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Issue 53 - No Spain no Grain

Whisky Magazine Issue 53
January 2006


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No Spain no Grain

In the last issue we looked in depth at bourbon casks. Here Ian Wisniewski considers how sherry ones perform

It was entirely due to practicality that sherry casks became a staple choice for maturing malts. Sherry was originally shipped in casks from Jerez to the United Kingdom, principally the ports of Bristol and Leith. As the UK was a major sherry market, with bottling undertaken locally, the empty casks that remained took up residence in aging warehouses across Scotland.

However, the supply of casks began to diminish during the 1980s, when sherry bodegas moved to bottling at source in Jerez. With bottles rather than casks arriving in the UK, distillers have been heading for Jerez to negotiate long-term supply contracts.

Unlike bourbon barrels which are continually released from the inventory, as they can only be used once, bodegas use their casks long-term and typically only release ‘ancient' specimens which are too exhausted to benefit malts. Consequently, casks for malt distillers are commissioned to order.

Depending on the source of the oak in Spain, differences in ‘terroir' can result in varying characteristics. Staves are air-dried for 18 months to two years, with casks subsequently toasted to a lesser degree than bourbon barrels, though sufficiently to caramelise wood sugars and mobilise flavour compounds. As the source of the oak and the way it's toasted can vary significantly, distillers tend to develop long-term relationships with the same cooperage.

Seasoning casks is vital to ‘flush out' undesirable elements from the oak, such as overt spiciness. This can be ...

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