What’s the Secret of the Best Scotch Whiskies? Sherry!

by Concha Hierro
London dock 1896

Today is International Scotch Whisky Day, and we didn’t want to let the day pass without mentioning the link between Jerez (Andalusia) and Scotch whiskies. So keep reading to discover more about this special Spanish-Scottish connection and sherry cask ageing.

The origin of a tradition

Before we move on, let’s travel back in time for a moment. Let’s find out where the tradition of using sherry casks for ageing whiskies originated. Although these 500-litre American oak casks have been used in Jerez since the 15th century, when the first rules were established about how these casks should be used for the production, storage and trade of wine, the truth is that their use in whisky ageing didn’t become widespread until the 19th century.

It was then that the export of wine to Britain was finally boosted, after a long period of successive wars. Around 1850, sherry and port wine accounted for 90% of all British wine imports. This led to big business in the manufacturing of barrels for transporting and storing wine in the UK, where it was bottled.

In Jerez, these casks had been used for decades to age spirits, which gave rise to brandy de Jerez, but it was not until the mid-19th century that a buoyant trade in empty casks was established from bottling facilities in the south of England to Scottish distilleries, where they began to age their whiskies in sherry casks so that they could acquire more subtle aromas.

Scotch whiskies aged in Sherry barrels
Vizetelly, H. (1876). Facts about sherry. Source: sherry.wine

Sherry casks today

In the early 1980s, the Regulatory Council of the Jerez-Xérèz-Sherry Denomination of Origin banned the bottling of sherry wine outside the production area. The intention was to protect wines that sometimes faced fraudulent uses of their name in different markets. From then on, sherry wine had to be bottled in Jerez.

From then on, solid commercial alliances were forged between coopers, wineries and distilleries in order to maintain the supply of sherry casks for the ageing of Scotch whisky. This commercial triangle has been served by the Regulatory Council since 2015 with the sherry cask brand, guaranteeing through its Control and Certification body the nature of the wines and the duration of the bottling process.

Today, major Scotch whisky brands such as The Macallan, Tamdhu or Kilchoman, among others, use sherry casks during the production and ageing of their whiskies.

Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Concha Hierro’s original Spanish article ¿Sabías que el secreto de los mejores whiskies escoceses está en Jerez?

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