About once a year I try to write something about Sherry (or Jerez si vamos a hablar en Español) mainly because the crossover appeal between it and single malt is blatently obvious. Every year I write it and most people think, "Huh........Sherry, eh?" and that's about as far as it goes. I know plenty of Scotch drinkers who have made the transition to Bourbon, yet no one ever wants to learn more about the fortified wine that shapes their Macallan, Glenfarclas, Springbank, or Lagavulin whiskies. There are very few single malt producers that aren't using ex-Sherry barrels to mature their whisky, yet we seem to forget the huge influence these wine-soaked butts have over our beloved bottles. I get emails from customers all the time about how wonderful the Glendronach K&L single barrel they just purchased tasted. "How do they get all that rich, toffee-laden, fudgy flavor into that whisky?" they ask. "They must have really good distillers."
Distillers? No. Really good Sherry barrels? Yes.
Because that's what you're tasting when you taste our new Glendronach 19 year old Oloroso cask. You're tasting sherry. 95% of that whisky's flavor comes from the Oloroso. The other 5% is the alcohol and the eau de vie. If you should ever visit Glendronach distillery, that's where the majority of your visit will take place: in the barrel room. They're firm believers in the idea that most of whiskymaking takes place after distillation. They'll talk your ear off about cooperage and the influence that Jerez has over their malt. Yet, Scotch drinkers in search of something different still look to rum or Bourbon due to their "similar" flavor profiles. Not that you shouldn't enjoy rum or Bourbon. They're fantastic spirits. I just don't get why more people aren't interested in Sherry, considering that for those producers using Sherry wood, it is far and away the number one influence on their single malt whisky's ultimate flavor.
And it's delicious to drink on its own!!!!!!
Besides the deliciousness of its character, the relatively reasonable price tags, the fact that you can open a bottle and have it last for months, and the complexity of its different flavor profiles, there is one standout reason why Sherry is ripe for hipster exploitation: no other wine, beer, or spirit offers the potential for so much geekery. I mean, isn't that what hipster culture is about? Taking something completely phased out from our past and ressurecting it once again as the measurement of coolness? Turntables, beards, and carpentry! No other alcoholic beverage is as antiquated and associated with old people as Sherry. If you want to know more about something than someone else, Sherry is your key to pedantic bliss. All of us at the Redwood City store just purchased the book Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla in an attempt to increase our own collective knowledge. We're all committing to this movement.
Sherry is so complicated to produce and comes in so many different manifestations that it would take years to truly understand it. It can be briny and austere, yeasty and funky, nutty yet dry, nutty but sweet, raisined and chewy, chocolatey and earthy, and any other combination of these flavors already mentioned. You can serve it chilled as an aperitif with hard cheeses and nuts, or sip it after dinner like you would a glass of single malt. It combines viticulture, soil, winemaking, distillation, barrel-aging, and most importantly: flor.
What is flor you ask? It is to Sherry as peat is to whisky and as bret is to beer or cider, in that it offers a unique complexity of flavor that can take some getting used to. Flor is a veil of Saccharomyces yeast cells, which multiply and form a layer of film that covers the wine as it ages in barrel. The barrier on the surface prevents total oxidation by limiting the wine's contact with oxygen (flor also needs oxygen to survive, so what little leaks into the wine is immedately consumed by the yeast). Sometimes these layers can be very thin, other times extremely thick – how thick will affect their influence over the wine. Geography, temperature, and cellar conditions have everything to do with a flor's nature (bringing serious terroir to Sherrytown). The flor also consumes what sugar is left in the wine, which results in some seriously bone-dry fino and manzanilla sherries. Flor layers can last for years and they age with the sherry in the oak barrel. As yeast cells die off from the flor, they drop to the bottom of the wine where they become part of the lees, the dead yeast cells that bring a rich, savory note to many Sherry and Champagne wines. Those aging closer to the sea have different flors than those more inland and can be salty and briny much like Islay whiskies.
Then there's the barrel maturation. Jerez uses American oak and European oak. They use barriques and they use giant butts. Some wines are aged purely in a single barrel, others are added to a solera system that continuously marries younger wines with older ones to keep a consistent flavor (like marrying whiskies together in the Ardbeg Uigeadail). There are a few Sherry selections at K&L that have wines dating back to the 1800s floating around within them. What about distillation, too? Sherry uses brandy to fortify its wines and prevent them from oxidizing too quickly after the bottles are opened. It's crazy to think about all of these different facets.
So here we are. Another year is upon us. Another post about Sherry that will find its way into your RSS feed, but will likely be skimmed over and forgotten as fast as the other non-whisky-related pieces. However, for anyone who truly wants to understand single malt whisky, you can't do so without understanding Sherry. You can know everything about every distillery in Scotland – their barley sources, their fermentation times, their still size, and their cooperage program – but you won't understand why their whiskies taste the way they do unless you understand what Sherry is. If you're drinking Laphroaig 10, or any other Bourbon barrel-aged whisky, then you're exempt. However, there are few distilleries who don't use some Sherry as part of their ultimate formula. Springbank 15? Bowmore 15? Glenlivet 15? Queue the Frankie Valli hit!
Maybe it's time to give Sherry another look. Come to Redwood City and talk to our Sherry buyer Joe Manekin (any advice I give you will just be a repeat of what he tells me). I'll try and post some of my favorites, but I have to check our inventory first.