Cask Curriculum: Sherry Stylin'

Remember the last time you walked into a bar and ordered a glass of sherry? Wait, you don’t remember? All jokes aside, if you’re reading this you then you probably live in the USA and are unlikely to have ever consumed sherry in your life. The unique and rather funky style of fortified wine was first produced in southern Spain more than 1,000 years ago and eventually grew in popularity to become recognized as the finest wine in all of Europe.

But here in 21st century America few people actually drink sherry. In fact sherry is so uncommon today that most of what is produced is not even intended for direct consumption but to season oak casks used specifically for Scotch whisky maturation. I find that this lack of familiarity with Sherry, as understandable as it may be, leads us to what is possibly the most common misconception about Sherry-matured whisky: that it all tastes the same. The truth is, Sherry is a diverse category of wine offering a broad spectrum of flavours, all which can influence a spirit to produce different tasting experiences.

There are currently eight styles of Sherry produced, the majority of which have been used toward the maturation of Scotch whisky. Of the these eight, however, there are two that serve as the basis for the majority of the spirits you are likely enjoying today. Let’s have a look at these two unique styles of sherry along with examples of single cask whiskies that embody their true character.

Oloroso

Undoubtedly the most popular type of sherry for Scotch whisky maturation, Oloroso is a dry and nutty wine with notes of fig, cinnamon and clove. Its rich and flavourful profile makes Oloroso sherry a perfect complement to game and red meats and a variety of cheeses. Casks seasoned with Oloroso are often considered to be the perfect canvas for long-term whisky maturation. A classic example of an Oloroso Sherry-matured whisky, often referred to as a “sherry bomb” is Cask 63.49 ‘In the dark of the abyss’. 11 years in a refill Oloroso Sherry butt has given this Speyside spirit a rich flavor profile exploding with dark chocolate, dried fruits and Christmas baking spice.

Pedro Ximénez

While Oloroso is dry, Pedro Ximénez (often referred to as simply ‘PX’) is a sticky-sweet style of wine with notes of raisin, dates and candied fruits. PX makes for a fantastic dessert wine but the sheer intensity of flavours make this ultra-sweet Sherry somewhat difficult to control when maturing whisky for a long period of time. As such, PX is more commonly used for finishing an already matured whisky to add an additional layer of complexity. Cask 7.199 ‘Self perpetuating perfection’ is a perfect example of how adding a thin veil of sticky-sweet PX influence to an old and dignified, American oak-matured whisky can create an incredibly harmonious and well-balanced flavour profile.

As the weather turns colder and winter swiftly approaches, the thought of enjoying a rich and hearty Sherry-matured whisky by a roaring fire gives me every reason to be excited. Tasting these two styles side-by-side is not only a great way to learn the unique characteristics of each, but perhaps the most fun a whisky drinker can have in the great indoors.

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