Sherry is just the tip of the iceberg at The Macallan

Peter Ranscombe probes the use of sherry casks by one of Speyside’s best known distilleries.

ONE word more than any other characterises our national drink – sherry.

You spot it on labels, you see it on adverts, you even read it in tasting notes.

Yet “sherry” covers a multitude of bases when it comes to making Scotch.

Was the whisky aged in a transport cask that had simply been used to move sherry from one place to another or did it spend time in a butt that was actually used to age sherry – or, these days, was it a barrel that had just been “seasoned” with sherry?

Did the whisky spend its whole life in that sherry cask or was the barrel just used to “finish” the whisky for its final years or even months of maturation?

And was that sherry cask made using European oak or American oak?

The options surrounding “sherry” seem endless – and that’s even before winos like me start asking about what style of sherry we’re talking about: was it oloroso, amontillado or even the syrupy-blackness of pedro ximenez, or “PX” to his friends?

Someone with their finger on the pulse of the whole sherry spectrum is Kirsteen Campbell, the newly-appointed master whisky maker at The Macallan, one of Speyside’s most-famous single malts.

The brand has forged its reputation based on its sherried taste and its parent company, Edrington, is one of the biggest players in the sherry cask trade, not just in Scotland but out in Spain too.

Yet just because The Macallan has a sherried style doesn’t mean that all its whiskies taste the same, as Campbell demonstrated during a tutorial at the company’s head office in Glasgow on Friday.

My sherry, o’mhor…

Opening with The Macallan Double Cask 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (£51.95, Master of Malt) demonstrated the complexity of the options available to blenders.

The whisky uses a combination of sherry casks made from European oak and sherry casks made from American oak.

The result is a mixture of butterscotch, vanilla and caramel notes from the North American wood and more orange peel and wood smoke from this side of The Pond.

In contrast, The Macallan Sherry Cask 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (£69.95, The Whisky Exchange) has a much higher proportion of European oak sherry butts, which brought out more of the milk chocolate and marmalade notes for me, and masked fewer of the lemon and cereal aromas from the spirit.

Scotch from The Macallan always has a cookie dough taste and texture, which I find is especially useful when it comes to whisky and food matching, including with steak.

Last up at Campbell’s tasting was The Macallan Edition #5 (£92.95, Royal Mile Whiskies) – unsurprisingly the fifth in a limited-edition series from the distiller – and made using a mix of bourbon and sherry barrels, all constructed from American oak.

Stripping away the marketing story about Edrington teaming up with the “Pantone Color [sic] Institute” in New York to come up with the shade of purple used on the packaging, the whisky itself is well worth a look.

There are stronger orange, cereal and baby sick aromas on the nose and then tonnes of brown sugar, vanilla and hot spicy cloves on the palate – an excellent addition to the range and very distinctive when sat alongside the more traditional Christmas cake-like bottles.

So, the next time someone tells you about a “sherried whisky”, remember to ask them, “Well, when you say ‘sherry’, what do you mean…?”

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s blog entries about whisky, wine and other drinks on The Grape & The Grain at