The Forgotten Art of Smoky Sherry Whisky

by Oliver Klimek on October 13, 2010

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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

gal October 13, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I agree.

A smoky macallan or ‘Farclas will be very interesting, and surely will attract many malt maniacs ;)

who is picking up the glove?

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_MosStef_ October 13, 2010 at 3:47 pm

A fairly recent example of a peaty, sherry influenced malt is the 20 yo Talisker 62% bottled in 2002, which is a world class whisky. That dram was one of the reasons my interest in whisky never wore off. The 21 yo Lagavulin from 2005 comes to mind. One of the very best whiskies I have tasted to date and that was matured in sherry casks as well. Peat and sherry can work so well together and can sometimes be in a league of it’s own.

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Oliver Klimek October 13, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I am well aware of sherry cask Islay or Island whiskies, just think of the Laphroaig 15. But here I am specifically addressing those distilleries who have abandoned smoke in the past and switched their profile to pure sherry. And wer’re not talking about 40ppm phenol levels here. Just a little smoke as natural flavour enhancer is all that’s needed.

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_MosStef_ October 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Understood, it’s just my frame of reference is limited to more recent whiskies and the first that came to mind was these peatmonster with sherry influence – just cause I like them so much;0) I have yet to try a 1930’s Macallan or similar mainland whiskies from when grandma was young, where peat was used because of coal shortage. Other than Karuizawa, where should one look to find sherry whiskies with a sligt smoky presence? Any particular bottle come to mind?

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Oliver Klimek October 13, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I guess anyone would love to try such an oldie, but they are just too bloody rare and hideoulsly expensive. Another Japanese in the same league is supposed to be the Yamazaki 18, but I haven’t tasted it yet. And although it’s not really a sherry monster, the Benromach 10 is a very delightful slightly smoky mainland dram as well.

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_MosStef_ October 13, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I will now have to try them both;0) thanks for taking the time to reply and great subject btw. Hopefully someone will pick up this forgotten art soon again. If springbank can alter production once in a while to make the not so hugely peaty Longrow, maybe someone else could do something similar. Would be nice to try more sherried speysiders with a peaty undertone, like some of the older Longmorns fx…

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