The Collection

Top sherry cask whisky to seek out

Sherry casks have been used in whisky maturation for centuries. Yet as Kristiane Sherry discovers through an extensive tasting, curious blenders are finding new, inventive ways to tap into their distinctive flavour profiles

Words by Kristiane Sherry

Photography by Xavier Young

It all started with the humble transport cask. Critical to the blossoming 19th-century Sherry industry, these industrial oak vessels made their mark on Scotland’s distilling industry, too. Back in the fortified wine’s heyday, it was shipped in bulk from Spain to the UK, destined for shops and bars, and thirsty customers would decant their order into their own containers to take home. Later on, bustling Sherry-bottling hubs sprung up at the UK’s ports: think Leith, Bristol, London. It was more efficient for whisky-makers to pick up these relatively cheaply made European oak casks than for them to be shipped empty back to Spain. And so, Sherried whiskies were born.

Of course, a cask’s original contents can have a huge influence on the liquid that follows. As vessels, casks are (hopefully!) watertight – but they are not airtight. They breathe. Temperature and humidity fluctuations draw the liquid inside into the wood itself, where complex interactions take place. Flavour and natural colour are added as harsher notes are filtered out and others evaporate. Consider how the oak takes on the character of a Sherry. Once emptied out, its presence remains in the staves. Refill that same cask with whisky, and whispers of the liquid that lived here before make its character felt.

Despite shifting fortunes, fluctuating fashions and the lure of myriad other cask types, Sherry’s unmistakable compatibility with whisky continues

It’s a profound technique to impart flavour. This is tempered by both the length of time a spirit is in the cask and how many times that cask is reused. That’s why a first-fill cask will have stronger characteristics of the original liquid than a tired fourth- or even fifth-fill one. It’s also why a six-month ‘finish’ – or secondary maturation – is usually less bold than a two-year one. But however long the finish lasts, it has a huge impact on flavour.

Sherry’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years. The price and availability of the casks to distillers – not just in Scotland but further afield too – have tracked accordingly. Nowadays, since Sherry volumes have waned, bourbon casks are most commonly used in maturation warehouses around the world. That’s not to say the Sherry cask has become obsolete in whisky – far from it. Despite shifting fortunes, changes in legislation, fluctuating fashions in wine and the lure of Tequila, brandy and myriad other cask types, Sherry’s unmistakable compatibility with whisky continues. But times have changed since those transport cask days.

Today, most casks available to distillers are ‘seasoned’ with a purpose-made liquid that is often stylistically far removed from the classic Sherry categories. It is very rare to see a bodega cask used in maturation – and there’s barely any point. After being in use for multiple decades, it simply won’t have much left to give. Instead, it is typically these made- and seasoned-to-order casks that dominate Sherried whiskies. Unromantic perhaps, but the flourishing cask market provides distillers and blenders with a vibrant suite of options to choose from in their quest for flavour, right down to oak species.

Three of the bottles that feature in the list of sherried whisky

From vast 500-litre butts, to tiny 50-litre octaves – the smaller the container, the more intense the influence – these bespoke creations give all manner of options for full maturation, finishes and to shape parcels for use in blending. The latter is becoming increasingly important. And that’s before we explore the different types of seasoning used in Sherry. Oloroso is the most common, with its nutty, dried-fruit power. Pedro Ximénez is also commonly seen, typically bringing sweeter notes. Fino, drier and more delicate, and the subtler Palo Cortado are also increasingly finding their way into whisky.

Through a tasting of almost 50 of the latest Sherried releases from around the world, three things jumped out. First, independent bottlers are thriving when it comes to the use of modern Sherry casks. They are in the market for casks that fall outside of a distillery’s signature profile; here they are pushing the flavour boundaries with quite spectacular results. Then it’s the turn of peated makers to shine. No longer is it all about pedal-to-the metal boldness. By harnessing Sherry flavours and controlling them, usually through a varied cask recipe, blenders are achieving remarkable harmony with smoky distillates. Finally, as with all things whisky, the big, established markets are no longer driving the narrative. From the UK to India, Australia and beyond, a new wave of producers are doing things their way. The most exciting of the cohort are showcased below. This is Sherry-cask whisky – but not as we know it.

42 of the best new sherry cask whisky releases

Producer Name
House of Hazelwood, A Minute to Midnight 45-Year-Old Blended Scotch
House of Hazelwood A Minute to Midnight 45-Year-Old Blended Scotch
Ardnamurchan, AD/08:15 CK 529
Ardnamurchan AD/08:15 CK 529
The Last Drop, Tomintoul 55-Year-Old
The Last Drop Tomintoul 55-Year-Old
Bushmills, 30-Year-Old
Aargau
Bushmills 30-Year-Old
Dewar’s, Double Double 32-Year-Old
Dewar’s Double Double 32-Year-Old
Royal Brackla, 21-Year-Old
Royal Brackla 21-Year-Old
Lochlea, Fallow Edition Second Crop
Lochlea Fallow Edition Second Crop
Ardnamurchan, AD / Sherry Cask Release
Ardnamurchan AD / Sherry Cask Release
The GlenDronach, 12-Year-Old
The GlenDronach 12-Year-Old
Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), 35.387 Molecular Gastronomy
Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) 35.387 Molecular Gastronomy
Cotswolds, Sherry Cask
Cotswolds Sherry Cask
Elements of Islay Fireside, Fèis Ìle 2024 Bottling
Elements of Islay Fireside Fèis Ìle 2024 Bottling
Milroy’s Soho Selection, Glenglassaugh 12-Year-Old
Milroy’s Soho Selection Glenglassaugh 12-Year-Old
The GlenAllachie, Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish
The GlenAllachie Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish
House of Hazelwood, The Silk Traveller 44 Year Old Islay Single Grain
House of Hazelwood The Silk Traveller 44 Year Old Islay Single Grain
Dràm Mòr Glenglassaugh, 6YO first-fill Oloroso Hogshead
Dràm Mòr Glenglassaugh 6YO first-fill Oloroso Hogshead
Royal Brackla, 25 Year Old
Royal Brackla 25 Year Old
Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), Passionate Desire 55.85
Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) Passionate Desire 55.85
Aberfeldy, 25-Year-Old
Aberfeldy 25-Year-Old
Chivas, Extra 13-Year-Old Sherry Cask Selection
Chivas Extra 13-Year-Old Sherry Cask Selection
Royal Brackla, 18 Year Old
Royal Brackla 18 Year Old
Glencadam, Reserva PX 17-Year-Old Pedro Ximénez Quarter Cask Finish
Glencadam Reserva PX 17-Year-Old Pedro Ximénez Quarter Cask Finish
Dewar’s, Double Double 27-Year-Old
Dewar’s Double Double 27-Year-Old
Port Askaig, 8-Year Old
Port Askaig 8-Year Old
GlenAllachie, Amontillado Sherry Cask Finish
GlenAllachie Amontillado Sherry Cask Finish
Lindores Abbey, The Casks of Lindores II Sherry Cask Edition
Lindores Abbey The Casks of Lindores II Sherry Cask Edition
Cut Your Wolf Loose, Blended Malt 6 Year Old
Cut Your Wolf Loose Blended Malt 6 Year Old
Bowmore, The Whisky Blues 26-Year-Old Cask 64 Sherry Butt
Bowmore The Whisky Blues 26-Year-Old Cask 64 Sherry Butt
Rampur, Double Cask Indian Single Malt
Rampur Double Cask Indian Single Malt
Aberfeldy, 16 Year Old
Aberfeldy 16 Year Old
Isle of Harris, The Hearach Batch 10
Isle of Harris The Hearach Batch 10
Torabhaig, Cnoc Na Mòine
Torabhaig Cnoc Na Mòine
Dewar’s, Double Double 21 Year Old
Dewar’s Double Double 21 Year Old
Cotswolds, Spanish Oak
Cotswolds Spanish Oak
Little Brown Dog, UnnaMed Speyside Distillery 2010
Aargau
Little Brown Dog UnnaMed Speyside Distillery 2010
GlenAllachie, Fino Sherry Cask 9 Year Old
GlenAllachie Fino Sherry Cask 9 Year Old
Ben Nevis, 9 Year Old Single Malts of Scotland
Ben Nevis 9 Year Old Single Malts of Scotland
White Peak - Wire Works, RSB 2 Oloroso Quarter Cask Finish
White Peak - Wire Works RSB 2 Oloroso Quarter Cask Finish
Glencadam, Reserva Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish
Glencadam Reserva Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish
Highwayman, The Dark Side Byron Bay Single Malt Whisky
Highwayman The Dark Side Byron Bay Single Malt Whisky
Milroy’s, Vintage Reserve Laphroaig 18YO Palo Cortado Octave
Milroy’s Vintage Reserve Laphroaig 18YO Palo Cortado Octave
Royal Brackla, 12 Year Old
Royal Brackla 12 Year Old