Home / Mint-lounge / Indulge /  Why sherry casks are so important to Scotch

Before writing my article last month, I had just visited Jerez in the south of Spain to see the production of sherry casks that Scotch whiskies end up maturing in. I’d mentioned last month that this month’s article will focus on why sherry casks are so important to the maturation of Scotch and the flavours they impart to the liquor.

However, before I start, I want to tell you a little story. While growing up, I had the pleasure of witnessing an education system that was not only rich in knowledge, but also had a strong focus on sports. Athletics, rugby, football, hockey and cricket were among the favourite pastimes at my school and I ended up focusing on sprinting, soccer and, of course, cricket.

Football is a winter sport, so I got my “team sports" summer hit from playing cricket. I never excelled at the sport as much as I did at soccer or athletics, but those of you who are regular readers (and why would you not be?) will know that cricket is a passion that I now hold as a spectator, living until recently, for nearly two decades in the shadow of the famous Oval stadium in London; a regular there for both Surrey matches and England internationals.

As a young cricketer (I was never going to make it as I don’t have a middle name; all great English cricketers need at least one middle name to bulk out the scoreboard), I shared the outfield with a few lads who went on to play professionally at county level and one or two who even turned out for their country.

I remember one chap (I shall withhold his name, to keep our school’s reputation safe) who ended up as a pro, and is still playing today, who once forgot to carry his bat on a short trip to a neighbouring college. Being a pretty awful batsman (bowling is my game) and playing very low down the order, I had a lovely piece of willow that, due to my very occasional and utterly short stay at the crease, was almost brand new. As a result, I offered him my trusty piece of wood to replace the one he’d carelessly left at home.

Grateful, he took my bat and duly made his way out to open the match. With supreme confidence, our two openers who were feared in the local scene, waited patiently for the rookie bowler, new to the area and nervous to face batsmen with such fearsome reputations.

What followed was a pretty standard opening over, with our king of the crease wisely playing three forward defensive shots to steady the ship, before the fourth ball of the over gave him a chance to steal a quick single with a sweeping drive—his favoured shot. But as he lurched forward to connect, he fumbled taking more of the ground than the ball that took a huge edge and looped towards the second slip for a comfortable catch.

Embarrassed, our opener could hear ducks quaking in the distance as he stomped back to the club h house, thrusting my bat back at me with a stern look.

Now, this fella was not a bad batsman. So good in fact that he went pro. But his key was a consistent bat. He wanted, no, actually needed a bat he knew. From the weight, to the grip, to general reassurance...what he needed was not a new friend, but an old acquaintance.

The same is true with our whisky makers. The single most important thing when it comes to American bourbon, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky or Scotch is the wood. Give a whisky maker a barrel he is not familiar with and he’ll probably end up with bad whisky.

Master whisky maker Dr Bill Lumsden is the man behind the wonderful whisky that ends up in a bottle marked with the name Glenmorangie. He understands wood to the point that his title of Doctor was earned from studying just that.

Not only is Dr Lumsden a master of whisky, but he is a true experimenter; releasing a new limited edition each year that has been matured in a barrel of truly exciting proportions (a few years back it was sweet wine casks from the Sassicaia region for his Artein edition and, this year his Companta edition is matured in Grand Cru French wine barrels). However, Dr Lumsden will be the first person to admit that not all his experiments work. In fact, most of them don’t, which makes the ones that do extremely special.

But back to Spain and to our sherry casks. Spanish sherry-seasoned oak casks can be made from wood sourced in both Europe and America. In America, casks are often held back and used to mature bourbon, before being purchased by Scottish distillers.

Next month, I head to Kentucky in the US to see what all the fuss is about with their bourbon casks, but what we do know is that sherry-seasoned oak gives whisky, and Scotch in particular, rich tones of red fruits, jams, some spices and a big element of the past: dusty old second-hand books and vintage leather jackets.

This style of flavour is highly sought-after by Scotch producers and you can find some wonderfully sherry-only matured whisky in brands such as The Macallan and Glenfarclas single-malt Scotch whiskies.

However, most whiskies (both single malts and blended ones) will have a mixture of casks in their make-up, to help the producer deliver a consistent flavour to you, the consumer. If you ever get a chance to try a 100% sherry-matured whisky, then jump at it, as it is good to see how this matures differently from an ex-bourbon cask (something we will look at next month) and will help you to have a greater understanding of the make-up of your most loved Scotch (and Japanese and Irish) whiskies.

Knowledge is power and as a regular reader of the column, I expect you to be a superstar opening batsman by now; ordering G&T with authority and consuming whisky while understanding its background... But don’t make the mistake that my friend did in school: don’t borrow the knowledge, own it. That way, you’ll always have the swagger of a man on a mission and you’ll never be caught out. Literally.

Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net. He is on Twitter at @WeHeartWhisky

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