The Genuine Old-style Malt Whisky

It’s almost impossible to find pure sherry cask-aged whiskey at a moderate price given the greatly increased demand for single malt today.

The Macallan, long the standard-bearer for sherry-cask quality, diversified its line years ago to include whisky aged in bourbon and other forms of American oak. The Amber expression today seems the closest to the old 10-year expression, and is almost $200 in Ontario. I believe it is all-sherry wood whisky. The Sienna is another, about one-third more costly, that offers the old character, or the closest to it I remember.

Aberlour is the other malt well-known for the sherry signature, and still reasonably priced. I’m sure there are others, in some cases luxury extensions of well-known malts. Many brands mingle sherry and bourbon wood (or other American oak) whiskies, but you don’t get the full sherry effect that way.

On the Irish side, Redbreast, a single or pure pot still whiskey, used to have a sherry signature. I find recent bottlings do not, due no doubt to the rarity of sherry casks for the requisite aging. Some single pot still may get a finishing in sherry wood, or again some is probably vatted from both bourbon and sherry barrels.

I like the modern profile of single malt, based as it is largely on the American oak barrel, but there is no substitute for the old sherry cask taste. While the effect differed based on the type of sherry used (fino, Oloroso, etc.) there was an mistakable perfumey taste that set such whisky apart from bourbon-wood whisky.

I became familiar with it, not just from Macallan and Aberlour but from various merchants’ bottlings, offered for a song in the old days. I remember one sold in Florida, 25-year-old vatted stuff with a big sherry component that didn’t fetch more than $30. Sometimes the sherry in the barrel frames oxidized, especially with repeated use, which lent a certain rubbery tang.

Setting side arcana such as trade (shipping) barrels having been being made from Spanish oak while the aging soleras typically used American wood for generations, the sherry they housed that ended in the whisky imparted a unique character.

Well recently, I found an Irish single malt, The Sexton, for under $50 in Ontario and approaching half that in the U.S., that is aged in European oak barrels (provenance not known) that held genuine sherry. The wine was P-X or Pedro Ximenez, for the grape, a rich sherry with scents of sweet raisin, orange rind, dates, and other good things.

This is a superb whisky, said to be sourced from Bushmills Distillery in Antrim, Ulster, and only four years old. It must be the young age that explains the low price since sherry-aged whisky usually does not come cheap.

What I like, apart from the genuine sherry smack in the taste, is the smell and taste of the oils in the whisky. Even though triple-distilled in the Lowland style there is nothing light about Bushmills make. It is a medium-bodied and assertive whisky even at 10 years and higher ages. So, the sherry mingles and interweaves with the fusels to produce a classic whisky taste. Not classic-Irish since it isn’t pure pot still – no unmalted barley in the mash – but close enough.

Some online reviews are very complimentary and a few are not. I wonder if the negative ones are being influenced somehow by the low price. My first taste reminded me of the old Macallan 10 and 12 year expressions, all-sherry whisky from 20 years ago. That’s a pretty good impression to have.

If anything The Sexton is better as old-style Macallan could be a little bland due probably to an over-dedicated attempt to select the middle cut in distillation. Slice away too much of the distillery character and no matter how long you age it or what you age or finish it in, it won’t taste as real whisky should, in my opinion.

The image shown has a bottle of Robertson Scotch Seville orange marmalade peeking in the back. It was on the counter and I included it for two reasons: First, its rich, bitter-sweet orange taste is an analogue to that of The Sexton. Second, being Scottish, it parallels what in many ways is a Scottish character in the whisky. This is due (I should add) not to being sourced in Ulster but because Bushmills has always used all-malt in the Highlands and Islay fashion.

In the 1800s a four-year-old malt whisky was a high-class product, not too much whisky in the market exceeded that age then. And sherry cask aging, if not invariable, was legion due to the heavy use of sherry imported in barrels or butts. Sherry butt, you know the term.