None of the liquid, all the flavor: The real business behind sherry cask aging

It’s like a drunken version of the chicken-or-egg problem: sherry cask whiskeys are wildly popular, but generally speaking, sherry itself isn’t. If people don’t really drink sherry, where do 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 cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María in the province of Cádiz. For centuries, this region has produced legendary sweet and dry wines—all commonly known as sherry—using the solera process, which partially blends new vintages with older vintages by aging them in a series of wooden casks. Originally, a sherry cask was just that: a wooden cask that was used to make sherry – or, more commonly, to transport it overseas. But in 1986 Spanish legislation changed and the export of sherry in wooden casks was banned, making the previous sherry cask concept obsolete.

A cheap resource

Until this change, quite a few casks of sherry went to the United Kingdom, which was once the largest consumer of the drink in the world. Being both thrifty and clever, people there soon found a use for these empty barrels, as Henry H. Work, author of Wood, Whiskey, and Wine: A History of Barrels, explains.

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“They used to ship sherry casks to places like London and then bottle the sherry there and sell it,” he says. The remaining barrels made an attractive and cheap resource. “They were opportunistic. They were cheap. They didn’t need to buy new barrels.” But after that law went into effect in the 1980s, things changed. “Casks could no longer be transported, so Scotch distilleries no longer had the resource of used sherry casks,” says Work.

But at this point it wasn’t just frugality or ingenuity that drove the use of previous sherry casks. Great Fino, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Pedro Jimenez and Amontillado sherries can be wonderfully complex, with rich notes of dried fruit, nuts, leather and other appealing characteristics. Some of that complexity of flavor and aroma was appreciated by Scotch distillers and their customers, says Work.

“If they think there is any advantage in using sherry casks, that is. a specific flavor that their customers like, they would want to keep doing it,” he says.

Initially, any lack of sherry character can be remedied with a shot of paxarette, a Spanish dessert wine commonly used to restore — here meaning adding flavors back into — old, worn sherry casks. However, in 1990 the legal regulations governing Scotch whisky, known as the Scotch Whiskey Order, were changed. From then on, paxarette was considered a flavoring agent and its use in the production of Scotch whiskey was prohibited.

Credit: Wilhelm Eder

These two legal enactments led to the growth of an important new business in the Sherry Triangle: the sherry cask trade, which produced sherry-seasoned casks for export. Today, Work notes, there are really two types of sherry casks made in the Sherry Triangle.

“One enters the solera process and it stays in that solera for years and years and years. It grows a patina on the outside, from the atmosphere of mold and fungus growing in the area, and gets the color of the sherry inside,” he says. “And there’s another type of barrel that coopers make, and basically those barrels make export barrels.”

Important new product

These imported, sherry seasoned casks were made primarily for the Scotch whiskey industry, although their popularity has since expanded to include many other drinks. Due to Spanish law, they cannot be used to export sherry. Nor are they commonly used to make sherry itself – at least not the kind people drink. Instead, they are filled with cheap, relatively young sherry, which is made specifically to season casks for export. Markus Eder, dealer of used and new casks, including sherry casks at Wilhelm Eder in Germany, notes that this sherry can be used to make more than half a dozen sherry casks.

“After you’ve repeated this adulteration process about five or six times, you can no longer use that sherry. So you make vinegar out of it or throw it away,” he says. “I know bodegas in Spain who make a million liters of sherry just for cask seasoning. In general, sherry production only works for the Scotch whiskey industry.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but the scale of today’s sherry cask business is truly surprising. Due to the continued whiskey boom, its importance grew, in contrast to the collapse of the sherry industry. Total annual sherry sales are only about a fifth of what they were at their peak three to four decades ago, falling from around 150 million liters a year to around 30 million liters in recent years, as sherry educator Ruben Luyten reports on sherrynotes . com. (In contrast, the export market for Scotch whiskey alone was around 1 billion liters in 2021.) Recent articles may claim that sherry is seeing growth in some markets, citing an increase in quality dry sherry exports, but Luyten points out, that any improvements in dry sherry sales are offset by continued losses in sweet versions. In general, sherry wine production is now much less than it used to be.

“I don’t think the associated turnover and profits are disclosed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if sherry cask production overtakes the wine industry,” says Luiten.

Some math shows that this may already have happened, at least in terms of the number of barrels. About 84,100 barrels of sherry were exported last year, says Luyten, while he calculates the volume of all sherry wine sold last year by adding only about 63,600 barrels.

This means that the production of sherry casks has gained an important role in the sherry triangle, keeping coopers, vineyards and winemakers in business, even if it is not primarily the production of sherry that people drink. In 2015, the Consejo Regulador regulatory board that oversees Herez-Xérès-Sherry DOP also began to regulate the term sherry cask, offering a certificate of authenticity and a number of regulatory standards: mainly that sherry casks must are filled with sherry, which comes from the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry DOP, and that each cask must be initially filled to at least 85 percent of its volume and remain at least two-thirds full for at least one year.

César Saldaña, president of the Consejo Regulador, says the average age of a sherry cask is slightly higher than the 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 business.”

He notes that the Consejo Regulador plans to expand the regulations on casks that 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 many distillers who bought their casks in different parts of Spain, casks that were seasoned with different types of wines,” he says. “Now, with this second step, we will make sure that producers who use the term ‘sherry cask’ on their labels are actually using a real sherry cask.”

Pluses and minuses

Although today’s sherry casks differ from both the production casks and the casks used for export prior to 1986, they are not necessarily a step down. This month, Edinburgh brewery Innis & Gunn launched Original: PX, a special sherry cask version of its classic cask-aged beer, finished in a blend of first-fill Pedro Ximénez casks or 250-litre casks and second-fill Pedro Jiménez casks or 500 liter barrels. Dougal Gunn Sharp, the brewery’s founder and master brewer, notes that modern sherry finishing casks can offer advantages over production casks or previous shipping casks.

Sherry casks used for sherry whiskies.

“In some ways, it improves the quality and handling of the final product,” he says. “The consistency of the barrels has improved significantly. It is also more sustainable.” For his sherry beer, Sharp hoped to achieve some of the characteristics of the Pedro Ximénez dessert wine: fruity, spicy aromas, a sweeter flavor profile, and hints of chocolate and banana. They all passed, he says.

“It’s absolutely delicious, one of the best tasting limited edition beers we’ve ever brewed,” he says. Although sherry beer remains a relative rarity, the use of sherry casks in Scotch whiskey shows little sign of slowing: Luyten notes that three times as many sherry casks have been sold compared to just five years ago. Cost advantages mean they are now typically made from imported American oak, which can be half the price of French or Hungarian oak, according to Work.

As a vestige of the old wine and spirits trade, sherry casks can be difficult to understand, even for those in the drinks 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 make sherry for many decades, instead of a new American oak cask that was seasoned with sherry for only 12 months. Older, well-used production barrels still exist, he says, although they’re usually about seven years old these days. They’re not easy to find, he says, and they’re certainly not cheap.

“If you’re trying to find a barrel that’s really old, then you have to spend the money,” he says.

The idea that Scotch producers are not allowed to flavor their whisky, he says, is hard to reconcile with the fact that most sherry casks are made specifically for Scotch production, after which the sherry can be discarded or turned into vinegar. If the sherry used to flavor sherry casks isn’t actually a drink, then what is?

“More or less, it’s just a taste,” he says. “My opinion is that it would be fairer to allow a supplement like paxarette.”

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