes of spice and fruits.
- Pedro Ximénez: sweet notes of dark red fruits, raisins, plums.
How can you tell if a whisky has been aged in a sherry cask?
There are several ways to tell if a whisky has been aged in a sherry cask, but the most definitive method is by reading the label or packaging of the bottle. If a whisky is labelled as "sherry cask matured" or "sherry cask finished" it means that the whisky has been aged in casks that previously held sherry. If the label doesn't mention anything about sherry, it doesn't necessarily mean that the whisky wasn't aged in a sherry cask. Some distilleries use sherry casks as part of their ageing process without mentioning it on the label.
Another way to tell if a whisky has been aged in a sherry cask is by tasting it. Sherry cask whisky will have distinct and complex flavours such as dried fruit, nuttiness, and sweetness, with a hint of vanilla, caramel, and honey. Additionally, it will have a characteristic dryness and a hint of spice from the oak. The finish can be long and warming with a distinct sherry influence.
It's also worth noting that sometimes distilleries use sherry casks to finish the whisky after ageing it in other types of casks. This can also impart sherry notes to the whisky but the intensity will be less than a sherry cask matured whisky.
Can sherry cask whisky be used in cocktails?
Sherry cask whiskies can be used in whisky cocktails, just like any other type of whisky. The unique and complex flavour profile of sherry cask whisky can add depth and complexity to a wide range of cocktails.
One popular cocktail that uses sherry cask whisky is the Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned is made by muddling sugar and bitters together, adding a splash of water and then pouring in sherry cask whisky. The sherry cask whisky's dried fruit and nuttiness notes complement the sweetness of the sugar and the bitter notes of the bitters, creating a well-balanced and complex drink.
Another popular cocktail that can be made with sherry cask whisky is the Rob Roy. This cocktail is similar to a Manhattan, but instead of using bourbon, it uses sherry cask whisky. The sherry cask whisky's unique flavour profile pairs well with the sweet vermouth and the Angostura bitters, creating a smooth and rich drink.
Sherry cask whisky can also be used in other cocktails like Whisky Sour, Whisky Highball, and even in a classic Champagne cocktail. However, it is important to keep in mind that the intensity and complexity of sherry cask whisky flavour can overwhelm some other ingredients in the cocktail, so you’ll need to experiment and find the right balance between the ingredients.
How should sherry cask whisky be served and paired with food?
Sherry cask whisky pairs well with a wide range of foods, including dark chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, and cheese. Rich and savoury dishes such as meats, game, and stews can also complement the flavours of sherry cask whisky.
Sherry cask whisky can also be paired with spicy dishes like Indian and Mexican cuisine, the sweetness and nuttiness of the sherry cask whisky will balance the heat and flavours of the spices.
In general, sherry cask whisky pairs well with food that has similar flavours and aromas to the whisky, such as dried fruits, nuts, and sweetness. Also, the high alcohol content of sherry cask whisky can make it a good pairing with rich, savoury, and spicy dishes.
The best sherry cask whiskies to try
Sherry cask whiskies are delicious. If you haven't tried any yet, I'd highly recommend exploring this style. You can find our favourite sherry cask whiskies here. If you are a fan of sherry cask whiskies, let me know what your favourite is in the comments below.
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