No Liquid, All the Flavor: The Real Business Behind Sherry Barrel Aging
It’s like an alcoholic version of the chicken-or-egg problem: sherry cask whiskeys are very popular, but, in general, sherry itself is not. If people don’t really drink sherry, where do the 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 towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. in the province of Cadiz. For centuries, this region has produced legendary sweet and dry wines – all widely known as sherry – using the solera process, which fractionally blends new vintages with older vintages, aging them in a series of wooden barrels. Originally, a sherry cask was just that: a wooden cask that had been used to make sherry – or, more commonly, to ship it overseas. But in 1986 Spanish law changed and the export of sherry in wooden casks was banned, rendering the previous concept of a sherry cask obsolete.
An inexpensive resource
Until this change, a large number of sherry casks were destined for the United Kingdom, which was once the largest consumer of the drink in the world. Both thrifty and clever, people there quickly found a use for those empty barrels, like Henry H. Work, the author of “Wood, whiskey and wine: a story of barrels“, Explain.
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“They used to ship barrels of sherry to places like London and then bottle the sherry and sell it,” he says. The remaining barrels were an attractive and inexpensive resource. “They were opportunistic. They were cheap. They didn’t need to buy new barrels. But once that law came into effect in the 1980s, things changed.” be shipped, so Scotch whiskey distilleries no longer had the resource of used sherry casks,” says Work.
But at that time, it wasn’t just economy or ingenuity that drove the use of old sherry casks. Great fino, oloroso, palo cortado, Pedro Ximénez and amontillado sherries can be wonderfully complex, with rich notes of dried fruit, nuts, leather and other alluring characteristics. Some of this complexity of flavors and aromas was appreciated by Scottish distillers and their customers, says Work.
“If they thought there was a benefit to using sherry casks, meaning a specific taste that their customers liked, they would want to continue doing that,” he says.
Initially, any lack of sherry character could be corrected with a dose of paxarette, a Spanish dessert wine commonly used to recondition – here meaning to restore flavor to – old worn out sherry casks. However, in 1990 the legal regulations governing Scotch whisky, known as the Scotch Whiskey Order, were changed. Therefore, paxarette is considered a flavoring agent and its use in the production of Scotch whiskey is prohibited.
These two legal decisions have led to the growth of an important new business in the Sherry Triangle: the sherry cask trade, which produces sherry-flavored casks for export. Today, Work notes, there are actually two types of sherry casks made in the sherry triangle.
“You get into the solera process, and it stays in that solera for years and years and years. It gets patina around the outside, from the vibe of mold and fungus growing in the area, and it gets the sherry blossom on the inside,” he says. “And there’s another type of barrel that coopers make, and basically these coopers make an export-style barrel.”
An important new product
These exported, sherry-flavored casks were primarily intended for the Scotch whiskey industry, although their popularity has since spread to many other beverages. Due to Spanish law, they cannot be used to export sherry. They also aren’t typically used to make sherry itself – at least not the kind people drink. Instead, they are filled with an inexpensive and relatively young sherry, specially made to season casks destined for export. Markus Eder, dealer of new and used casks, including sherry casks at Guillaume Eder in Germany notes that this sherry can be used to make up to half a dozen sherry casks.
“After repeating this seasoning process about five or six times, you can no longer use this sherry. So you make vinegar out of it, or you throw it away,” he says. “I know of bodegas in Spain that make a million liters of sherry just to season the casks. Basically, the sherry industry only works for the Scotch whiskey industry.
This may sound like a stretch, but the scale of the sherry cask trade today is truly astounding. Due to the current whiskey boom, its importance is increasing, unlike the collapse of the sherry wine industry. Total annual sherry sales are only about a fifth of what they were at their peak three or four decades ago, dropping from around 150 million liters a year to around 30 million liters in recent years, as sherry educator Ruben Luyten reported to sherrynotes.com. (By contrast, the export market for Scotch whiskey alone was around 1 billion liters in 2021.) Recent articles might have argued that sherry is see the growth in some markets, citing an increase in exports of quality dry sherry, but Luyten points out that any improvement in dry sherry sales is offset by continued losses in sweet versions. Overall, the sherry wine industry is now much smaller than it once was.
“I don’t think the revenue and associated profits are disclosed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the sherry cask industry overtook the wine industry,” Luyten says.
Some calculations at the bottom of the envelope show that this may have already happened, at least in terms of the number of barrels. Some 84,100 casks of sherry were exported last year, says Luyten, as he calculates the volume of all sherry wine sold last year as totaling only around 63,600 casks.
This means that the sherry-flavored cask industry has acquired an important role in the sherry triangle, keeping coopers, vineyards and winemakers in business, even if it is not primarily the business of making the sherry that people drink. In 2015, the Consejo Regulador regulatory board that controls “Jerez-Xérès-Sherry” DOP also began regulating the term “sherry cask”, offering certification of authenticity and several regulatory standardsPrimarily, that sherry casks must be filled with sherry from DOP Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, and that each cask must initially be filled to at least 85 percent of its volume and remain at least two-thirds full for at least less than a year.
César Saldaña, president of the Consejo Regulador, however, claims that the average age of a sherry cask is slightly above the bare minimum.
“Actually, the average seasoning at this point is 18 months,” he says. “For some of the operators here in Jerez it has become a very important activity.”
He notes that the Consejo Regulador plans to expand the cask regulations it launched in 2015. The next step will be to create a register of distillers who buy certified sherry casks.
“Until we regulated the term ‘sherry cask’, there were a lot of distillers who bought their casks from different parts of Spain, casks that were seasoned with different types of wine,” he says. “Now, with this second step, we’re going to make sure producers who use the term ‘sherry cask’ on their labels are actually using a real sherry cask.”
Advantages and disadvantages
Although today’s sherry casks differ from both production casks and casks used for export before 1986, they are not necessarily a step down. This month, Edinburgh brewery Innis & Gunn launched the Original:PX, a special sherried cask version of its classic barrel-aged ale, finished in a blend of first-fill Pedro Ximénez hogsheads, or 250 liter drums, and second fill Pedro Ximénez butts, or 500 liter drums. Dougal Gunn Sharp, founder and brewmaster of the brewery, notes that modern sherry finishing casks can offer advantages over production casks or older shipping casks.
“In some ways it improves the quality and processing of the finished product,” he says. “The consistency of the barrels has improved considerably. It’s also more durable. For its sherry-finish beer, Sharp hoped to achieve some of the characteristics of Pedro Ximénez dessert wine: fruity and spicy aromas, a sweeter flavor profile, and hints of chocolate and banana. It all happened, he says.
“It’s absolutely delicious, one of the tastiest limited edition beers we’ve ever brewed,” he says. While sherry-finished beer remains a relative rarity, the use of sherry casks in Scotch whiskey shows few signs of slowing down: Luyten notes that three times as many sherry casks have been sold than just five year. Cost advantages mean they are now typically made from imported American oak, which can cost half the price of French or Hungarian oak, according to Work.
As remnants of the ancient wine and spirits trade, sherry casks can be difficult to understand, even for those working in the beverage industry. Eder says the most common misunderstanding he encounters is a customer who thinks they can easily buy a cask that has been used to produce sherry for many decades, instead of a new American oak cask that has been seasoned with sherry for only 12 months. Older, well-used production barrels still exist, he says, though they’re usually only about seven years old these days. They’re not easy to find, he says, and they certainly aren’t cheap.
“If you’re trying to find a really old keg, you have to spend money,” he says.
The idea that Scottish producers are not allowed to flavor their whiskies, he says, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that most sherry casks are produced specifically for the Scotch whiskey industry, after which the sherry could be discarded or turned into vinegar. If the sherry used to flavor the sherry casks isn’t actually a drink, then what is?
“More or less, it’s just a flavor,” he says. “My opinion is that it would be more honest to allow an additive like paxarette.”
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