It is no secret that Scotch and Sherry make magnificent partners when paired together under the expert supervision of a master craftsman. But where did it all begin? Writer, Abbie Moulton takes us on a journey from Scotland to Spain.
The flavours within whisky can guide us on a journey; its multitude of layers transporting our senses to different regions, each with its own unique water source, to ancient reserves of peat or pine forest, to the individual microclimate of a distillery’s warehouse. These layers unveil a carousel: fruit, spice, minerality, purity, perhaps a wisp of bonfire smoke, a drizzle of honey, salt-spray on a sea breeze. If touched for long enough by the hands of time, the spirit can also transport us to the past, with aromas that whisper of antique bookshops, worn leather, vintage wood, grain, and spice.
The ageing vessel is the navigator of the liquid’s journey, shaping the final flavour so that it may tell stories of far-flung destinations outside of Scotch's spiritual home. For centuries, the sherry casks of Spain have been used to age whisky, the fortified wine held within the wood melding effortlessly with the spirit, adding new dimensions and depth, unlocking hidden layers.
A Partnership of Scotch and Sherry
The partnership between Scotch and sherry is long and symbiotic, stretching back as far as the 16th century. The history of the cask is intertwined with the history of sherry itself, evidence of which begins in this storied south-western corner of the Mediterranean around 1100 BC, the use of fortified wines in the region documented within ancient Phoenician texts. The rich gold liquid became a significant asset in the centuries to follow, through eras and empires, and seized during sieges. During the 1587 raiding of the port of Cádiz. Sir Francis Drake set alight the fleet of ships of the Spanish Armada, famously singeing the beard of the king and making off with 2,900 butts of sherry to bring back to England as a trophy. It was an act that simultaneously sparked the beginning of our story, igniting British thirst for the distinct fortified wine that would then flow steadily into the UK, the ripple effect of its currents leaving a lasting impact on the Scotch Whisky industry…
Sherry is the product of a 300-year collision of cultures, its history deeply entwined with the region. Over time, boundaries were drawn and protected around the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María to form the recognised Denomination of Origin (DO) of Jerez y Sanlúcar de Barrameda, known colloquially as the Sherry Triangle. The tapestry of sherry’s story is woven through the streets, visible not only through the historical bodegas stacked with ancient casks, but also through the city’s art and architecture; subtle relics of the past are found in stained glass windows and imprinted on the cobbles, and then, proudly in the magnificent Cathedral of Jerez de la Frontera, its build funded by a tax on brandy and sherry wine stamped by the Spanish Crown, and buoyed by 17th Century British exports.
By the 18th Century, sherry consumption in Britain was at an all-time high, and with casks rolling into the country through the Scottish ports of Leith or Glasgow, it was only a matter of time before they were filled with whisky. And a short time after that, a quiet magic was to be revealed. The fortified wine absorbed by the wood during its voyage across the water drenched the whisky with signature rich, nutty, and sweet-seeming notes, which then melded together with the Scottish spirit, softening and heightening it in all the right places. Enveloping and infusing luscious notes of sun-flecked raisins, dates, and figs to whisky's burnt sugar, cigar box, and spice.
Nowhere might the harmony of sherry and whisky be more evident than in House of Hazelwood’s ‘The Cask Trials’, a unique bottling of single grain from Girvan Distillery, produced in 1968 and matured for an incredible 53 years in a single sherry butt. With five decades to melt and meld together, the creamy, cereal sweetness of extraordinary, aged grain is enveloped in sherry’s voluptuous fruit notes. Creaminess develops richness; Maillard notes of torched muscovado on crème brûlée, and freshly roasted coffee join sumptuous prune. A one-of-a-kind combination revealing the hidden depths of grape and grain together that can appear when given time.
Time is integral to the flavour formation of sherry. Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel grapes are picked, pressed, fermented, and fortified before beginning their journey through the solera. A unique ageing and maturation system, the solera is one of fractional blending; new wines are infused into old, so that the lines between where one vintage ends and another begins are blurred. Some years later will emerge light bone-dry fino or amontillado, or nutty oloroso, or the sweet, raisined pedro ximénez, depending on whether its route flowed along beneath a layer of flor yeast or open to the oxidative elements within the solera casks.
The diverse styles each have their own unique benefits to bring to whisky. Fino casks can impart delicate almond and pastry notes, Oloroso adds richness and complexity with flavours of dark red berries, figs, walnuts, and chocolate-smothered raisins. Pedro Ximénez casks, the sweetest of the bunch, lend a luscious syrupy character redolent of dates, treacle and coffee.
The centuries-long partnership that’s helped shape both into what they are today is a symbiosis demonstrated in House of Hazelwood’s ‘The Long Marriage’, where each element perfectly complements the other. Decadent old grain, distilled in the mid-sixties is beautifully perfumed; fragrant shavings of sandalwood meet black cherry and hints of tobacco on leather-bound desk-top, with an underlying sweetness coaxed by half a century in single refill sherry cask.
Compelling liquids, entwined in cask for decades while magic works between whisky and wood. These incredibly rare whiskies give us a unique insight into the evolutionary journey of Scotch through the ages, connecting us to past eras gone by.