From Spain to Scotland

From Spain to Scotland

The second step on a journey to understand the mystery of the sherry cask

Production | 25 Jan 2019 | Issue 157 | By Christopher Coates

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In the previous issue, we established that casks have almost never been pulled from sherry soleras and sold for use by whisky companies. But if this is the case, where did the whisky industry’s sherry casks come from?

The story most often told is that sherry was shipped in cask to Britain, where it was (and still is) consumed in great quantities, but that it wasn’t economical to send the empties back to Jerez. Instead, cunning and thrifty Scottish distillers would pick up the unwanted wood for next to nothing and use it to mature their whiskies.

However, evidence suggests that this tall tale actually does a bit of disservice to whisky makers of the past, who clearly understood that casks used for shipping sherry imparted especially desirable characteristics to their spirit. This yarn also infers that Jerez winemakers had invested very little in these shipping casks and also that they were somehow ignorant of the wood’s value to whisky distillers.

In truth, a considerable amount of time and money was spent preparing shipping casks and shipping-bodega owners were very much aware of the specific demand for sherry casks from whisky makers. Case in point, 19th-century price lists often explicitly stated that the cost per butt referred to the wine only, exclusive of the cask. Further, it seems that if there was no demand for a shipping cask after it had been disgorged in Britain, bodegas could take advantage of ‘import-license concessions available on goods destined for re-export’ and have it returned. Thus, the idea that repatriating wood was too costly seems to be apocryphal.

Furthermore, though wine of many other varieties was imported, evidence suggests that rather than simply buying up whatever was available, distillers in both Scotland and Ireland deliberately sought out sherry casks and paid handsomely for them. In fact, sherry casks are specifically highlighted as key to the character of ‘Dublin whiskey’ in Truths About Whisky (1879), the document written by Irish distillers in defence of true pot still whiskey.

Written records also show that Tamdhu Distillery, in Knockando, first took delivery of sherry casks in 1898, less than a year after it was founded, which suggests these Spanish casks were seen as key to the flavour of that state-of-the-art (at the time) distillery’s maturing whisky stocks. This tradition is continued today as Tamdhu spirit sold as single malt is exclusively matured in European and American oak sherry casks sourced from the Tevasa, Vasyma and Huberto Domecq cooperages in Jerez.

Not far away in Elgin, the grocer Gordon & MacPhail imported sherry in cask from its inception in 1895 until the 1970s. Today, this family-owned distiller and independent bottler’s relationship with the region endures. Many of the company’s whiskies – including those crafted at its own distillery, Benromach – are matured in sherry casks that have been coopered in Jerez and seasoned with sherry produced by Williams & Humbert, a bodega from which the company once imported wine for sale to its customers.

Such was the competition in Scotland for sherry shipping casks from the 1850s onwards that, operating in parallel to the sourcing of imported wood, the practice of ‘wine treatment’ emerged at British cooperages. Most often employed to rejuvenate old casks, this process saw a small amount (500-1,000ml) of a sweet fortified wine called paxarette (pajarete) poured inside before steam pressure was applied, thereby forcing this syrupy liquid into the staves. Evidence suggests that a wine concentrate called arrope, itself a sweetening ingredient in paxarette, was also commonly used as an alternative or even a further additive. Some commentators writing in the early and mid-20th century add that imitation sherries such as ‘Californian sherry’ were used for this purpose too.

Interestingly, there are also multiple references to ‘Persian’ or ‘Iranian’ oak being used as an alternative.

By the early 1900s, it seems that this process was even undertaken with fresh oak butts built at UK cooperages in an attempt to recreate the characteristics of shipping wood, as the number of true sherry casks arriving on UK shores was already insufficient – a situation that was only made worse in the following decades by the disruption caused by WWI, the Spanish Civil War, and WWII. This is evidenced by the exponential increase in the price of shipping casks from 40 pesetas per butt in 1898, an all-time low that coincided with the Scotch whisky industry’s ‘Pattison crash’, to 725 pesetas per butt in 1945.

It should be noted, however, that the topic of paxarette, cask rejuvenation, and ‘wine treatment’ of casks (not to mention the blending of sherry concentrates with whiskies to improve flavour) is a complex one that should be clearly distinguished from the methods used in the preparation of true sherry shipping casks prior to the 1980s and also the high quality, officially certified seasoned sherry casks produced in the Jerez triangle today. As it warrants proper focus, those thorny topics will be addressed in a subsequent issue.

For now, back to the shipping casks. What do we know of them? Conventional wisdom tells us that they were made of ‘cheap, local, European oak’, while American oak imported from the USA was reserved for winemaking purposes. However, multiple credible sources ranging from the 1870s-1950s refer specifically to North American oak being the preferred type for all purposes (including shipping), with European or other oak only used when US supply was unavailable. Interestingly, there are also multiple references to ‘Persian’ or ‘Iranian’ oak being used as an alternative.

With regard to preparation, some sources do suggest that wood used for shipping sherry abroad was not seasoned or treated at all; the argument being that the large size of butts or puncheons and the relatively short (months rather than years) transit time from Jerez to Britain minimised the negative impact of wood character on the wines. My research indicates that this may have indeed been true of vessels used to transport very low-quality wines, which may or may not have been fortified, as any extracted tannin (or other wood compounds) could have imparted some desirable structure and character to otherwise insipid liquid.

If this did occur, it does not seem to have been widespread practice by the late 19th century. The term ‘seasoning’ in relation to the preparation of casks for use in shipping sherry or Jerez winemaking crops up no less than nine times in Henry Vizetelly’s Facts About Sherry (1876) and he writes more than once of the ‘usual’ and ‘necessary’ seasoning of casks prior to use. Furthermore, Vizetelly makes reference to differing methods of seasoning that depended on both the intended use of the cask and the quality of the wine it would eventually hold – a record of which was made on the cask itself.

It seems that butts or puncheons used for shipping quality Jerez wines were traditionally seasoned in order to extract tannins soluble in a liquid of around 18% ABV or less and therefore safeguard the flavour of the wine in transit. Various methods were employed and it was clearly understood by Jerez winemakers of the 19th century that each yielded varying results. Vizetelly makes multiple references to seasoning methods such as casks being steamed for 18 hours and then filled with water, the fermentation of musts in ‘fresh casks’, and also the seasoning of casks with ‘common wine.’

Writing nearly 60 years later in Sherry: The Noble Wine (1935), Manuel González Gordon insists that wines stored in unseasoned casks will be tainted and that ‘in extreme cases the wine may be unfit for anything but distilling.’ He goes on to explain that the ‘most practical’ method of seasoning new casks is to use them for fermenting musts (grape juice) as ‘during fermentation the musts absorb the resin content from the wood, while the wood takes in exchange other [undesirable] substances.’ He also explicitly states that musts are not spoiled by wood extracts ‘as wine would be.’

The steam-ammonia method, which is also known as the Gomez method, was a regular fixture of cask preparation from at least the late 1890s and picked up the slack when supply from fermentation bodegas could not meet demand.

The whisky industry also clearly understood that some preparation was needed before a cask could be used to ship sherry to Britain. In his seminal work Sherry (1961), Julian Jeffs makes note of a long-established practice whereby whisky companies would purchase new casks from the ‘fermentation bodegas’ where musts were converted into the young wines destined to become sherry. Jeffs explains that Scottish distillers ‘actually buy the new casks and lend them to sherry shippers for use, so that anyone visiting a fermentation bodega may be surprised to see the names of famous distillers branded on the butt ends.’

By the 1970s, the practice of fermenting young wines in butts as part of the sherry production process was beginning to give way to the use of large, temperature controlled, stainless-steel vats and thus another means of seasoning casks became even more common than it had been. This method, which was patented by Francisco Ivison O’Neale (1831-1890), involved subjecting casks to pressurised steam containing ammonia for 40-50 minutes.

The steam-ammonia method, which is also known as the Gomez method, was a regular fixture of cask preparation from at least the late 1890s and picked up the slack when supply from fermentation bodegas could not meet demand. Seasoning by filling a cask with wine also continued and was preferred in terms of the end result, usually in conjunction with the fermentation method, although it does incur extra cost by tying up and potentially spoiling the seasoning wine.

More change was around the corner. By the late 1970s, it was clear that the era of shipping sherry in wood was ending, as bottling in Spain would help safeguard the quality of exports and protect the category from fraudsters. In the early 1980s, supply of traditional shipping casks to distillers ceased. But as one door closed, another opened.
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