How Sherry and Bourbon Casks became the barrels of choice for the whisky industry

Oak-barrels-used-to-store-wineThere have been three whisky booms over the past 140 years.  The 1st boom was in the late 1800s that began some time around 1860 when American vines were imported into France carrying the small phylloxera aphid that wiped out vineyards throughout France.

The largest importers of wine and brandy at the time were the English middle class. As an alternative, the English tried Scotch, but thought it was horrible so they turned to Sherry instead.

Spain sent their Sherry casks to London rather than bottle them in Spain. Given that it was uneconomical to return the casks, Highland Scottish distilleries started to use them to mature their single malts.

This was the introduction of Sherry casks to the Scottish whisky industry. As for the English, they too recognized a good thing and whisky sales took off.

The 2ndwhisky boom was in the 1960s after the end of prohibition and WWII. This was when the southern states started to make Bourbon again. The Cooperage union, which was devastated due to the War and Prohibition, made a deal with the industry that Bourbon casks for maturing the Bourbon could only be used once. This created a large supply of used casks, which was timely because the Spanish Civil War and WWII caused Sherry production to come to an abrupt halt and the Scottish whisky industry was in need of more casks in response to the growing demand.

20180614_194109Photo of Shelter Point Distillery, courtesy of Brandy Drummond

The 3rd boom is currently underway. Today, Bourbon casks make up about 90% of all casks used for maturation due to abundance and lower price point compared to Sherry casks. Although Sherry and Bourbon casks are the mainstay of the whisky industry, new experimental casks used for wines, IPA, rum and ice wine are finding their way into the distillery process. Even Bruichladdich has been experimenting with salted Herring barrels for finishing and producing a whisky which is cleverly called ‘fishky’. The question is what’s next?

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