[Cultural] Sherry Chéri! What is sherry? The production, the types and their impact on whisky

It has been a while since I wanted to write an article about sherry, so when David from clandestine-whisky.com asked me for a contribution, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity. So here it is!

 

‘The darker the better’ seems to have been a longstanding misconception in the world of whisky and many will decide on a bottle of the ‘brown stuff’ purely based on its shade of ‘brown’. 

I guess that with the whisky boom of the last few years, sweet sherried whisky is ‘easier’ to get into for new-comers than heavily peated bottles. Names like Macallan, Dalmore, GlenDronach and Glenallachie more recently, are also on everybody’s lips, whether they are whisky beginners, afficionados or collectors, and they are all synonymous with dark liquid. Most are naturally coloured by the wood that encapsulated it for years, some are just a mix of wood imparted colour and E150 additive to boost the ‘colour consistency’ of the range of bottles (as well as their sellability and matching price-tags…)

But what is sherry and what is the difference between the many types of sherry out there? Some malts are said to have been aged or finished in Oloroso casks, others in Pedro Ximénez, Manzanilla or Fino. So what is that all about?

First of all, a Sherry is a fortified wine produced in the region of Jerez, Southern Spain, from fermented grapes which are ‘fortified’ with neutral grape spirit. The main difference between sherries is of course the way each one is actually made and the grape varieties used in the process. There are 7 main sherry types, from the drier Manzanilla to the sweeter Pedro Ximénez.


Manzanilla / Fino

These two types of sherry are made with fresh Palomino grapes harvested and pressed before being left to ferment naturally in stainless steel tanks heated to 23-25°C. Very few bodegas (wine producers) still use wooden barrels for the fermentation stage. This will keep fermenting until nearly all of the sugars are turned into alcohol, creating a base wine. After a few months of fermentation, the base wine is fortified to reach its final strength of 15%-15.4%. The only thing left at that point is to leave the sherry to age further, and for Manzanilla and Fino sherries, this is done with a natural/biological ageing process, that-is-to-say under a layer of flor (a yeasty crust which has develop at the surface of the fortified wine), without contact with oxygen, hence its paler colour at the end. The ageing process tends to be done in a Solera (a system of barrels arranged in a ‘cascading’ way, that allows younger wine to progressively replace older wines as they are drown out of the system) for a minimum of two years.

So why do you get two names for the same product? The only difference between Manzanilla and Fino is the location of production: Manzanilla is produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda whereas Fino is produced in Jerez de la Frontera.

Pale in colour, these sherries tend to be dry, fresh, quite light, slightly tangy and citrussy, with notes of almond, fresh herbs and maritime hints. They are better served chilled and are the perfect accompaniment for olives, nuts and ham.

You do not get many whiskies aged in ex-Manzanilla or Fino casks but those available are definitely paler in colour than their Oloroso or PX counterparts and you will find the fresh, tangy, almondy and slightly salty flavours. My favourite being the recent Kilchoman Fino Release.


Oloroso

Probably the most popular sherry in the whisky industry, the Oloroso begins its life in the same way as the Manzanilla and Fino with Palomino grapes harvested fresh and pressed before being left to ferment naturally. The difference occurs with the fortification process. For an Oloroso, the base wine if fortified to 17-18%. The extra alcohol kills the flor on the surface which leaves the wine to mature in an oxidative way, through contact with air. The result is a darker sherry with a higher abv.

Oloroso sherries are more rounded than the drier ones. They have darker notes with dried fruit, raisins, toffee and walnuts. They go best with meat dishes and hearty cheeses.

In whisky, Oloroso casks impart both colour and flavours. A quality Oloroso cask can turn the pale spirit quite dark and pass on lots of dried fruit and nutty elements.  My favourite Oloroso cask aged whisky is the Bunnahabhain Mòine Oloroso from a few year ago.


Amontillado / Palo Cortado

The Amontillado stands at the crossroads between Fino and Oloroso. It actually starts as a Fino (fresh Palomino grapes, natural fermentation, fortified at around 15% and left to age under flor) but after a period of ageing under flor, it is refortified to 17-18%, which then kills the flor and therefore switches the biological ageing to an oxidative ageing. Having both ageing methods means the Amontillado is darker than the Fino but paler than the Oloroso.

Amontillado sherries mix sharper notes of citrus and herbs with nuttier flavours, great with cooked meats and cheeses. It is not a very common type of sherry cask to use in the whisky industry and I cannot remember trying any Amontillado aged whisky. If you want to try any, I would look for Kavalan, Tomatin or Glenkinchie.

As for Palo Cortado, it is the same idea as with an Amontillado, except for the fact the flor would accidentally die early. This is technically the rarer type of sherry as it cannot be controlled. For Palo Cortado aged whisky, again this is rather rare from distilleries, look Deanston or Bunnahabhain way.


Pedro Ximénez (PX)

When all of the previous types of sherries are made from Palomino grapes, Pedro Ximénez or PX is made from Pedro Ximénez grapes. These are harvested overly ripe and are left to dry in the sun for several days to remove as much moisture as possible leaving a higher sugar content in the grapes. The fermentation process for a PX is shorter, once again to retain as much sugar as possible. After that, the end process is similar to an Oloroso: fortification to 17-18% and oxidative ageing (no flor).

PX is incredibly sweet and treacly at over 212g of sugar per litre and can be used as a sweetener (I use it instead of sugar syrup when I make an Old Fashioned for instance) It is also great on dessert and on top of vanilla ice-cream!

The colour is dark and the flavours are very rich, with a lot of dried fruit (raisins, figs, prunes), toffee, dark chocolate, walnuts, candied orange… You’d better have a sweet tooth to enjoy PX! You will find PX casks with whisky quite frequently. It definitely gives the whisky a sweeter, more syrupy taste (sometimes too much) and a much darker colour. GlenDronach releases tend to have a nice mix of Oloroso and PX, older Lagavulin Distillers Edition were delicious too with a PX finish.


Moscatel

Moscatel goes through the same process as PX except the grapes used are not Pedro Ximénez but Moscatel grapes. Moscatel is also very sweet. My favourite Moscatel finished whisky would probably have to be the Caol Ila Distillers Edition but you can also look at Tomatin, Benriach, Filey Bay or Glenallachie for some more examples.


The last aspect of sherry I would like to cover is the sherry cask itself. The influence that sherry casks have on the whisky can vary quite a bit depending on the quality of the casks, and this quality is often linked to the way the cask was used. The best casks are casks which have been used to mature sherry in. These are generally old casks and are rather rare as when part of a solera, casks only tend to be replaced when they are beyond repair. Next are casks which were used to transport sherry from Spain to the UK. These casks would have had mature sherry inside for a certain amount of time and once emptied, would be sold to distilleries rather than shipped back to Spain. However, from 1986, Spanish regulation dictated that Spanish wines had to be bottled in Spain. Once again, these casks are rather hard to come by nowadays. So, with growing interest for sherry cask aged whisky and few sherry casks around, what solution did the industry find? 

Seasoned casks. A seasoned cask is a cask given to a Spanish bodega for them to fill it with young sherry for six months to two and a half years. At the end of the seasoning period, the sherry is removed from the cask and reused until it is either discarded, distilled as sherry brandy or used for sherry vinegar. It cannot be sold as drinking sherry. So do not get fooled by the romantic idea your whisky was aged in an old cask which saw years of sherry maturation in a small Spanish bodega. Chances are, it came brand new and got a sherry wash for a few months before being shipped to a distillery to be used in a finishing process. And that is probably why people talk about old school sherried whisky and why old sherried malts go for so much at auction. Now does that make these old school malts better? It might do because of the calibre of casks used at that time but then again it might not, as the production process was definitely not as rigorous as it is today. I guess there is only one way to find out… 

Slainte all!


A recap table (credit: www.sherrynotes.com )



Sources:

https://bespokeunit.com/wine/sherry/types/

www.sherrynotes.com

www.whiskynotes.be


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