Everyone has heard of whisky, made from fermented grains, and used in popular drinks like Hot Toddies and Manhattans. I’m sure most of us have also heard of sherry, a sweet, fortified wine. But do you know what Sherry cask whisky is?
Sherry cask whisky is made when the whisky is matured in a sherry cask. This gives the whisky a fruitier, softer finish than other maturing methods. Sherry cask whisky is a favorite of whisky enthusiasts due to its unique flavor profile.
In this article we will break down the history of sherry casks and whisky, how sherry cask whisky compares to other types of whisky and discuss some of the best sherry cask whiskies you can buy!
Table of Contents – Sip this Article!
- What is Sherry?
- Sherry Cask Whisky – Which Casks are used for whisky aging?
- What Does Sherry Cask Whisky Taste Like?
- Top 10 Best Sherry Cask Whisky Expressions
- Tamdhu 12 Year Sherry Cask Whisky
- Aberlour A’bunadh Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- The Dalmore 12 Year Sherry Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Laphroaig 10 Year Sherry Cask Whisky
- The Balvenie Doublewood 12 Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Shieldaig Oloroso Cask Finish Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- GlenDronach 12 Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- The Macallan 12 Years Double Cask Single Malt Cask Whisky
- Auchentoshan Three Wood Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Glenfarclas 105 Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Final Thoughts
To discuss sherry cask whisky, we first need to understand what sherry is! If you think that sherry is one specific type of wine, you would be mistaken! But don’t worry, this is a common mistake. In truth, Sherry encompasses different types of wine that must come from a specific region in southern Spain.
The “Sherry Triangle,” as it is affectionately called lies between three towns: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. If a wine is produced in the exact same fashion in a different area, it still can’t be called sherry – as it happens with different types of whisky such as Scotch, Irish or Bourbon!
Sherry comes in eight different wine varieties: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, and Cream. The differences between these varieties depend on three main things:
- The type of grape,
- The location, and
- The aging process.
Sherry is regulated by the Consejo Regulador, which is the regulatory body who sets the processes the makers of sherry must follow for it to legally be called sherry.
This type of casks used to mature whisky are still one of the public’s favorites, and many sherry producers actually make more money producing the casks than they do making the actual wine. This is unique to sherry casks, whereas sherry has fallen slightly out of favor in many areas contrarily to other alcoholic beverages.
There are three of the eight sherry varieties that are considered most common, especially for producing sherry cask whisky: Fino, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez.
Fino is a dry sherry that is lighter than other types. It is a yeastier variety with a lot of zing and nutty flavor notes. This type of sherry is made when you fortify the sherry up to around 15%. This adds a higher alcohol content to the wine, but still allows the yeasts to remain alive so they can clump on the surface and keep digesting any remaining sugars.
Fino sherry is almost always matured in an American oak cask and isn’t often used for whisky maturation. The most highlighted whisky matured in Fino Sherry Casks is Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask Single Malt.
Oloroso is the sherry cask most often used for whisky. It is a rich and sweet wine that comes in a lot of different varieties. Generally, the wine is fortified to around 17%, which is enough to kill off the yeasts. The wine matures without that upper layer of yeasts to keep it light, which means it develops a darker color.
Since it is often used, there are a lot of whisky expressions matured or finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks. The Aberlour A’bunadh, the Dalmore 12 Years and the The Balvenie Doublewood 12 are among the best value sherry cask scotch one can buy.
Pedro Ximénez sherry, or PX, begins with grapes that are more raisin-like. The grapes are dried before they are pressed, which creates a sugary juice. PX sherry is much sweeter than the other varieties and its casks are used to produce premium and more unique whisky expressions.
PX sherry casks are often used mixed with Oloroso Sherry casks and you can find that in expressions like GlenDronach 12 Years and Auchentoshan Three Wood. You might also want to taste expressions as Laphroaig PX Cask and the Glengoyne Pedro Ximenez Sherry Cask.
So, now onto the topic we are most interested in, sherry cask whisky! The old casks used during the sherry maturation process are not the same ones that the sherry cask whisky would be matured in. This is for one simple reason: The whisky maturation process wants the flavor from the wood!
Well then which casks are used? The answer is a little complicated. The Spanish government has changed laws about sherry exporting, which means what used to constitute a sherry cask isn’t the same anymore.
Prior to 1981, sherry was often transported from the solera into a shipping cask for the exporting process.
So, if it was exported to the United States, once it arrived, it would immediately be emptied from the cask. Although the sherry only stayed in the cask for the journey, that is still enough time for the sherry flavor to penetrate the wood.
Once emptied, those casks would be re-sold to be used for the maturation of other spirits, a popular one being whisky. But, in 1981, the Consejo Regulador changed the export regulations.
In 1981 the Spanish government outlawed the use of transport casks. This made sherry casks extremely hard to come by, and when they were found, they were much more expensive than an ex-bourbon cask (another popular cask used for whisky maturation).
This led to some ingenuity and a new market: the manufacturing of sherry casks for whisky maturation. Sherry producers decided to start creating barrels that could be used by the whisky industry.
To do this they would take new oak casks, the most common wood used for whisky maturation, and season them with the sherry for a short period of time. Generally, this would be about a few months. That sherry would likely be re-used to rinse/season other casks, until it needs to be retired and can be used to make sherry vinegar.
This new market led the Consejo Regulador to make some regulations for sherry seasoned casks to control the quality being shipped to other spirit makers. For a cask to get a “Sherry Cask” label it must meet the following three regulations:
- It must be filled at least 85% with certified Sherry wine made by suppliers registered with the Consejo Regulador
- It must hold the wine at the 85% level for the entire seasoning process
- The barrel must hold the wine for at least one year
These regulations were only passed in 2015! Which means they are still fairly new. Interestingly enough, there are no regulations about the age of sherry that should be used, if sherry can be reused, or how the casks must be transported.
All these factors would have an influence on the result of the whisky, for instance if the sherry is re-used to rinse multiple barrels, it would likely produce a slightly different taste in the whisky as the re-used sherry would contain more wood tannins.
However, it is likely that whisky distilleries can determine some of this information for themselves and make specific deals with the sherry cask producers, so they know exactly what they are paying for.
While we briefly touched on the process for making a sherry cask already, we would like to discuss this more in depth. The first consideration that must be made is which type of wood that will be used. There are two types of wood that are usually used to make sherry casks, American oak, or European oak.
American oak produces a sweeter flavor, with vanilla, coconut, and fruity flavors. It also has a wider grain than European oak.
European oak, on the other hand, has a spicier profile, with flavors note such as dried fruit and caramelized citrus coming through into the spirit. This variety is also much less consistent when it grows, which means there is often more waste when it is used to make casks.
Once the wood is delivered to the cask-maker, they must season the wood. This is simply the drying process that makes the wood easier to work with. It will generally season for any length of time, months to years, depending on the type of wood.
After this the planks of wood are turned into staves, which is what is used to make the cask. But they are still flat pieces of wood at this point, not shaped in the barrel form of a cask yet.
To make the wood curved, the stakes are formed into a tent-like structure held together with a metal band. They are placed over an ember fire and toasted slowly, with water thrown around them occasionally to steam and soften the wood. They are slowly molded into the barrel shape and additional metal bands are placed to hold the wood together.
The casks are generally filled with a younger sherry to season them. This sherry is left for the required amount of time before it is retired and used to season another cask. Sherry can be used to season around four casks before the flavor is too oaky. At this point it is used to make sherry vinegar.
The cask is then shipped to its new destination, generally Scotland, where it will be used to make whisky!
There are some passionate whisky enthusiasts that will argue the new method of seasoning casks with sherry to be used in whisky maturation doesn’t produce nearly the same quality sherry cask whisky as the old method using the sherry shipping casks.
There are arguments that seasoned sherry casks have a taste similar to sulfur that puts some people off.
But, considering true sherry casks are extremely hard to come by, now that it is illegal to transport them, it is hard for a member of the general public to get their hands on a whisky that was put into a sherry cask prior to 1981, it isn’t a reasonable argument.
And, after all, the process does try to mimic the shipping timeframe as much as possible, so the arguments surrounding the inauthenticity don’t hold too much weight today.
Sherry cask whisky and bourbon cask whisky are some of the most common casks used in whisky maturation out there. The distinction is fairly obvious, the sherry whisky is matured in a sherry cask, and the bourbon whisky is matured in a ex-bourbon cask.
However, what is the difference in flavor in the finished whiskies? Well, the flavor is influenced more than just the cask, it is from the grain used, the water, the fermentation process, distillation process, as well as the cask.
You’ll likely notice two main differences between bourbon and sherry cask whisky, the color and the taste. A bourbon cask whisky will generally appear a more golden color, whereas the sherry will tend to be darker, and almost red colored.
Regarding the flavors, it is quite difficult to separate out whisky flavors only by the type of cask used for maturation considering how many other factors go into the final flavor of a whisky. Nevertheless, in sherry cask whisky is thought to be slightly more complex. It may include some sort of spice, as well as a dried fruit flavor. The bourbon cask whisky is generally thought to be smoother with sweeter flavors like vanilla coming through more often.
There are a lot of producers of sherry cask whisky, but there are some expressions that definitely stand out. This is our top ten different sherry cask whiskies that everyone should taste at least once!
Tamdu is another well-known distillery based in Scotland. This scotch whisky expression is aged in Oloroso sherry casks and has both spicy and sweet notices, with the hint of dried fruit that sherry cask whisky is known for. It has a pretty complex flavor profile and is widely loved among whisky enthusiasts.
Aberlour A’bunadh is one of the most popular sherry cask whiskies out there. It is made using Oloroso sherry casks and has a lot of sweet flavors that shine through into the whisky. The signature dried fruit and vanilla is obvious, but it also contains notes of toasted oak and sweet caramel.
It is a delicious sherry cask whisky that you should definitely try if you’re interested in this variety. Aberlour A’bunadh is a great example of what sherry cask whisky tastes like in its best form.
The Dalmore is a widely known distillery based in Scotland that sells some of the best whisky in the world. This whisky is actually a hybrid between a bourbon cask whisky and a sherry cask whisky.
First, the Dalmore 12-year old whisky is matured in a bourbon barrel for a set amount of time. Then, some of the whisky is transferred into specialized 30 year old Oloroso sherry casks. The two whiskies are blended together to create a whisky with a complex flavor. It has the signature dried fruit and candied citrus flavor, along with a chocolate sweetness and the hint of sherry.
Laproaig is a treasure distillery among whisky lovers and is known for their Laphroaig 10 Year Old. However, their 10 year sherry oak single malt whisky, while a departure from their signature peat-smoked, astringent flavor profile, is delicious.
It is distilled and matured similarly to the original 10 Year Old, but it is finished in the Oloroso sherry cask for the last 12 months. This final finishing adds some of the sherry signature flavors like honey and a nutty aftertaste.
This whisky by Balvenie is unique because it is aged in two different types of oak. First, it spends most of the maturing process in American oak barrels, and then is transferred to European oak casks previously used for Oloroso sherry for the last nine months of the process.
It is smoky, like the Shieldaig whisky, but is a complex whisky that also carries a hint of cinnamon, vanilla, and citrus.
This whisky is named after the town Shieldaig that it is bottled in, which is a small village in Scotland. It is made by Ian Macleod, which is a brand that owns other famous distilleries, such as Tamdu.
The whisky is matured in oak barrels before it is finished in an Oloroso sherry cask which results in a smoky whisky with the sweet sherry notes.
The Glendronach distillery in Scotland is located in the East Highland hills near Aberdeenshire. They are world renowned for their sherry cask whiskies and as a result must be mentioned on this list.
This whisky is the first one made with another form of sherry besides Oloroso. The 12-year single malt scotch whisky is matured in Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. This creates a fairly sweet whisky with notes of toffee, chocolate, cherry, citrus, and a slightly spicy aftertaste.
The Macallan is known as one of the best makers of single malt scotch whisky out there. Located in Scotland, they have been producing whisky for almost 200 years. This whisky is aged in both American oak barrels and European oak sherry casks for at least 12 years.
The whisky has notes of berry, vanilla bean, and butterscotch, which brings it over to the sweet side of sherry cask whiskeys.
This is another whisky made with both Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. In fact, this is the only whisky on the list that uses three different barrels! It’s made with old bourbon barrels, Oloroso sherry casks, and Pedro Ximénez casks.
It is another fairly dweet whisky, although it does have a slightly smoky finish. It has notes of toffee, chocolate, and cherries as well.
Glenfarclas is a family-owned distillery in Scotland that produces a few different high quality whiskies. The 105 is matured between 8-10 years in a combination of bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry casks.
This whisky is 120 proof, a bold, spicy, whisky with notes of citrus, berries, pepper, and caramel.
Hopefully this article has answered all of your burning questions about what exactly constitutes a sherry cask whisky. While these may not be quite as common as bourbon cask whiskies, they are still widely loved by many.
Sherry cask whisky has a unique flavor profile you won’t find in another spirit, and if you’re interested in trying it, consider picking up one of the sherry whiskies we presented in the article.