Remember the last time you walked into a bar and ordered a glass of sherry? Wait, you don’t remember? All jokes aside, if you’re reading this you then you probably live in the USA and are unlikely to have ever consumed sherry in your life. The unique and rather funky style of fortified wine was first produced in southern Spain more than 1,000 years ago and eventually grew in popularity to become recognized as the finest wine in all of Europe.
But here in 21st century America few people actually drink sherry. In fact sherry is so uncommon today that most of what is produced is not even intended for direct consumption but to season oak casks used specifically for Scotch whisky maturation. I find that this lack of familiarity with Sherry, as understandable as it may be, leads us to what is possibly the most common misconception about Sherry-matured whisky: that it all tastes the same. The truth is, Sherry is a diverse category of wine offering a broad spectrum of flavours, all which can influence a spirit to produce different tasting experiences.
There are currently eight styles of Sherry produced, the majority of which have been used toward the maturation of Scotch whisky. Of the these eight, however, there are two that serve as the basis for the majority of the spirits you are likely enjoying today. Let’s have a look at these two unique styles of sherry along with examples of single cask whiskies that embody their true character.
Undoubtedly the most popular type of sherry for Scotch whisky maturation, Oloroso is a dry and nutty wine with notes of fig, cinnamon and clove. It’s rich and flavourful profile makes Oloroso sherry a perfect complement to game and red meats and a variety of cheeses. Casks seasoned with Oloroso are often considered to be the perfect canvas for long-term whisky maturation. A fantastic albeit unique take on the dry Oloroso style can be found in Cask 128.13 Welsh delight. 7 years in a second-fill Oloroso Sherry butt has given this coveted Welsh spirit a rich flavor profile of candied figs and butterscotch with a strong aroma of dried nutmeg. The flavours are in perfect harmony as the natural characteristics of the spirit are superbly balanced with the rich and hearty notes of the Oloroso sherry cask.
While Oloroso is dry, Pedro Ximénez (often referred to as simply ‘PX’) is a sticky-sweet style of wine with notes of raisin, dates and candied fruits. PX makes for a fantastic dessert wine but the sheer intensity of flavours make this ultra-sweet Sherry somewhat difficult to control when maturing whisky for a long period of time. This being the case, distillers may gravitate toward re-used casks for longer maturation or more commonly, finish an already mature whisky in a fresh PX cask for a shorter period of time in order to maintain balance between the influences of spirit and wood. Cask 89.16 Yummy stuff is a beautiful example of a Speyside whisky that has been finished in a second-fill PX cask. The result is an explosion of sugared churros, stewed fruits and macerated plums with a uniquely savory note of candied bacon.
So which is better? Like anything in whisky, it all comes down to preference. One cannot deny the natural harmony between malt whisky and a dry Oloroso sherry cask. But on the contrary, the sheer brilliance and intensity of flavours that PX affords is just so much fun. Ultimately, tasting these two styles side-by-side is not only a great way to learn the unique characteristics of each, but as fun as any education experience can be.