A few days ago I reviewed the Karuizawa 15 yo. When I tasted it there was one thing that struck me. The combination of a slight but noticeable smokiness with a rich first fill sherry cask is somthing that is quite unusual for Scotch whisky.
But this has not been always the case. In the early days peat was the prime fuel for the malting kilns, so just about every Scotch whisky had that whiff of smoke. And sherry casks were more abundant then as well because back then sherry usually was transported to Britain by the cask and not already bottled.
This happened to be the time when Japanese distillers came to Scotland to learn the art of whisky making. And as we know, they did a very good job with this.
With the decline of traditional floor malting in Scotland in favour of the large decentralized malting factories that are common today, also the use of peat for non-island malt whiskies almost came to a total standstill. And as the prime “sherry distiileries” happen to be located in Speyside and the Highlands, that traditional type of smoky sherry whisky became extinct.
Not so in Japan. There the distilleries were led not so much by economic considerations but they wanted to produce the best possible whisky so they did not throw the traditional methods overboard. The small Karuizawa distillery is a very good example for this type of whisky but there are also others who produce it as well.
Only very recently we have seen the pendulum swinging back in Scotland with more mainland distilleries using peat as well. But we have yet to see a modern smoky sherry cask Macallan, Glenfarclas or Dalmore. I am fully convinced that these would be true crackers, but for now it seems that those distilleries lack the innovative spirit to revive an old tradition.