When is a sherry butt not a sherry butt?

When the English admiral/pirate Francis Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587 he seized/stole 2,900 genuine sherry butts from the famous Atlantic harbour. The booty was distributed among the thirsty British and launched their long love affair with the elegant Spanish wine. For the next four hundred years sherry would be shipped in its distinctive wooden casks to be bottled in Bristol, or London or Glasgow and Scottish distillers soon learned that something magical happened to the flavour and aroma of whisky matured in the wood that had once carried it.

Whisky matured in genuine sherry butts is unmistakeably opulent, although few now have the opportunity to experience it. Usually crafted from American oak, these vessels can be over one hundred years old, but fashion and circumstance have conspired to mean that in the 21st century they are very rare and very expensive. New regulations demand that Spanish sherry is bottled in Spain, in Jerez, effectively cutting off the supply of genuine empty sherry casks to the Scotch whisky industry.

What could distillers of Scotch who wished to retain the ability to mature in sherried wood do without their beloved butts? For a while a concentrated sweet wine called paxarette was poured in to tired old sherry casks, or applied to the staves under pressure, but that practice was banned when the use of the caramel colouring E150-A became widespread.  This artificial additive also darkens and flavours the whisky, but is a much cheaper substitute and easier to use.  A small, if highly principled, minority of Scottish distillers regard both these practices as unacceptable.

Less controversial is the ‘envinado’ process which prepares new casks to hold sherry, but which is now often used for vessels built specifically for maturing Scotch whisky.  A significant industry has grown up around this, using the more porous Spanish oak and flavouring the interior with inferior quality sherry.  Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sherry butts in Scotland are not what they once were.

Very occasionally, a Scottish distiller develops a long-standing relationship with one of the great bodegas of Jerez and secures a supply of the genuine articles, butts that have actually been used to mature superb Oloroso or Pedro Ximenez.  An example of this is the connection between our head distiller Adam Hannett and Jan Pettersen of Rey Fernando de Castilla.  Both are individualists at the head of small, progressive Houses. Both are dedicated to exploring radical modern interpretations of ancient traditions that challenge the establishment view. In the case of sherry-matured whiskies, this means never compromising over the quality of the cask.

Although both men have also been vocal in their rejection of simplistic age statements as a guide to excellence, Adam has now released a rare Bruichladdich distilled back in 1990 that has been maturing in his loch-side warehouses on Islay for 25 years.  This unpeated single malt has been on a long and complex journey, but its final years have been spent in genuine Oloroso and PX casks supplied by Jan Pettersen.  On sampling the resulting whisky Jan described it as: “Truly outstanding…  I have found notes of chocolate, tangerine, shortbread and oak as well as sherry. It is soft, smooth, has great length and is very Bruichladdich.”

Just 6,000 bottles of the 1990/25 will be released and are expected to be available through selected Global Travel Retail outlets from April 2017.

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