The Old and the New – the changing world of the sherry cask

Glenfarclas 10s

I recently tasted a bottle of Glenfarclas 10yo with the old-style bottle design. It wouldn’t have been from too long ago – the design changed in 2009 – but tasting it alongside the current expression of the 10yo was a striking difference. You could see a lot of the same factors in each, but the current release felt a lot more laid back in all aspects: there was pear and vanilla fudge on the nose, where the old version had brandy and toffee fudge; there was simple syrup and a faint creme de cassis on the palate, where the old version had cinder toffee, caramelised sugar and blackcurrants. The finish was a gentle tailing off of the palate in the current 10yo, and very rounded, while in the old 10yo those burnt sugars lingered and lingered. In short, they felt like very much the same whisky, but with a focus that has changed from peppiness and power to a more sedate and assured mellowness. And as far as I’m concerned, each expression carries out its aim brilliantly.

So why might an expression like this change over time? There can be many reasons – a change in distiller or blender can lead to a change in style, either through conscious choice or simply because the new person at the helm interprets the whisky differently. There might be an alteration in style to better suit a particular market – for instance, many have speculated about a perceived change in the Glen Ord 12yo when it became part of Diageo’s Singleton range and was marketed in Asia. In some cases the change might just be a slow, organic drift in flavour, with no true cause but time.

A factor that has become a lot more prevalent in recent times, particularly for distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan, is actually the availability of their chosen type of cask, ex-sherry casks. While the demand for scotch whisky, particularly single malt, has increased over the last 30 years, the demand for sherry has fallen heavily by comparison, and a good ex-sherry cask is hard to come by. Initially, this meant that the cost increased – while you might buy an ex-bourbon cask for a little under £100, a sherry cask might set you back between £600-1000.

However, over the last 10 years or so, the problem has worsened, and it is hard for distilleries who predominantly use sherry casks to get enough of them at any price. Instead they are forced to turn to other measures. Glenfarclas have always used a mixture of first fill sherry casks (ie, fresh from a bodega) and second fill (ie, ex-sherry casks that have already been used to mature scotch). I suspect that they have transitioned towards using a slightly higher percentage of these second fill casks, and this is why the current 10yo is a bit more mellow and less juicy than in previous years.

The other option is the one Macallan have been using – they have their own Spanish oak casks made, or import North American oak casks from the bourbon industry, and then have these sent to Spain. Here they are seasoned with oloroso sherry at a bodega owned by Macallan and used for this sole purpose. The seasoning period is almost always shorter than a typical aging period for oloroso, meaning that the casks are less heavily impregnated with the sherry than they would otherwise be. Combined with this is the increased usage of North American white oak, a less porous type of wood that contains more vanillins and fewer tannins than Spanish red oak. These two factors are largely responsible for the shift of the Macallan style towards a somewhat less fruity character.

Do I mind? In honesty, not that much. As a committed whisky drinker, I will always have access to whiskies with a strong sherry influence, even if these do have to become limited to a smaller scale of release. I feel sad that those starting their whisky journey are losing the chance to experience these iconic sherry bombs, but we are already starting to see this balanced out by increasing usage of other types of European oak cask, like port and red wine. The Scotch whisky industry will find its feet again, and very likely end up in a place where the number of different cask influences on offer is much wider than it is today. And for me, that is a welcome thought.

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