They are some of the perfect vessels for maturing whisky, specifically they’re names for standard sherry and port barrel sizes. But what are Sherry and Port? TWL’s Emma Cookson dives into our May’s feature article to explore the world of big sherry butts, and the delicious liquid they hold before being filled with whisky.
“Claret is for boys, Port is for men, and Brandy is for heroes”. So goes the iconic saying from a man known well in the early 1900s as Dr Johnson. But Australians in the modern era are more likely to associate a snifter of port or sherry with their Nan, her cheeky nightcap (or two) before bed, the deep ruby liquid she would sip at like it was a secret she was sharing with herself.
However, the story of Sherry and Port is a history as rich and vibrant as the wine itself, and it’s worth taking a pause to delve a bit deeper into the liquid that once sloshed around the casks we obsess about, and which are responsible for our fruit-forward and luscious fortified wine cask whisky.
Image: Sherry comes in all colours
Firstly, we have to start with what on earth Sherry and Port is, and why we use a different name for each, even though they are – at their core – very similar drinks. Production houses of these types of wines are known as ‘bodegas’, and many of the ones still operating in Europe today have been family operations for generations. The most important difference between the two names is their location of production. As a rule of thumb, Sherry is made in Spain, the Jerez region (pronounced ‘hair-eth’) is famous for its Sherry bodegas, and Port is made in Portugal, with the Douro Valley region (pronounced ‘doo-row’) that stretches to the San Luca seaside being the main producing region for the country.
Port is predominantly made in one way, from a blend of Touriga Nacionale and Tempranillo variety grapes. While treading – the practice of crushing grapes underfoot – is more of a relic of the past, the wine is treated the same way most are, the juice of the grape is extracted and left in barrels to ferment. At this point it is still just considered a ‘table wine’, a style of red wine known as Douro which is drinkable but often considered a difficult wine to balance and produce for drinking by sommeliers. In order to convert this wine to Port it is fermented further to increase the sugar level and then fortified (hence the name fortified wine) with grape brandy spirit and continues to mellow in barrels until it’s deemed ready to bottle.
Sherry on the other hand is a much more complex category with a wide variety of sub-styles under the name sherry. Some of the more common ones are Pedro Ximenez (PX) and Oloroso, but the style includes Fino, Amontillado, Manzanilla, Palo Cortardo, and then blends like Cream which is a combination of PX and Oloroso chiefly used in cooking and not usually recommended for sipping. It can mistakenly be assumed that all these styles must be similar in flavour but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The lighter-coloured Fino and Manzanilla are both made using an oxidization process, where the barrels are left open to ferment and form a yeast compound called flor which gives them a very dry and nutty profile. Meanwhile the darker-coloured Amontillado, Oloroso and PX are made with un-oxidized processes, imparting the darker colour and allowing for higher-sugar content in the final product. Another point of difference between PX sherry and the other styles in the grape base, while most styles are made using the Palomino grape variety, PX is made using only Pedro Ximenez grapes, which are much higher in natural sugar content and result in a much sweeter and more viscous liquid.
Image: Sherry butts are significantly larger casks used to mature whisky in
A guide published for the every-man in 1884 called ‘A Short Account of Port and Sherry’ tells readers that no man need be afraid of a glass of port, and that’s an attitude that many whisky distillers today definitely can agree with given the dwindling supplies of high-quality fortified wine casks available to them today. The cost of a good sherry cask can easily be upwards of $1,000 per barrel while an ex-bourbon cask will only set them back a few hundred. This is one small part of the reason we pay more at the bottle shop for richer-hued Sherry cask matured whisky, no matter what corner of the world it’s made in.
The decreasing popularity of sherry and port amongst drinkers worldwide contrasted with the increased demand for sherry-bomb whiskies has created a real problem in the economy of alcohol and in many cases that cost has been passed on to consumers. Various bodegas have resorted to creating low-quality fortified wines that spend minimal time in the barrels to fulfill the demand (and budget) of the Scotch whisky industry, and this has led to the term ‘sherry seasoned casks’ which has been appearing on more and more on some of our favourite Scotch imports. Meanwhile other distilleries have begun fostering relationships with individual bodegas in order to source better quality barrels for their whisky. Some local Australian distillers are working to circumvent these costs by producing their own sherry on site, and the father and son duo at Transwood Cooperage is aiming to season their own barrels on site with their own sherry too. Joadja Distillery in NSW ships the barrels nearly full of PX sherry (which they then bottle and sell) direct from their family connection in Spain as a way of achieving the quality of casks they’re looking for while also cutting out the middle-man barrel broker. While other distilleries such as Lark’s new Ponteville site (formerly Shene Estate) have been shipping in barrels still containing a small remainder of sherry in them to maintain the fresh sherry quality of the cask, unlike Joadja this excess liquid gets enjoyed by the staff at their on-site cooperage.
Image: Seppeltsfield Winery Centennial Cellar - which contains port that is over 100 years old
While Scotland doesn’t exactly have the climate to support wine production, Australia is lucky enough to have a wide array of micro-climates, making wine and fortified wine production a flourishing industry. Since the 1800s Australia has been making fortified wine, with Seppeltsfield Winery in the Barossa Valley boasting a continuous line of still-full barrels dating back to 1823. Thanks to DOC and Appellation claims made by Spain and Portugal though we refer to them by Apera (sherry), Tawny (port). Many of our favourite Australian distilleries are already sourcing casks from these local wineries but we will soon run into a similar situation to Europe where the great quality casks start to dry up as the love for Aussie whisky outpaces the amount of both local and international fortified wine being consumed.
So what can we do to safeguard our favourite styles of whisky? The obvious answer is to drink more fortified wine! Supporting local wineries and getting familiar with the styles of fortified wine that you like is the best step towards keeping the barrels flowing for our blooming whisky industry. Your Nan might have been on to something after all.
Throughout May 2022, TWL is dropping some amazing sherried whiskies. Check them out here: wsky.me/drop