None of the juice, all the flavor: The actual business behind sherry cask aging

It’s like a wild version of the chicken-or-the-egg problem: Sherry cask whiskeys are wildly popular, but, by and large, sherry itself is not. If people aren’t really drinking sherry, where do sherry casks come from?

Like sherry, sherry casks are supposed to come from a specific place: the Sherry Triangle in southwestern Spain, located between the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María in the province of Cádiz. For centuries, this region has produced legendary sweet and dry wines – all popularly known as sherry – using the solera process, which partially blends new and old vintages, aging them in a series of wooden barrels. Originally, a sherry cask was just that: a wooden cask that was used to make sherry – or, more often, to ship it overseas. But in 1986, Spanish law changed and the export of sherry in wooden casks was banned, making the previous concept of a sherry cask obsolete.

A free resource

Until that change, many sherry casks were going to the UK, which was once the world’s largest consumer of the drink. Being thrifty and resourceful, people there soon found a use for those empty barrels, as Henry H. Work, author of “Wood, Whiskey, and Wine: The History of Barrels,” explains.

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“Before, they would send sherry casks to places like London and then bottle the sherry there and sell it,” he says. Leftover barrels became an attractive and inexpensive resource. “These were opportunists. They were free. They didn’t need to buy new barrels.” But once this law came into effect in the 1980s, things changed. “Casks could no longer be shipped, so Scotch whiskey distilleries no longer sourced used sherry casks,” says Work.

But at that point, it wasn’t just frugality or versatility that was driving the use of ex-sherry casks. Great fino, oloroso, palo cortado, Pedro Ximénez and amontillado sherry can be wonderfully complex, with rich notes of dried fruit, nuts, leather and other alluring characteristics. Some of this complexity of flavor and aroma is being appreciated by Scotch distillers and their customers, says Work.

“If they felt there was some advantage to using sherry casks, ie a specific taste that their customers liked, they would want to continue doing that,” he says.

Initially, any lack of sherry character can be fixed with a shot of paxarette, a Spanish dessert wine commonly used to renovate – here meaning adding flavor back into old, worn sherry casks. However, in 1990 the legal regulations governing Scotch whiskey were changed, known as the Scotch Whiskey Order. Since then, paxarette was considered a flavoring agent and its use in the production of Scotch whiskey was banned.

Credit: Wilhelm Eder

These two legal decisions led to the growth of an important new business in the Sherry Triangle: the sherry cask trade, which produces sherry-seasoned casks for export. Today, Puna notes, there are really two types of sherry casks made in the Sherry Triangle.

“One enters the solera process, and he stays in that solera for years and years and years. Patina grows from the outside, from the environment of mold and mushrooms that grow in the area, and sherry brings the gold inside,” he says. “And there’s another type of barrel that coopers are making, and basically these coopers are making an export-style barrel.”

An important new product

These exported sherry casks were made primarily for the Scotch whiskey industry, although their popularity has since expanded to include many other drinks. Due to Spanish law, they cannot be used to export sherry. They are not generally used to make their own sherry – at least not by the polite people who drink it. Instead, they are filled with a cheap, relatively new sherry that has been specially made to taste the casks for export. Markus Eder, a dealer in used and new casks, including sherry casks at Wilhelm Eder in Germany, notes that this sherry can be used to make up to half a dozen sherry casks.

“After you repeat this seasoning process about five or six times, you can no longer use this sherry. That’s how you make vinegar from it, or throw it away,” he says. “I know bodegas in Spain that produce a million liters of sherry just to taste the barrels. Basically, the sherry industry is only working for the Scotch whiskey industry.”

This may sound like an exaggeration, but the scale of today’s sherry cask business is truly astounding. Due to the continued whiskey boom, its importance is increasing, in contrast to the collapse of the sherry industry. Total annual sherry sales are only about a fifth of what they were at their peak three to four decades ago, falling from about 150 million liters a year to about 30 million liters in recent years, as reported in sherrynotes sherry educator Ruben Luyten. com. (In contrast, the export market for Scotch whiskey alone was around 1 billion liters in 2021.) Recent articles may have argued that sherry is seeing growth in some markets, citing an increase in the export of quality dry sherry, but Luyten points out that any improvement in sales of dry sherry is offset by continued losses in sweet versions. As a whole, the sherry industry is now much smaller than it once was.

“I don’t think the turnover and associated profits are being discovered, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the sherry cask industry overtakes the wine industry,” says Luyten.

Some back-of-the-envelope math indicates that this may already have happened, at least in terms of barrel count. About 84,100 barrels of sherry were exported last year, Luyten says, while he calculates the volume of all sherry wine sold last year alone adding up to about 63,600 barrels.

This means that the sherry-spiced cask industry has gained an important role in the Sherry Triangle, keeping the co-ops, vineyards and winemakers all in business, even if it’s not primarily the sherry-making work that people do. drink. In 2015, the Consejo Regulador regulatory council that controls Jerez-Xérès-Sherry DOP also began to regulate the term sherry cask, offering a certification of authenticity and a set of regulatory standards: primarily, that sherry casks must be filled . with sherry coming from the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry DOP, and that each cask must first be filled to at least 85 percent of its volume and remain at least two-thirds full for at least one year.

César Saldaña, president of the Consejo Regulador, says the average age of a sherry cask is slightly higher than the simple minimum.

“In fact, the average seasoning at this point in time is 18 months,” he says. “For some of the operators here in Jerez, this has become a very important business.”

He notes that the Consejo Regulador is planning to expand the cask regulations it launched in 2015. The next step will be to create a register of distillers who are buying certified sherry casks.

“Until we fixed the term ‘sherry casks,’ there were many distillers who bought their own casks in different parts of Spain, casks that were seasoned with different types of wine,” he says. “Now, with this second step, we we will make sure that producers who use the term ‘sherry cask’ on their labels are actually using a real sherry cask.”

Pluses and minuses

Although today’s sherry casks differ from both the production and export casks used prior to 1986, they are not necessarily a step down. This month, Edinburgh brewery Innis & Gunn released The Original: PX, a special, sherry-hued version of its classic barrel-aged beer, finished in a blend of pedro Ximénez heads with first, or 250 liter barrels, and the second filling. Pedro Ximénez barrels, or 500 liter barrels. Dougal Gunn Sharp, the brewery’s founder and head brewer, notes that modern sherry-finishing casks can offer advantages over production casks or earlier shipping casks.

Sherry rims used for sherry whisky.

“In some respects, this improves the quality and processing of the finished product,” he says. “The consistency of the barrels has improved significantly. It’s also more durable.” For his sherry-finished beer, Sharp hoped to achieve some of the characteristics of the Pedro Ximénez dessert wine: fruity, spicy aromas, a sweeter flavor profile, and hints of chocolate and banana. They all passed, he says.

“It’s absolutely delicious, one of the tastiest limited edition beers we’ve ever produced,” he says. While sherry-finished beer remains a rarity, the use of sherry casks in Scotch whiskey shows little sign of slowing: Luyten notes that three times as many casks of sherry were sold compared to just five years ago. Cost advantages mean they are now generally made from imported American oak, which can be half the price of French or Hungarian oak, according to Work.

As a holdover from the old wine and spirits trade, sherry casks can be hard to get your head around, even for those in the drinks industry. Eder says the most common misconception he encounters is a customer who thinks they can easily buy a barrel that has been used to make sherry for decades, rather than a new American oak barrel that has been aged with sherry for just 12 months. . Older, well-used production barrels still exist, he says, though they’re generally only about seven years old these days. They’re not easy to find, he says, and they’re certainly not cheap.

“If you’re trying to find a barrel that’s really old, then you have to spend the money,” he says.

The idea that Scotch producers are not allowed to taste their whisky, he says, is hard to reconcile with the fact that most sherry casks are produced specifically for the Scotch whiskey industry, after which the sherry can be discarded or made into vinegar. If the sherry used to season sherry casks isn’t actually a drink, then what is?

“Pretty much, it’s just a taste,” he says. “My opinion is that it would be more honest to allow an additive like paxarette.”

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