John Shearlock reports back from the sherry cask aged whiskies tasting at Regional Wines

John Sherlock reports back from the sherry cask aged whiskies tasting at Regional Wines

The lineup... (click to purchase)

This was a tasting that was supposed to be all about the sherry - but in the end it became as much an exercise on the effects of oak and age and a lesson in the ambiguities of “labeling” in the strangely opaque industry that is whisky.

The tasting kicked off with the Kurayoshi Sherry Cask Pure Malt, a light and simple whisky but not without its merits. It’s a hybrid of Scotch and Japanese malt, so to call it a pure malt seems slightly disingenuous, and of course, none of this is revealed anywhere on the label.

Next was the 21yo Glenburgie which the label states is charged form a sherry butt. This promise of style and content will be a dangling carrot to many - but really it's a glaring omission of detail. It doesn't tell us what sherry was in that butt, how many times it’s been refilled and most importantly what oak was used to make the butt, after all, the previous contents of an inactive or multiple-refill cask are of diminishing importance - and the provenance of the actual oak becomes the key factor.

Upon tasting the whisky, dying hints of stewed and dried fruits are a glimpse of sherry, but a 21 year conversation between malt and oak has seen a shift in topic from sweet to savoury, and could be evidence of a tired cask or a few refills perhaps. On further inspection, hints of green apples, pine and cut grass lead us more towards a bourbon cask, so perhaps we’re actually tasting American oak, an ex bodega American oak cask perhaps used over decades in a solera, primarily for oxidative ageing purposes, and inert in many respects. This was certainly a thinking whisky and, of course, part of the charm of whisky is to sip and dissect, but wouldn't it be great if all these facts were made readily available on the label? You may have bought this whisky with the lure of the sherry butt - but would you have bought it if the knew it was an old inert cask made from American oak?

The Glenlivet tells us a bit more on the label, well, the number of fills at any rate - but of course the provenance of oak is amiss? This seemed like American oak too, offering us sweet tropical fruits and a scarcity of tannin. A fun whisky with layers of confection, tropical fruits and shiny brass tack malt, and at a great price, but if you were looking for sherry then you’d arguably be better off buying something like the Glenrothes 12yo - and in this respect, you have to wonder if some tasting notes on the packaging wouldn’t actually be a bad thing. Cadenhead put notes on their small batch releases, and as much as they can be slightly odd, they at least provide a starting point when searching for a hint of guidance on what you’re actually purchasing.

The Bladnoch Adela gives us another permutation of ambiguity. It’s marked “oloroso cask” which at least gives us the specific sherry that filled the cask, but now we’re in the dark on size of casks used (this being a blend of casks), and once again the type of oak. Also, does the specific mention of oloroso mean that generic sherry casks are not typically oloroso (i.e. they could be cream sherries, px, fino, manzanilla or amontillado) or is it possible that some distilleries literally don’t know what sherry was in the cask? This seems unlikely. More likely is that the generic term sherry serves as a convenient absence of detail, a bit of misdirection if you like, that woos us into thinking we’re buying a better product.

The Adela was much more what we’d been looking for. A complex compendium of key oloroso descriptors; stewed and dried fruits, xmas cake, walnuts, caramel, sandalwood and more.  The distillery was mothballed in 2009/10 and reopened in 2017 when the Adela was released from pre-existing stock, so it's likely there's some quite old whisky in there too. A quick peruse of their website shows that this is actually charged from both Spanish and American oak but none of this can be found on the label. The Spanish oak gives this whisky some real depth and is something to shout about, so why not have it on the label?

Things were on the up, and getting better with each whisky. Next was the mystery whisky which would eventually be revealed as the ever elusive Glendronach 15yo Revival. This was doing something slightly different to the others with some PX cask aging, and If there’s one distillery that knows how to coax the best out of a PX cask, it’s Glendronach. This had layers of dried fruits, prunes and raisins, complexed by savoury leathers and freshly varnished wood, buffed to glisten with a rag and some Pledge.

Following the revival (in every sense) was our third single cask, this one a 10yo Bunnahabhain bottled independently by one of our faves - Adelphi. As much as we love Adelphi, they are equally as guilty of poor communication concerning what's in the bottle. However, this is something they are starting to address through employing a block chain system to record the whisky's history. An example can be found on the Ardnamurchan distilled at their very own Ardnamurchan distillery - and here's hoping this becomes common place in the whisky world and that one day we will be able to unlock the secrets of our whiskies with a simple app and the click of a button. But for now it's a case of online research, and a quick perusal reveals this to be most probably 1st fill sherry European oak. It's a gorgeous drop that somehow manages to be coastal, earthy, meaty and fruity in one hit. There's evident tannin from the European oak which, combined with the 58.8% abv, gives the whisky some real weight.

The tasting finished with the Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask - a sticky date pudding dessert course to complete the feast of whiskies. It was our fourth single cask of the evening, something that wasn't particularly well advertised on the packaging, and again we were left in the dark as to what sherry the cask had previously contained. This appealed to many at the tasting, but the sweetness was cloying and with none of the refreshing complexities of the Bunnahabhain.

With a "sherry" theme, this certainly wasn't the one track tasting many may have expected. There was real diversity on show with savoury, tropical, light and heavy whiskies all doing their thing. But then these whiskies were obviously aged in a broad variety of casks (despite what the whiskies told us on the labels). There's two ways of looking at this, either as a big positive and proof of the diversity that one style of whisky can offer, or as an epic fail in the attempt of these whiskies to actually deliver what they state they are. I'm sitting on the fence on this one. I'm keen on diversity but, that said, I want to be able to make an informed and accurate decision when I purchase and be confident of what it is that I will end up consuming, and to be fair, that's not often the case with whisky as things currently stand...

Here's the scores

Kurayoshi Japanese Sherry Cask Pure Malt Whisky 43% - 6.82
Old Particular Glenburgie 1997 21yo 51.5% (sherry butt) - 7.41
Signatory Glenlivet 2007 UCF 11 Yo 46% (1st fill sherry butt) - 6.93
Bladnoch Adela 15yo 46.7% (oloroso cask) - 8.16
Mystery Whisky - Glendronach 15yo Revival 46% - 8.41
Adelphi Bunnahabhain 2009 10yo #900021 58.8% (1st fill sherry Euro oak) - 9.13
Kavalan Solist Oloroso Sherry Cask 57.1% - 8.99