If you are an avid Scotch whisky drinker, chances are you would have heard of sherry. After all, whisky and sherry are linked together historically – before Scotch producers began using American bourbon casks, they used to mature their new make spirits exclusively with sherry casks, as the fortified wine was hugely popular in Britain in the past.
Major Scotch brands like Macallan and Glenfarclas still aged their whiskies exclusively in sherry, because of the unique flavours that casks seasoned with it can give to the spirit. (Also read: Road to good wood)
I have to admit though, even though I’m familiar with sherry flavours in whiskies, I still have very little understanding of what sherry actually is, or even how it is supposed to taste. So, I decided to get a crash course from Boris Ivan, international brand ambassador of Gonzalez Byass, the No.1 producer of sherry in the world, when he was in town recently.
So, what is sherry? Simply put, sherry is a fortified wine, that is, a wine that has been fortified with distilled spirit produced from the same grapes the sherry is made of. It is made primarily in Southern Spain, especially in the city of Jerez, where it is one of the city’s biggest exports. In fact, sherry is a protected export item that can only be made here.
According to Ivan, sherry is not an easy category to understand and to like, especially since it comes in a variety of styles, all made primarily from the Palomino grapes. There are the lighter styles like Fino (usually made from the first pressing of the grapes) and darker versions like Amontillado and Oloroso, which have been allowed to oxidise as they age in barrels. Then you have those made with Pedro Ximinez and Moscatel grapes, which are rich, heavy dessert-wine-like sherries.
So, why should we drink a sherry then?
“There are many reasons you should drink sherry. Firstly, it’s good value for money. Take the star of our company, Tio Pepe (an entry-level Fino style sherry) – there is so much work behind the production of the sherry, but you can get it for the price of a bottle of standard vodka,” he said.
The biggest highlight of sherry, however, comes with the versatility of the flavours. “You can get a huge range of flavours from every single expression of sherry. It depends on what style of sherry you are trying,” he said. “It starts with hints of salinity, which makes for a great palate opener. Then come nutty flavours – almonds, hazelnut, walnuts … and fresh green apples, because it is white grape-based wine.
“With the Fino, you get floral, yeasty, beautiful pungent aromas. Then as you go further into the more sophisticated expressions like Amontillado, it gets sweeter on the palate but is still dry on the palate. Then you get the Pedro Ximenez, which is rich and sweet, and can even be used as a sweetening agent in cocktails in place of sugar syrup or honey.”
Going back to the use of sherries in whisky-making, there is one style of sherry that seems to be used very often in the maturing of whiskies – Oloroso, which Ivan says is a second-press sherry.
“The first pressing of the Palomino grapes is a gentle one, which produces a fine must that is used for the Fino, because it is so delicate, with no skin or stones in it,” Ivan said. “In the second pressing, you’ll get a must that is more robust, which is used for Oloroso. This needs to be fortified up to 18% ABV (compared to 15% for Fino), which also creates more interaction with the oak casks.”
“In terms of whisky maturing, whisky spirit is very strong, so if you use the Tio Pepe Fino casks, you won’t get much flavour from the cask. Oloroso can stand shoulder to shoulder with the whisky and give it the flavours you want,” he said.
According to Ivan, sherry used to be a category that was really big, but had been in decline since the 1970s. However, it has been making a comeback in recent years not only because of the whisky industry, but also thanks to what he calls the new “golden age of bartending”.
“Sherry used to be known as an old person’s drink. But there are more and more old-school cocktail bars popping up worldwide, and bartenders have been realising that it is important to know about older bartending practices and ingredients, and sherry is one of them,” he said.