Sherry: Hard cask master

The Scotch industry is very keen on using sherry vats to finish its whiskies, but the fortified still has an image problem with drinkers.

People who love sherry, really love sherry. Its utility and variety have found it legions of obsessives in the distilling and bartending communities. If you ever have a Dry Martini with a delicate vinous note that’s not quite vermouth, nine times out of 10, that’s sherry. But with the public, it’s been a tougher sell.

In London at least, it’s not for want of trying. Sack, a sherry bar on the ground floor of the Napoleon hotel, was a hit with the industry but sherry laybacks never quite found mainstream appeal. Richard Bigg, founder of Bar Pepito, recently announced that the venue would be shifting focus to Rioja, explaining to The Drinks Business that “we’re going to arguably make our lives a little bit easier by dedicating the same bar to something that everyone has heard of and likes”.

“Sherry suffers from an image problem,” says Zach Sapato a bartender from Mikaku in Glasgow and a member of William Grant & Sons 1887 Collective. “All our grandparents drank sherry straight so, in the mainstream, it's seen as an old person’s drink and very few of the sherry houses have invested in the marketing necessary to keep it enjoyed in modern ways.

“In Scotland and Minnesota, the two places I've bartended the most, the palate skews sweet, so sherry's dry, nutty, earthy characteristics aren't as widely desired.”

The data backs this up. According to the Consejo Regulador, sherry’s governing body, since its peak at nearly 180 million litres in 1979, the category has been in a steady decline – total sales in 2022 were a shade above 27 million litres.

But while sherry is struggling on the shelf, elsewhere the industry is booming. The Consejo approximates that the region sells 90,000 butts a year at an average price of €1,000 and in March this year, Scotch whisky producer Ardgowan spent £100 million on sherry casks in a partnership with Bodegas Miguel Martin. It’s a side of the industry that is big business and you’d be hard-pressed to find a producer in Spain’s sherry triangle without some link to Scotland.

“Sherry has been exported to the UK for many centuries,” says Victoria Jupe, senior brand manager at Gonzalez Byass. “Historically, fortified wines were sent to London for consumption and the empty casks then continued their journey to Scotland, for use by the local Scotch whisky producers.

“Sherry casks were initially discovered by the Scotch whisky producers, but today all types of whiskies, from Irish to American to Japanese, are taking up this growing trend, making it an interesting time for the sherry cask industry.

“At Gonzalez Byass, we sell American oak casks, which were previously used to age our various sherries, for whisky production – as well as using them for the production of our own Brandy de Jerez.”

Gonzalez Byass has been shipping sherry butts to the UK since 1835 and has deep-rooted relationships across the region. Recently, the brand took advantage of its ties to Scotland and produced a blended scotch, Nomad, a collaboration between Gonzalez Byass winemaker Antonio Flores and Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson.

Spotting the difference

It’s important to make a distinction between the sherry casks that are being filled with Scotch and those used in the bodegas for the maturation of sherry wines. Casks used by sherry producers in their solera process have sometimes been in rotation for more than 100 years. These casks are incredibly valuable to the bodegas and difficult to replace, so it’s highly unlikely that they will ever hold Scotch. Seasoned casks are ordered to the specifications and typically newly made, toasted and seasoned with fortified wine for a couple of years at the most. “We started to sell sherry casks at the beginning of the 1990s,” says Rafael Medina, operations manager at Williams & Humbert.

“We had a lot of stock, when we started to reduce the volume of our stocks, we began to sell off casks. In those days most of the casks that we sold were old sherry casks that had sherry in them for 20 or 30 years. By the end of the ’90s, there weren’t enough of these casks to meet the demands of the whisky industry, so we started to do a new method of seasoning casks specifically to sell to Scotland.

“The sherry cask business is tailor-made for each client. There are a lot of variances the client can choose: the type of wood, the amount of toast, the size of the cask and, of course, the type of seasoning sherry.”

The whisky industry may have been a financial shot in the arm for the sherry region but it would be a shame if it came at the deficit of traditional sherry production and the growth of the sherry cask industry does impact on traditional bottled sherries.

“A key factor driving prices up is the increased use of sherry casks for ageing whisky,” says Humphrey Serjeantson, research director at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “Some producers are using casks to age sherry for the minimum period before selling them to whisky makers, but because the resulting sherry has had so little time to age, it is harder to sell.”

And as William & Humbert’s Medina explains, the climate has put additional pressure on that balance. “The last harvest in Jerez was a short harvest and also due to the lack of rain, this year could be difficult,” he says.

“As a result, we can’t expand the sherry seasoning part of our business as much as we’d like to. If we have a big increase in demand, it won’t be possible to meet it. We need to balance the production of grapes with the needs of wines for the sherry casks and for the general sherry business.”

There’s an element of head versus heart to where that balance might ultimately sit. Sherry cask finishes are in fashion in a way that bottled sherries aren’t currently, but there is an audience there. While sherry has been in a steady decline, that trend was flown against during the Covid lockdowns when the fortified wine became one of the success stories in the UK, but whether the bodegas can build up a head of steam is another question.

In the meantime, at least sherry casks have never been more popular.