The classic Christmas-cake flavours of sherry-cask ageing – dried dark fruits and integrated spices – are perfect for this time of year. Whether as a warming nip on the big Boxing Day walk or a comforting dram by the fire after ‘that lot’ has finally departed, they speak of cosiness and indulgence. They also go beautifully with all those rich choccies, mince pies and the rest.
The only problem is that some whisky drinkers have been put off the butts of Jerez, as it were, by what are known as “sherry bombs” – whiskies with weak spirit character that have been aged in first-fill sherry casks, and end up excessively tannic, woody and with stale clouds of spice as a result. Whiskies where you have to be polite about the slightly musty aspects of sherry.
Happily, there are distilleries bringing much more subtlety to sherry ageing, and some wonderfully balanced examples have been released this year.
Tamdhu Cigar Malt III
Tamdhu is an understated – and underrated – Speyside distillery, whose spirit is aged exclusively in oloroso casks from start to finish. But, just as it doesn’t shout about itself too much, it brings a huge amount of finesse to what could be seen as a fundamentalist approach to maturation.
The casks could be either European oak (which has more tannins and is more porous) or American oak (vanilla, creaminess). The size of the cask – not only sherry’s traditional big butts, ahem, but smaller hogsheads, pert puncheons, etc – will make a difference to the wood’s effect on the liquid, as will the number of times it’s been filled and, of course, the time spent in there.
The core range of age statement whiskies – 12YO, 15YO and 18YO – show how all those factors influence the whisky, not just age. The 12 is drier and spicier; the brilliant 15 (£95), with more American oak, has tingly spice on the nose, summer-fruit sweetness on the tip of the tongue, then earthy depth to finish; while the 18 offers citrus and juicy spices.
This year, Tamdhu released the third edition of its Cigar Malt. Matured in first-fill European oak and bottled at 53.8% ABV, this is a rich sumptuous robusto with leather and tobacco notes and a rackful of spice. Not a sherry bomb – it’s too precise for that description – but a sherry guided missile.
The Balvenie: A Revelation of Cask and Character
The Balvenie’s occasional “Stories” series celebrates the various crafts of whisky making. Much is made of this Speyside distillery creating its own malt (spraying barley with water so it begins to germinate, to free up sugars, then drying it so it doesn’t grow too far) in its on-site floor maltings. However, it also has its own cooperage, with a 20-strong team led by master cooper Ian McDonald, who began his apprenticeship in 1969.
For this limited-edition 19YO, Balvenie’s new malt master, Kelsey McKechnie, drew on the work of coopers on-site and in Jerez to create the Stories collection’s first fully sherry-aged whisky – specifically in European-oak oloroso butts, and bottled at 47.5%. There is a whiff of the charring of barrels on the nose, but mellowed by caramelised orange. Similarly, on the palate, fiery spices are balanced by currants and dark fruit in honey, ending with fig rolls and chewy nuttiness.
Aberfeldy 125th Anniversary Limited Edition
To celebrate its 125th birthday, Aberfeldy – the Highland malt distillery in Perthshire – has released a 25YO whisky distilled in the year of its 100th birthday. This is an example of sherry finishing to add a pinch of spice, like cinnamon dusted across a cappuccino.
Aberfeldy is known for its fruity, honeyed whiskies that glow like gold – there are supposedly deposits of the precious metal in the distillery’s water source, the Pitilie Burn, and since it’s Christmas, let’s embrace that magical thinking. It would be a crime to hit that complexity over the head with sherry and oak, so the vast majority of the ageing was done in refill butts and hogsheads (i.e. with a reduced influence of both wood and the previous liquid occupant). Only the last year or so was spent in first-fill ex-oloroso butts.
The result is a sumptuous experience, like sinking into an opulent and comfortable armchair, but there is a remarkable freshness to it, too. Heather honey and lemon balm on the nose give way to summery fruits you do not expect where sherry is involved – strawberries, peaches and cream. But, in true Christmas dessert style, it offers “a bit of both” by following with caramel cream and sweet spices.
The Fife Arms Limited-edition Single-cask Scotch Whisky
Bertie’s Bar at The Fife Arms in Braemar, near Balmoral, has an impressive collection of whiskies – around 400 on any given day. Not content with trying to collect as many bottles as possible, the boutique hotel has decided to add its own. It’s a 14YO Dailuaine – a nearby Speyside distillery – bottled by the independent bottler Adelphi. There are only 353 bottles, which all came from one ex-sherry cask.
When this whisky was distilled, Dailuaine had steel rather than copper condensers, which tend to result in a quite meaty, unctuous new-make spirit. That means that the spice of sherry ageing steers it towards suggestions of gooey puddings and cakes – black treacle toffee, sticky toffee pudding, the dark cherries in a Black Forest gâteau. It slips down beautifully at its 50.5% cask strength, but a drop of water reveals more red fruits.
The bottle is held in a Bill Amberg-designed carrier, hand-sewn out of natural-washed British wool felt, with an individually numbered leather label.
Bunnahabhain is that rarity, an unpeated Islay malt whisky. It has a distinctively rich fruity, malty character, which, despite more than three decades in an oloroso sherry butt, is more than evident here. Again, it proves that a spirit with some personality at the point of distillation will not be overwhelmed by sherry ageing.
This is a special, but not independent bottling – the distillery bottled a specially selected 32YO single cask exclusively for The Whisky Exchange. On the nose, this has a balsamic shine to it, plus blackberry jam sweetness. On the palate, it’s rich malt loaf with raisin, a touch of wholenut chocolate and the crema on top of an espresso. Its finish leaves a definite Pontefract cake liquorice note – sweet and earthy.
The Macallan: Colour Collection 15YO
No sherry-ageing round-up would be complete without The Macallan. The Speyside malt is so closely associated with Jerez – this year it even acquired a 50 per cent stake in Grupo Estévez, the owners of bodegas, including Valdespino – it is often thought that all its whiskies are aged in nothing but(t). That’s not quite true: some have some ex-bourbon ageing too. Even when all the casks are sherry-seasoned, such as in this, the Colour Collection, there is a combination of American and European oak.
The collection is Macallan’s new Global Travel Retail range, which marks a return to age statements for duty-free purchasers. Each of the Colour Collection whiskies – 12YO, 15YO, 18YO, 21YO and 30YO – is a different shade reflecting the balance of the two oaks, as well as age. Among the cardboard-clad trio (the 21YO and 30YO come in wooden boxes), the 15YO hits the ideal balance – crystallised ginger, vanilla and toffee on the nose, key lime pie and custard tarts on the palate, with a cinnamon swirl at the end. The packaging is designed by David Carson, of TransWorld Skateboarding and Nine Inch Nails album-cover fame.