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Published on December 1st, 2015 | by Ruben

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Why whisky lovers should try sherry (again)

A lot of my friends are whisky drinkers and when I tell them about my love for sherry, their first reaction is usually “yeah well, I tried sherry and it’s too sweet”. Or too dry. Or too soft. Or whatever. They’ve tried it once or twice and weren’t impressed. Nonetheless I’m convinced sherry has a lot of qualities which will appeal to whisky drinkers.

For starters, I love the fact that whisky comes in so many styles. There’s peaty Islay whisky, delicate Lowlands whisky, fruity Irish whiskey or American bourbon, young and old, matured in a wide range of casks (bourbon barrels, virgin oak, Port, Madeira, Sauternes… and indeed sherry casks of course).

Well, I can tell you the diversity in sherry is probably even bigger. There are at least eight different styles of sherry, from a bone-dry, uniquely mineral Manzanilla to a lusciously sweet Pedro Ximénez. Whisky lovers tend to be disappointed when someone says “I don’t like whisky, it’s too smoky”. Well, sherry lovers feel the same way. You just need to find your own matches. Also, don’t stop with what you can find in supermarkets.

Maturing whisky in sherry casks add complexity and body, which is why the whisky industry is keen on getting these casks to Scotland

People are naturally attracted to sweetness so I guess dry alcoholic drinks are kind of an acquired taste. My favourite sherries are dry, and as a whisky drinker you’re already accustomed to a dry, oak-matured drink.

Of course the whisky and sherry industries are well acquainted. Since the 19th century, sherry was transported to England and the empty barrels were quickly taken over by the whisky industry. It turned out that maturing whisky in these sherry-infused casks made it more mellow and added a lot of interesting flavours.

 

Whisky meets sherry

Sherry matured whisky is still regarded as the most complex kind. On the other hand sherry sales are in decline and bodegas rarely sell their barrels, so sherry casks are now in high demand and very expensive. Nowadays most of the sherry casks are specifically produced for the whisky industry and seasoned with wine, rather than taking them from sherry soleras. If we want sherried whisky to remain accessible, whisky lovers need to start exploring and drinking sherry!

In the end, trying a few styles of sherry and experiencing the differences will give you a better understanding of your whisky. When you’ve tried the sherry that influenced it, you will be able to predict which flavours to expect from a certain whisky.

 

Where to start your sherry exploration?

My advice to whisky drinkers would be to start with a dry Oloroso. If you fancy Macallan, GlenDronach, Dalmore or Glenfarclas, you will immediately recognize some of the classic aromas that we’ve come to associate with sherried whisky. Dried fruits, chocolate, toffee, nuts and a good deal of spices, these flavours all come from the sherry that was soaked up by the wood. Oloroso can also have a hint of smoke.

Mind that sweet Oloroso (or sweet blends, called Cream sherry) also exists. It has more or less the same flavours, but it’s richer and probably a bit more accessible. For some people this will work even better as an introduction. While most sherries work best with some food, sweet Oloroso is a perfect after-dinner drink.

Dalmore 15 Year Old

A next step could be Pedro Ximénez, made from grapes that were dried in the sun. PX casks are used by lots of whisky distilleries to get a really deep colour and intense sherry flavours. Here you will also get figs and dates, but with a huge dose of caramel and chocolate. This wine can be sticky sweet and a bit overwhelming for some, but I’m sure you will be blown away by its flavour intensity.

If you’re into older Speyside whisky with a good dose of oak influence (older Glen Grant, Longmorn, Glenlivet, Balvenie and many more), then I would suggest Amontillado. This style often shows polished oak, leather, some waxy notes, vanilla, orange peel and walnuts.

Fino and Manzanilla are probably the most difficult styles for outsiders, because of the yeasty notes, herbs, briny hints (green olives) and the ‘naked’, bone-dry structure. These casks are much less common for whisky maturation, although examples definitely exist. I would compare this type of sherry to the more coastal, sometimes rather austere whiskies like Springbank, Glen Garioch or Clynelish. A very interesting profile for experienced palates!

 

There is probably a type of sherry for every kind of (whisky) drinker – you’re already familiar with a lot of the aromas. Take your time to explore the options and you may be surprised. With whisky prices rising dramatically these days, you will be amazed of the flavour richness and the very reasonable pricing of sherry. A bottle of 30 year-old single malt will easily set you back € 300-400, whereas an excellent sherry of equal age is available for less than a fifth of this price. And remember, drinking more sherry leads to better whisky in the end!

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About the Author

fell in love with sherry fifteen years ago, but switched to a higher gear in 2013 and started writing about it. Lived in Madrid for a couple of years, now back in Belgium. I also run a whisky blog over at www.whiskynotes.be



  • old bridge

    Interesting thoughts, Ruben.
    I have always thought that the casks used in “the good old days” for maturing whisky were the shipping casks. They are not used anymore, are they? After Spain decided to ship in bottle only we don’t get any more shipping casks. The solera casks I think are totally inactive casks, and no use in maturing whisky? Hence: us drinking more sherry may give us the pleasure of the nice sherry, but not bring any more casks to the whisky distilleries. Or am I totally wrong?

    • SherryNotes

      You’re right, sherry was shipped to the UK in casks until 1983 when this practice was forbidden by European law. Once in a while you see a whisky that is matured in an old solera cask (e.g. the Glengoyne and Tomatin “whisky meets sherry” releases) but this is very rare.

      Even though sherry casks are nowadays newly seasoned casks tailored specifically for the whisky industry, they still need a decent wine for the seasoning. I don’t think they would bother maintaining old soleras if their only purpose were the seasoning of whisky casks, so I think we better try to support the industry and buy their bottled wines as well…

  • Aryn

    I’m drinking my first glass of sherry while reading this article. Honestly, I expected it to be too sweet. But, knowing nothing about sherry except that it was something I’ve never had before and therefore must try it, I decided on a Manzanilla sherry and was pleasantly surprised. I’m also a huge scotch fan, and can’t wait to quote this article when I get to introduce my friends to sherry. Thank you for all the great information! I can’t wait to further explore the world of sherry!

    • SherryNotes

      I think that’s great, Aryn! You may want to go for Amontillado next. It’s a more oaky, rich style that originates from a Fino or Manzanilla. And still dry of course. Enjoy!

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