Whisky Magazine Issue 103
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Oak is whisky's tutor, it's transformative powers helping craft something miraculous. It persuades, ifluences, steers and ideally never dominates. It sacrifices itself unto exhaustion in order to allow its pupil to shine. Casks made from this extraordinary material are no longer the receptacles, but active participants in whisky's journey. Get the wood right and the distiller's work is enhanced. Get it wrong and all that good work will be for nothing. It comes in different species, different states of intensity and shape. It is the forgotten part of whisky's story. Dave Broom starts with Sherry casks
You've seen them as you've walked through any warehouse. Elephantine, hulking, they dwarf the tiny Yankees, look down on the hoggies. “Sherry casks,” you say to your guide. Some of you, knowing a little about whisky, may even murmur, “Ah... European oak casks” because you've been taught that it is the oak which matters.
Of course oak matters. It holds the whisky, matures it, gives it flavour and colour and grip, and these casks are integral to the creation of flavours which we recognise in ‘sherried' whiskies: dried fruits, walnut, clove incense, tannic grip, that reddish hue from first fill.
Yet that term, ‘European' is pretty confusing. What's the difference between French oak and European oak? France is in Europe is it not? The species of oak which the whisky trade refers to as ‘European' is Quercus robur, aka pendunculate oak and it grows across Europe, from northern Spain to Norway, from Ireland to the Urals, and yes it does grow in France where it is called Limousin oak. In general, it prefers soils which are slightly more fertile than those preferred by “French” oak, aka Q.sessiliflora/Q.petraea, (which also grows Europe-wide by the way).
From a whisky point of view, it is the trees which grow in the forests of northern parts of Spain, which are coopered into 500 litre casks, seasoned with sherry and then shipped to Scotland and Ireland.
There's a simple reason why the whisky trade uses sherry casks. Scotland and Ireland drank a lot of sherry and ...