Sherry casks. We love ‘em, right? They slather our whisky with fruitcake and plum jam and chocolate and cloves and an extra £20-£30 per bottle and walnuts and dates and rich, sticky, Christmassy things, inspiring awful, stomach-curdling words like “unctuous”. I have it on the highest authority that Mark’s house is built from them. (First-fill ones, obvs – with a first-fill ex-Bordeaux annex). And they look so much sexier than “bourbon casks” on a label, right? After all, as Brother Jason teaches us, all bourbon tastes the same and is rubbish.
Except, actually, “sherry casks” are a great big con.
That’s right. We’ve been sold a dud. A pup. A swizz. A kite. You wouldn’t believe it of the whisky industry’s marketing departments, would you? But it’s true. Their bats are dead wonky on this one, and they get away with it because whisky drinkers don’t care about actual sherry. Except for hipsters. And hipsters don’t actually know or care about the things they faddishly limpet onto. No, they don’t. Or they’d know that most Japanese whisky is made in Scotland and that slimy, yukky avocados are hacking down forest faster than a McDonald’s rancher on crack. But I digress.
For the full murky details on the whisky industry’s “sherry” casks, I suggest you read this article. No, not right now. Christ. I’m talking. Read it when I’ve finished. Manners. The nub of it is this: the whisky industry wants sherry casks. Has done since the 19th Century, when sherry was still popular and was imported to the UK by the barrel. The oak-starved Scots were sloshing their new-make into whatever wood they could get their hands on, and at some point discovered that sherry casks worked rather well. William Sanderson, of Vat 69 fame, gushed that “whisky stored in sherry casks soon acquires a mellow softness which it does not get when put into new casks”. But the actual definition of what constitutes a “sherry cask” is as flexible as a yogi made from over-cooked linguini. And about as palatable.
You see, jump to 2018, and sherry casks are more gushed about than ever. Sherry itself, on the other hand, is the ghost at the feast. It’s booze’s Banquo. It is to wine what gin was to spirits until a decade or two back: the province of grandmothers and weirdos. And even the grandmothers and the weirdos can’t agree on what sherry is. The grandmothers think it’s a sickly-sweet, mucked-about-with, half-arsed, muggy sugar-cocktail for people who think the ‘70s were good. The weirdos (alright, fine, I’m hipster-bashing again) think of it as one of the dry, flat, salty styles, as sipped from bulbous copitas in Jerez.
Personally – and this is an odd confession for a wine merchant – sherry leaves me a bit cold. PX I can take, but that’s because it’s basically ice cream drizzling syrup. Fino? Well, my old manager came up with a vile aroma note for Fino once, and the realisation that he was bang on put me right off. I won’t go into details – my mother reads this blog – but think linden trees on a warm day. Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado? Meh. Take or leave. As far as the cream sherry category goes, I like it about as much as I like any adulterated, dumbed-down, mewling, babyish, apologetic, lowest-common-denominator effluvium.
But whether you’re Shoreditch citizen or salmon-mousse baby-boomer, you’re not drinking the sort of sherry they use for whisky casks. No one is, on the whole. The casks used for ageing whisky in have spent less than two years holding wine made in Jerez that was never intended for sherry in the first place. Most of it ends up as vinegar. They’d never use the casks that contribute to actual sherry because the casks used for actual sherry are a. too important to the sherry soleras and b. inherently placid, exhausted oak, as sherry producers don’t want wood flavours in their wine.
So what you, the whisky drinker gets, is the result of third-tier wine in some pretty feisty oak. More or less the opposite of a proper “sherry cask”.
But what I really want to draw your attention to is the picture Ruben took of the sherry wine from the casks used for today’s Redbreast Lustau finish. You see the Oloroso sherry bottled by Bodegas Lustau – bottled by Bodegas anywhere – is dark mahogany in colour. It’s full of deep, walnutty, oxidative flavours. The sort of thing you read about on the back of any sherry cask whisky.
What the wine in the picture looks like is a half-smudged, off-pale Fino. It’s the colour of an apple-bruise; an embarrassed, flimsy smear of a colour. There’s no way it’s going to pass on the deep, fruitcakey, clove-spice and dark chocolate that you’ll hear every brand ambassador for every sherry cask whisky gush about. It just can’t. Full stop. What might pass on those flavours are the lignins and vanillins present in the incongruously active oak itself. But that’s nothing to do with the sherry.
The grape used in the production of Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado sherry is called Palomino. It’s famously bland to taste. That endears it to sherry winemakers, who look to create flavour primarily through oxidative or biological means. The Lustau sherry used for Redbreast’s limited edition has simply not had enough exposure to those processes to impart significant flavour to the cask. All it will have done is dumb down the flavours already present in the new oak and smooth the edges off the tannins.
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. My beef – as ever – is with the marketing. “Distinctive notes of Spanish Oak and Oloroso Sherry … the bold, rich flavours of the sherry complement the classic, smooth profile of Redbreast.”
Nah. Not really. But you’d never know that from the label.
Anyways, none of this means that Redbreast Lustau can’t be a tasty, tasty thing. It just means caveat emptor. So, dear emptor, what’ve we got?
Well, it’s a vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sort-of-sherry casks aged for 9-12 years and then finished for a year in an ex-sort-of-sherry butt “hand selected” from Bodegas Lustau. It’s non-chill-filtered, bottled at 46%, and my sources tell me that (despite not saying so on the label) it’s natural colour too.
My sources, in this case, being Phil, who’s gate-crashing my review to bring you some actual quality. He’s previously rated the Redbreast Cask Strength rather highly, with the added benefit of having described the brand history, the tedious technicalities of pure pot still whiskey and the malted vs unmalted barley chit-chat. Meaning that I don’t have to do that here. But you probably know all about that sort of thing anyway, being a well-informed Malt reader with a discerning taste in whisky blogs.
The particular bottle I’m tasting from was a present from the geophysicist. I asked her nicely whether I could review it, pointed her towards bits I’ve written in the past, and we’ve agreed that she’s not allowed to thump me even if I say mean things. So here goes:
Redbreast Lustau Edition – review
Colour: Not Oloroso.
On the nose: Fruity, but a long way away from Oloroso-esque. Bruised apples, candied orange peel, ginger and lime fruit pastilles. Quite sharp and pepper-dusty. A little raw grain. Predominantly it lives in the higher octaves, but vanilla sponge and toffee caramel lurk in the background. Ever-so-slight sawn wood.
In the mouth: Palate is medium-bodied and the cakey vanilla elements arrive first. Oddly(ish) this comes across as more about the bourbon casks: brown sugar, honey, coconut. A slight sultana and toffee apple character sneaks in later – the sultana dominating and growing stickier – but it’s accompanied by a distracting bitterness. The heat, given the fairly modest proof, is also a little sharp and thin.
Some nice fruit, especially on the nose, but I’d go for the standard 12 on balance, which is rounder and more harmonious. As celebrations of sherry casks go, this is a bit of an ineffectual party-popper. Perfectly drinkable, mind, but shouldn’t cost more than the 12.
Colour: light copper
On the nose: not overtly a sherry bomb but sherry notes are prominent. Toffee, figs, sultanas, toasted almonds, Apple crumble, some star anise, honey, vanilla, toasted oak and a grind of black pepper. Water releases sticky toffee pudding, dates and surprisingly, sawdust.
In the mouth: medium mouthfeel, slightly oilier than the regular 12 year old. Acacia honey, clove, citrus peel, hazelnuts, ripe apples, vanilla, butterscotch and baking spices. Water enhances the sweetness a lot. Demerara sugar, cinnamon, marzipan. The spiciness is tempered. The finish is surprisingly dry, oaky and tannic with just a hint of Parma violets.
Different from the 12 year old but for me not as balanced and integrated. The nose is beautiful and enticing but the palate just fails somewhat for me. It’s like having a younger version of the 12 with a sherry overlay and the finish is a little too tannic. I think it benefits from a little water. In some cases, the Lustau can be as much as £10 dearer than the 12 year old which I wouldn’t pay, but on The Whisky Exchange it’s a couple of quid and at around £46, I may consider swapping the 12 for the Lustau occasionally.
Note other retailers are available for slightly less.
Alright. We’re done. Now you can read that article.
Lead image provided by the Whisky Exchange. There’s a couple of commission links in this review if you fancy a wee purchase and thereby donating to MALT.