The heavily Sherried styles of Scotch whisky tend to divide opinions among whisky drinkers – but perhaps no more passionately so than between whisky writer Angus MacRaild and Macallan’s Ken Grier. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports.
Miss ‘Sherry Bomb’ could be a cartoon character like the devilish ‘Peat Monster’ in some whisky-fuelled strip. Both would be full of youthful exuberance and excess, verging on the deranged at times. Readers would smile, remembering their own misspent youths before they discovered subtlety, restraint and nuance.
In fact, the expression is fairly new. Googling around, the first reference to ‘Sherry bombs’ I found was in 2012 on the American Q&A website, Quora, by the self-styled ‘developer/barefoot philosopher’ Nate Berkopec. And no, I hadn’t heard of him either. His definitive Sherry bomb was Aberlour A'Bunadh.
For the purposes of this debate, let’s consider those malts that are fully Sherry-matured as opposed to those sent to finishing school – and here the prime example has to be Macallan.
The distillery’s owner, Edrington, did relax its ‘Sherry only’ rule for Macallan Fine Oak – a decision that’s still controversial in some quarters – but this one whisky accounts for four out of five Sherry casks used by the Scotch whisky industry. That’s according to Macallan’s creative director Ken Grier, so who better to talk up the sumptuous, spicy delights of Sherry?
But first, a counterview from whisky writer and consultant Angus MacRaild to the central question: are Sherry bombs a ‘joy’?
(Photo: Marcel van Gils)
NO: ANGUS MACRAILD, WHISKY WRITER AND CONSULTANT
‘Let me begin with a caveat: of course not all Sherry bombs are bad; some of the greatest whiskies ever made have been what you might term ‘Sherry bombs’. Largiemeanoch, anyone? And of course, a Sherry-matured malt can be a thing of beauty when the cask and distillate dance to the same tune; in this instance, the old GlenDronach 15 springs to mind.
‘However, for Sherry bombs, I would say the exceptions prove the rule, and that the majority of them – pitch dark, tannin-laden Sherry beasts – are more notable for their flaws than their merits.
‘My argument is simply that they are too lopsided; too imbalanced; too wood- and wine-dominated. The Sherry and wood form a pincer movement that stamps out distillery character or any sense of identity in the distillate itself. The tannicity of the oak is often drying and chalky, a spice-studded bludgeon to the tender parts of the gums and tongue.
‘For me, a great Sherry-matured malt should possess a balance between distillery identity, fruitiness, earthiness and a lick of spice. Sherry bombs almost always eschew this tightrope balance in favour of heat, density and aggression of wood flavour. I include such hallowed names as Yamazaki Sherry Cask and Aberlour A’bunadh in this assertion as well, I should add. Have at me and do thy worst, Sherry lovers...
‘The colour of these Sherry bombs is also a tell-tale sign; so often, these casks are not properly flushed out (as they are required to be) and the remnant, inky litres of Sherry left in the cask by the Sherry producers are left to add colour and influence to the spirit subsequently filled into them.
‘Just as a swift finish in a wine cask is a backdoor means of adding colour to a flavoursome, but pale, old refill hogshead, so the bass-like slosh in the darkness of a fresh Sherry butt is a means to add colour, sweetness and speed to the maturation of malt whisky.
‘It smacks of cheapness and cheating to me. I appreciate some people enjoy Sherry bombs, but for me they are ultimately flawed. I seek balance, complexity and identity in my whiskies – not brute, inelegant simplicity.’
YES, KEN GRIER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, MACALLAN
‘Macallan has always been synonymous with being a Sherry cask malt. It’s deeply ingrained in the brand’s DNA, and we reckon it accounts for up to 80% of the flavour characteristics.
‘We use Quercus robur casks from Europe, principally Spain, which give flavours such as ginger, cinnamon, dried fruits and coffee; and also Quercus alba casks from America, which are a bit more vanilla- and citrus-based. It is an incredibly important part of what makes Macallan, Macallan.
‘But you also need great skill in making new make spirit that perfectly complements these flavoursome casks. We have small, onion-shaped stills and a fine spirit cut to create a heavy spirit that’s rich and oily, and able to co-mingle with the flavours from the wood.
‘The result has incredible balance, complexity, richness and depth. It’s why the Macallan is so sought after, so collected, and why it accounts for 21% of all the whisky sold at auction.
‘We don’t “finish” at Macallan by putting whisky from one cask into another type of wood, and that’s a core part of our brand fundament. For me, it’s like having a fine piece of Chippendale furniture where the wood has been carefully selected and crafted into something of great beauty; whereas with modern furniture-making you might take a base material and veneer it with something else. On the surface it looks special, but it’s actually very different.
‘To have genuine Sherry characteristics, we think it’s very important to choose the casks carefully and give the spirit a full maturation. Other companies do things differently, but it wouldn’t fit with the ethos and integrity of the Macallan. That’s not to say that some of these “finishes” are not interesting or don’t have their place.
‘At Edrington, we buy 90% of the Sherry casks used in the Scotch whisky industry, with Macallan alone accounting for 80-85%. We pay up to 10 times more for them and because it costs more we’re able to charge a premium, but we believe it’s worth it. Some of what I personally drink has been incredibly Sherried, like the Macallan Oscuro we produce for duty free. It’s a gorgeous product from first fill Sherry wood.
‘But it does come down to the quality of your new make. There’s a danger of using a light, delicate spirit that is not produced to go well with Sherry. It can be a bit over-wooded and lose vibrancy, becoming one-dimensional and dull.’
Of course, the expression ‘Sherry bomb’ sounds a bit pejorative, and those who simply don’t like Sherried flavours in their whisky will scorn anything with a whiff of oloroso or PX.
Others, for whom rich, leathery old-style Macallan is the nectar of the Gods, might see it as a term of affection. It is all very subjective, though that ‘balance between distillery identity, fruitiness, earthiness and a lick of spice’ mentioned by MacRaild is not easy with an active, first fill Sherry butt.
Whether a spirit inevitably loses some sense of ‘terroir’ in such a cask, is a question best left to the whisky itself. To answer it, let’s invite Grier to gather us round the bar and pour us a drop of new make Macallan in one glass and some of that precious Macallan Oscuro in the other.