Wall Street Journal Caught Up in the Sherry Obsession
Unsuspecting customers at my tastings are always blown away when informed that some of the biggest sherry producers in Spain, like Gonzalez Byass, are contracted by the likes of Dalmore and The Macallan to age sherry for years and then dump the sherry down the drain. Why do they do this? Because the market for sherry butts, particularly Spanish Oloroso sherry butts made from the oak trees of Jerez, is highly lucrative. A single cask costs well over $1,000 for scotch producers. Today, single malt consumers are obsessed with ex-sherry casks. The Macallan leads the pack, but there is also the Balvenie Single Sherry Cask, the Aberlour A’Bunadh, The Bowmore Devil’s Cask, Glendronach, Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso, and many more single malts with passionate followings.
No single malt experienced more press and fame than the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013. Following its 2014 Whiskey Bible award for “World’s Best Whiskey,” the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 auction prices soared on Wine-Searcher. I watched it go from $500 to $4,000 a bottle in a little under three months.
In February, The Wall Street Journal published a very well-written article by Dennis Tang regarding the new Yamazaki Sherry 2016. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with the premise of the article. This Yamazaki Sherry 2016 is not the best whisky in the world. Single malt whisky is big and bold by nature, but it is also balanced. “Balanced” is one of those ambiguous terms similar to “smooth” that we reviewers and retailers often use when we have nothing to say about a whisky, so I will clarify what I mean by balanced. In Lew Bryson’s book Tasting Whiskey, he uses a simple but explanatory graph to illustrate how flavor changes in the cask over time. Simply put, the wood character increases over time and the spirit character decreases. A clever casking of an older whisky will yield intense, unusual characteristics derived from the wood while retaining the signature of the distillery. Even when a single malt is robust in certain flavors, to be “balanced” it must retain something from the distillation process that marks the house where it was born.
The ex-sherry cask fad has distilleries one-upping one another with greater and greater sherry influence. The Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 is no exception. On the sherry-bomb scale this thing is a hydrogen bomb, and it has successfully wiped away any semblance of the Yamazaki spirit. The whisky itself is dark brown. While the whisky is not sulfurous, it is dry to the point of chalky. The raisins in the “raisin notes” are withered. I found nothing of the creamy, banana pudding character and tropical fruit notes unique to Yamazaki.
While chief blender Shinji Fukuyo says this whisky “is not for novices,” and Tang tell us it is “multi-faceted and vibrant, for those who appreciate nuance,” I say this is an example of how the ex-sherry cask can be used as a blunt instrument to pound away the nuance of the distillate. The whisky is by no means bad or unapproachable. I could even be convinced the sherry influence is unique but I think Tang is getting wrapped up in the sherry hype, the Japanese whisky hype and frankly, the Yamazaki Sherry 2013 hype. Bigger and bolder is not always better.