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Last May, at a Sotheby’s auction, two bottles of 62-year-old single malt from The Dalmore earned just under $335,000 a piece. They were bargains compared to The Macallan’s record-shattering Fine and Rare release. Distilled in 1926, that whisky sold for $1.9 million, just months prior. In March, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition recognized the 15-year-old GlenDronach ‘Revival’ as the world’s best whisky amongst hundreds of competing entries.
What do all of these vaunted spirits have in common?
You can point to the obvious: Scottish pedigree. But that’s merely a part of the equation. Majority of the flavor in any scotch comes from the cooperage in which it ages for a minimum of three years—often for decades more. The most revered examples within the category owe such status to a specific sort of barrel exported 1,300 miles from the south. It doesn’t just hold liquid. It holds the key to cultish adoration.
“During the 19th century fortified wines, such as sherry, became increasingly popular in the United Kingdom,” explains Douglas Cook, director of whisky advocacy at Brown Forman, The GlenDronach’s parent company. “Scotch whisky makers recognized the depth of character imparted by sherry casks and even sought out casks sourced specifically from the bodegas of the Jerez region in Andalusia.”
Initially, this discovery was a happy accident. For centuries sherry was exported from Spain literally by the barrel. Once ashore, the liquid inside was drained and these massive, empty wooden vessels would pile up along the docks. Whisky-makers—who were constantly in need of storage containers—suddenly found a steady supply in the form of these 500-liter butts, sitting there for the taking. The fact that the wood ultimately imbued their spirit with incomparable elegance was nothing more than good fortune.
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But they were not content to leave it all up to fate. The more industrious producers began venturing to the source—the so-called “Sherry Triangle” of southwestern Spain—to secure a consistent allotment. “As Scotch whisky continued to grow into popularity, so did the demand for higher quality casks and the unique value of these sherry oak casks was realized,” according to Stuart MacPherson. As Master of Wood for The Macallan, his sole task is to ensure the caliber of these Spanish barrels before a drop of single malt enters in.
“Roderick Kemp, who owned The Macallan from 1892 to 1909, is often regarded as its first architect,” adds MacPherson. “In the early 20th century, he was a wine merchant that was inspired to bring his expertise from the world of wine to the art of whisky making. With a profound knowledge of wine, he determined the importance of sherry casks in lending The Macallan its signature taste and color.” Indeed, that mahogany body, those rich, dark fruit tonalities, the lingering tobacco spice—all hallmarks of the house style are also tell-tale indicators of sherried whisky.
Unfortunately, a set of circumstances throughout the latter half of the 20th century made such scotches exceedingly precious. For one, global demand for sherry decreased. As people stopped uncorking so much of the fortified wine, its accompanying barrels became frustratingly scarce. Then, in 1989, Spain amended its laws, requiring all sherry to be bottled within national boundaries. It lead to the demise of the cask’s use for transport almost overnight. By this point, the industry standard for aging scotch was ex-bourbon barrels. The only distilleries that would continue procuring ex-sherry were ones that had developed lasting bonds with dependable producers in Jerez.
A sterling example existed between The Dalmore and González Byass—Spain’s largest producer of sherry. “Once you find a sherry that suits your kind of single malt, you stick with it,” says legendary master distiller Richard Paterson. “Luckily we’ve been dealing with González Byass for over a hundred years. Back then [barrels] were thought of as a factor that gave us another dimension of flavor. But today it’s far more nurtured and we fully know what influence we’re going to get from these various sherry casks.”
A tour of the González Byass bodega in Jerez offers ample clues as to how these sophisticated flavors are formed. Butts are stacked four high off the floor, each level of liquid playing an integral role in a system of fractional blending known as ‘solera’: New wine enters at the top, slowly working its way down each rung—over years—until it’s ultimately drawn from the bottom level when ready for bottling.
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Standing by the barrels as master blender Antonio Flores draws his samples is a mesmerizing occurrence. He passes a slender, ladle-like instrument (the venencia) through a hole in the oak. Then, lifting his hand high above his head, he empties its bounty into a copa, by way of a two-foot-long arc of liquid.
Rising from the earthen floor are the very aromas that shape some of the most sought after scotches on the planet. You can practically sip them from the air. And now you can even sleep beside them. Adjacent to the aging warehouse, the brand opened the world’s first sherry hotel last month. Hotel Bodega Tío Pepewas repurposed from 150-year-old cottages that once housed the property’s winery workers. It will undoubtedly welcome not only sherry fans but scotch enthusiasts just the same.
“Our long-standing relationship [with scotch] has not only proved to be important for the business between Scotland and Jerez, it’s also an important part of our personal history,” observes Flores. “And it has proved to be an inspiration for innovative products.”
The latest innovation assumes the shape of Nomad—a so-called ‘Outland Whisky’ which turns the Spanish-Scottish chain of custody on its head. Richard Paterson collects a blend of scotches, five to eight years in age, and then ships them down to Jerez, where González Byass finishes the liquid in PX sherry casks for an additional year.
Paterson is clearly happy for the excuse to return along with them. After all, it’s not only the scotch that benefits from its communion with this part of Spain. It has quite the profound affect on visitors, too. “What a city—the cathedral, the tapas bars, flamenco,” he muses. “People say to me, ‘you’re just going into a warehouse’. No you bloody don’t! You go into a bodega. Soon as you go in there you smell maderized wine. And each of these casks has their own little story to tell. And they’ll tell you when they’re ready.”