E-pistle 2009/16 – Ask an Anorak: A Sherried Discussion (Part 1)

Johannes – Aha…. With the previous E-pistle Dave has given us a very interesting follow-up on the sulphur discussion in MM#112. And just checking to see if I understand it correctly: if they use the phrase ‘sherry seasoned’ it means that a cask was treated with sherry purely with the whisky industry in mind? I.e. those casks were not used for maturing or shipping actual sherry that was meant for consumption?

Dave – Sherry seasoned is a term that’s been used since the 19th century (Wm Sanderson used it in 1862) initially referring to shipping casks and which is now used for the bespoke casks. It’s used to differentiate between solera (ie casks whic have had sherry in them for many many years) and those which have had sherry in them for a relatively short period of time. It’s not a legal definition!!

Craig – Thanks for the comprehensive article Dave, but I’d always figured that there were differences between American oak and European oak and that it hadn’t altogether to do with either charring or previous contents. What I wonder is how we can sort out sherry butt matured whisky that isn’t sulphur affected? The Mortlach I found singularly unaffected was nominated sherry butt – but not first fill sherry butt and based on the citrus extractives I would never have suggested first fill – but the question remains, when then all the bottlers say ‘sherry matured” what do they actually mean as we know there are multiple versions of sherry wood???

Dave – There are fundamental differences between American and European oak (or q.Alba and q.Robur) in terms of porosity, extractives, tannin levels and also coopering methods. American oak for bourbon will be charred. American oak for wine (inc sherry) will not be charred but may be heavily toasted. Remember toasting also gives flavour an that you will not get any flavour compounds produced if the cask is not first toasted. So, it’s all of these things together. Sherry butt non sulphur? Could be ex-solera, could be from a bespoke cask where no sulphur is used in the coopering process, could simply be refill where the sulphur components derived from the treatment of the cask have disappeared. Again, it’s not just one thing! From your notes to the Mortlach I’d guess the sherry butt was refill and probably American oak. The thing with Mortlach is that it is a meaty/sulphury new make (same for Benrinnes and dailuaine by the way). Put that in first fill sherry cask and it’s the double whammy!

Sherry matured is simply shorthand for the cask type, ie it had once held sherry. Maybe once the whisky industry finally begins to examine wood things will change but don’t hold your breath…

Craig – Hi Dave, I’d worked this out a while ago and thanks for the reminder; based on my notes I’d agree that the Mortlach came from refill sherry butt from American oak, but how the hell would anyone looking at the bottle know that? I think I like sherry matured malts from American Oak better than European Oak anyway, but to be totally sure I’d need to know what wood the most magnificent Bowmores (not the Black Bowmores) from the early 1970s were matured in as they always screamed American oak to me as did the lauded Banffs and Glenglassaughs.

Dave – Err .. no-one would and I suspect the distiller/bottler wouldn’t know either. Fact is, most of the “sherry casks” are marked as just that. It is only relatively recently that the differences in wood type have been investigated. So, you can say what species the new bespoke casks are made from, for the others, until recently when a chemical test was invented, it was impossible to say.

Davin – And also, white oak includes many species besides Quercus alba. Quercus alba is a name botonists use for a single species, but once cut there are at least a dozen species that cannot be distinguished. In the lumber trade they are all called white oak.  It is my understanding some American coopers will specify Quercus alba, but others simply buy white oak.  There was a well-known goof-up a few years back when Jack Daniels proudly displayed one of their oak trees in an ad and it turned out to be a pin oak if I remember.

Michel – Too bad this isn’t a Sherry piece… In his book ‘Sherry and the Sherry Bodegas’ Jan Read has a firm believe tannins are the nemesis of Flor – no reference in his book about fortifying. Keeping the romantic touch?

Dave – well Michel.. let’s do a sherry and free jazz matching piece! Sherry is fortified.. less so than in the past perhaps but it is!  (and check page 64 of Jan Read’s “Sherry and the Sherry Bodegas”).

Michel – Ha, I just had Ayler’s ‘Last Album’ screaming from the speakers – now easing out with some Leo parker and Grachan Moncur III ‘Echoes of Prayer’ is up in a few minutes… That matching piece is overly tempting!!! 🙂 About page 64… me so bad…  ‘mitad y mitad’ slipped from my mind…  Right, I have this deadline in a few hours and the only thing I do is performing air-saxophone to one of the cats… back to work!

Serge – These sherries would probably quickly get bone-dry if they weren’t fortified (thus stopping fermentation), unless vessel cooling is done. And then, no sugar left means no further yeast work (flor and so on). … But I’m no winemaker…

Dave – Well… Sherries are fortified after fermentation is complete. all sherries are dry. any sweetness in bottled product comes from the blending process when grape must, moscatel or PX is added. It’s port where fortification is used to stop fermentation, making them sweet.

Serge – Ah, right… So it’s the juice that’s poured into the casks, no fermentation in vats before exposition to flor?

Michel – Fermentation is done before it’s put in the casks…Got a very troublesome reference now. Two books that state the oposit when it come to designate the wine – will it become Fino/Amotillado Read nails it down to adding alcohol, Wim Mey (Dutch Sherry anorach from the 60’s and 70’s) nails it at a later stage when levels of Flor in the cask are checked. Enough Flor will follow the path Fino/Amontillado, Moderate to low level will be Palo Cortado and too low will be Oloroso.

Serge – Okay, I still don’t get it then… (but it’s probably me). If complete fermentation is done before the wine’s put into the casks, and if the wine is 100% dry, how does the flor form/survive in the casks?

Dave – The way Michel described it was certainly the old way of doing it and some traditionalists may continue to operate like this: i.e. make all the wine the same way and then check what was behaving in what way and select. These days most firms make the decision about taking the fino or oloroso path much earlier. They will know how much fino/amo they need to make and will treat the wines accordingly (pressing, ferment, choice of vineyard etc). They also know how much oloroso they need and so will fortify to a higher degree at the start of the aging process to kill off any chance of flor appearing. Different pressings, vineyards will also come nto play here as well.

One of the strange things about flor is that it will  only form once the grape sugar is fully fermented out and that the surface of the wine is exposed to air. It also only grows in certain temperatures and when alcoholic strength is between 15 and 15.5.

Flor is a collection of yeasts. When you fortify the wine (ie increase the strength) these yeasts rise to the surface of the  wine and change their metabolic state from the aneorobic (ie without air) to aerobic (ie with air). In other words, these complex yeasts need air on order to live (they continue to feed on elements in the wine) but too much oxidation will kill them off. A slow, controlled, feeding of oxygen is needed. It ain’t easy!

There’s a whole number of other very precise factors which allow flor to form, some from winemaking practise others thanks to the conditions of the region. It’s one reason why flor is so rare. It’s present in the Jerez region but  even here the levels of flor will vary between bodegas in Jerez (relatively low) Puerto (thicker) and Sanclucar (thickest) As a result, finos from Jerez tend to be slightly fuller than those from Puerto while those from Sanlucar (aka manzanilla) are the lightest and driest.

Michel – The forming of Flor is a (former – now more and more controlled) spontanious process of various kinds of yeast. Each stage of maturing sees other dominant types or slight alterations of a type yeast that in some stage of live wants to be exposed to oxigen. A cask sees quite some yeast lifecycles in its belly. I believe Flor can maintain itself up to six years in the cask. To refer to your Macle message on Twitter, it’s the same process in Jura as in Jerez. Chateau Chalon quit be easily mistaken as an anabolic Fino. It’s quite a subject that is very hard (for me) to distill to a few lines…

Serge – Yeah, vin jaune… (except that the latter isn’t fortified). It’s what we call ‘goût de jaune’ (taste of yellow) that I find in the very few finos that I could try as well. Very interesting what you both say about it being endemic to the places. Many Jura wines that never see flor get a bit of this ‘taste of yellow’, Savagnins of course but also chardonnay… The flor is what we call “voile” (veil?) and Plageolles makes some interesting “vins de voile” in the South-West of France as well. Thanks guys, your knowledge is as deep as our tunnel to China.

Dave – Love vin jaune .. and Plageolles is a good producer as well. In Spain you’ll also get flor in neighbouring regions to Jerez like Montilla and Huelva and the Algarve. There’s also some from Palomino in Rueda though it’s hard to find. There’s also flor influenced wines from Romania (though I’ve never tried em) and Hungary. They’ve tried seeding it in the Barossa (the fortified wines from Seppelt are wonderful) and South Africa.

Serge – Blimey, so many ‘unknown’ wines to try then… Thanks!Maybe we should try to come up with a list of ‘best wines for whisky lovers’ (who are no wine buffs)?

Michel – Serge, the effect you’ve described could be a case of natural high levels of acetaldehydes in the wine… one of the important aroma components in Fino’s. With this I’m completely on thin ice… the books are very hazy at this point…

Dave – Good idea Serge,
And acetaldehyde might be one of the answers Michel, but as with whisky there’s never just one clear answer!

Johannes – Well fellows… while sherry is a ‘wine’, a list of wines might be taking things a little too far off topic; let’s keep that for our next issue. This has little to do with the fact that my palate is too childish for most wines (except desert wines) – it’s just that our AaA discussions have a tendency to get off course…

Ho-cheng – Can any body confirm if all Highland Park OB bottling still use 100% sherry cask matured whisky in core range? If not, any reference I can use? Got a request to understand this statement.

Dave – Yes they do. the confusion is the term ‘sherry’ which people take to mean european oak + dried fruit etc etc; whereas they also use (and always have done) ex-American oak sherry wood as well. .. and refill where the influence of the oak/sherry mix is less.

Olivier – I know that since 2008 they do not use caramel on their younger versions as in the past. The 12yo has a lot of fresh sherry casks in order to adjust the colour… They do say that it is complicated to have a standart colour like this, but it is worth the trouble. But then I am not sure that 100% casks they use are ex sherry. (whether refill or not, or European or American wood…).

Ho-cheng Yao – Thanks Dave, another question: I remember I read in some article that their content including seasoned cask(without saying it’s sherry cask.) I guess it means refill casks.  Are they also used sherry refill casks or possible some bourbon refill casks as well? I’ve checked some reference and it seems their cask policy does not contain fresh bourbon barrels?

Dave – As with any term used when sherry is around, the term ‘seasoned’ is potentially confusing! As far as I can tell it means bespoke sherry casks (ie ones made to Highland Park/Edrington’s specifics) which have been ‘seasoned’ with sherry for a period of time, as against those casks which have come through the sherry production system (ex-solera or ex-shipping). Refill is anything which has already held whisky (ie 2nd fill 3rd fill etc).

It’s possible there are ex-bourbon sherry seasoned casks, but they’ll be pretty old. This was common in the 1960s when the supply of shipping casks dried up. Distillers, wanting a sherry hit in their whiskies, took ex-bourbon hoggies and treated them with paxerete. If there are any at HP they will now be regarded as refill. I can’t say whether there are any or not. Certainly paxerete treatment was stopped a long time ago. Certainly there’s no first fill bourbon used for the single malt.

Refill is another potentially confusing term, though used to give a certain degree of clarity! First fill will give you the big hit of oak type + sherry. In the refill cask this impact will be lessened (often considerably) allowing distillery character to be shown. They are still “sherry casks” though! Blenders/IBs will specify different casks types for their own requirements.

Johannes – And with those final bits of wisdom this AaA discussion gradually fizzled out. For me personally, it illustrated two things… First, that the production of sherry really requires a lot of craftsmanship – and second that some whisky producers are quite ‘crafty’ when it comes to finding new ways to reproduce or mimic the effects of time, wood and the local environment. Somehow, this reminded me of a scene from the British TV series ‘Bottom’ where Eddie reviews some home-brewed liquor that he made in his bathtub with the timeless words “It has a certain robustness that demands attention!” – to which his friend replies: “Possibly medical”.