Please bear with me. I will make a determined attempt to un-tie the Gordian pleasures of this whiskey a little farther on. First, I would like to take you on a time-traveling international road trip through Roman cooperage, French forests, British tastes, the Spanish Civil War, American whiskey law and, last but not least, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobia – all to explain to you just one of the reasons I love this luscious libation.
The short version is this: Whiskies matured in Spanish oak sherry casks, though now the exception, were once the rule. While the current Aberlour 18 Year Old is not aged exclusively in such casks (as earlier bottlings under this designation were), the nose and palate it provides have a very pronounced sherry-aged profile. It spends most of its years of maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, but does spend some time in American oak as well. Still, it is so damn good and has such a sherry signature that it got me wondering why the craft of maturing single malt Scotch whiskey ever shifted away from the use of Spanish ex-sherry to the predominant use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks.
Cooperage itself is an ancient art. There are references to it in ancient Egyptian painting and throughout the Bible. The word “cooper” is said to derive from cupa, the Latin word for vessel. A Roman, Strabo, writing in AD 21, high-fives the Celts in one of his books for being ‘particularly fine coopers’.
By now, coopering skills among the Celtic peoples must be inscribed in their DNA. And that’s a good thing: The whisky industry currently needs about 3 million coopered oak casks a year for maturing whisky. And coopering skills of the highest order are required for so-called “wet” cooperage – the building of oak casks that can hold a liquid without leaking.
All that need – millions of casks made of oak staves – and yet the British themselves have very few oak trees. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the belligerent empire-builders and Gallophobes clear cut most of their oak forests to build Royal Navy warships for use in fighting the French, among a world of others.
Think about that: Entire forests wiped out to build war ships: It took about 3,400 oak trees (70 acres of forest) to build one 74 gun ship. One well-placed cannon ball and 70 acres of British oak sank in splinters to the bottom of the sea!
For this reason, and with a level of acumen and foresight far beyond the piddling crania of any modern politician, the French planted immense acreage with oak saplings beginning in the early 17th Century. Once Napoleon came along, he forbade any oak tree in France to be cut down at less than 150 years of age.
On the British front, from the 17th Century onwards, various alliances, treaties and wars meant that Spain’s fortified wines – those suitable for long distance travel, such as Sherry, Port and Madeira – became available, and particularly popular, in Britain. Shipped in casks, these wines were bottled at the port of entry – Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bristol, Liverpool – and the emptied casks re-used by grateful distillers. Hence the use of fortified wine casks, primarily sherry, to age single malt Scotch whiskies.
When do American oak casks come into play? There is some evidence that American oak barrels started to be used by Scots distillers early in the first decades of the 20th Century. Just when, exactly, is hard to pinpoint, but the U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits requires that bourbon and rye whiskey be stored “in charred new oak containers” – “new” being the operative word for our purposes here, because “new” means those barrels cannot be re-used for the aging of bourbon or rye. Charring, by the way, came into practice when oak barrels used to transport fish were later used to transport whiskey! Charring got rid of the stink!
In any case, I assume those American distilled spirits standards were originally formulated after the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and maybe a couple of decades later when the fights over prohibition came to a boil and stern, opprobrious control over whiskey and its distillers became all the blithering rage.
Nonetheless, by writing those standards, tens of thousands of used-once bourbon casks became available to Scottish distillers. And in 1915, the Brits passed their law requiring that whiskey be aged in oak containers for a minimum of three years. Some things – not much – but some things in the realm of historical coincidence actually do work out for the best!
Still, there must be more at work here. Though I haven’t come across this notion anywhere else, it seems to me that a major cause of the shift from Spanish sherry casts to American ex-bourbon barrels lies hidden in the annals of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from July 17, 1936 until April 1, 1939.
But first came the phylloxera epidemic, which originated in North America and crossed the Atlantic in the last half of the 19th Century, ravaging the grape vines of France and nearly destroying the French wine industry (and thereby much enlarging the market for Scotch whiskey because Cognac, made from grapes and very popular with the British, became a very scarce commodity).
Eventually, in the last decades of the 19th Century, this epidemic crossed the Pyrenees and attacked Spanish grape vines as well. However, the desolation of the Spanish wine market was much less severe because the remedy – grafting American rootstock to European vines – had already been discovered by the time the epidemic hit Spain.
Anyway, a few decades pass and we come to the mid-‘30s and the Spanish Civil War, during which the entire Spanish wine industry suffered greatly as vineyards were neglected and wineries destroyed throughout Spain. Important regions such as Catalonia and Valencia were particularly hard hit.
Consequently, exports of fortified Spanish wines, and of the casks they came in, dwindled to almost nothing. It is worth noting that the Spanish Civil War began just two years after prohibition was repealed in the United States. And when prohibition was lifted, demand for Scotch whiskey soared in the U.S. The Scots had to get their barrels somewhere and the U.S. made perfect sense.
Further darkening of the prospects for Spanish wines came with the Second World War, which closed off European markets to Spanish exports and further damaged its economy.
Given all of these converging factors, there were far, far fewer ex-sherry casks available for use by Scottish distillers, and those that were available were exorbitantly costly (as they still are). So, following as it does upon the dictates of both history and finance, the general shift to the use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks comes as no real surprise.
The final nail in the sherry cask coffin came with the outlawing of bulk shipments from Spain to the UK in 1981, just one of the xenophobic laws enacted under that blunt-edged iron battle ax called Margaret Thatcher.
And thus, with all this, we arrive where we are today: Approximately 97% of all Scotch whisky now maturing is maturing in casks made of American white oak.
Meaning, unfortunately, that people who really know the art and craft of whiskey maturation with sherry casks are disappearing from the industry. And as a consequence of that, just a tiny fraction of Scottish single malt is now matured – as distinct from “finished” for a few months or a year – in sherry casks.
And thus we come back to the wondrous, sherry-soaked aromas and tastes of the Aberlour 18 Year Old. I hope you enjoyed our circuitous little trip!
The distillery manager and master blender at Aberlour – Alan Winchester and David Boyd, respectively, at the time the whiskey in this bottle was put in cask – surely knew what they were doing. While I am not sure why they made the recent shift from exclusive maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, I do know that the overall character of this whiskey still shows a heavy sherry influence. Some reviewers say they can’t tell the difference between the earlier bottlings and the current product.
Here, for example:
So, finally, on to my review!
The nose on this coppery golden intoxicant gives wafts of sherry at first, without the least scintilla of sulfur. Soon enough, there are also raisons, baked apple, peach, some vanilla, melted sugar, a little allspice, a little caramel, rose petals and maraschino cherry juice. These aromas combine to give off something rich and rewarding, but not as powerful as one might expect. The alcohol, though only 43%, is noticeable.
On the palate, it’s the apples – fresh sliced Granny Smith and plain red baked Macintosh – that are first to pleasure the tongue, followed by more sherry, a bit of light honey, thin sugary vanilla extract, and a quietly sharp almost peppery spice – but not quite pepper. More a mix of ginger and cinnamon. Very nice, with a mouth feel that is both clean and moderately creamy.
The finish is lucid, warm and savory with vanilla on green apple slices followed by a slow, engaging alcohol burn that ends with a pleasant and mouthwatering ginger-spiciness.
From beginning to end, the high quality of this single malt is palpable.
If you do not like whiskies with a heavy sherry influence, this is probably not for you. If you like the Aberlour 16 or some of the older Glenfarclas bottles, the 17, 21 and 25, say, you should definitely give this a try. It isn’t like those, really, though its family resemblance to the Aberlour 16 (which exhibits a bit more ex-bourbon cask influence and is actually a tad smoother) is unmistakable. The comparison that is begging to be made, of course, is with The Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Cask – which is matured exclusively in Spanish ex-sherry casks – but I haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into that one just yet. Soon enough, you can be sure…
If you want more information on this whiskey, go here: http://www.aberlour.com/en/therange/aberlour18yearold.
I made liberal use of Wikipedia, several of my favorite whiskey books and the excellent Bruichladdich site in researching the shift from Spanish to American oak for aging whiskey – in particular, this page: http://www.bruichladdich.com/library/whisky-casks-and-oak
Finally, if any of my readers can tell me the date of the passage of the original U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits or lead me to a good source for such information, please do. Sláinte!