Sherry Wine Explained

January 23, 2024

The second-most used casks in the maturation of Irish whiskey after bourbon barrels, European Oak casks seasoned with Spanish Sherry Wine lend a defining note to many of the most popular Irish whiskeys including Jameson, Redbreast, Spot Whiskeys, Bushmills and Dunville’s.

Casks seasoned with Oloroso Sherry make up the majority of those casks but there are many more styles of Sherry to explore and Irish whiskeys aged and finished in their casks. Let’s take a look at the different styles and the regulations that govern the production of this important wine. 

Sherry, a fortified wine hailing (only) from the sun-kissed region of Jerez in Spain, is renowned for its diverse array of styles and flavors. 

A number of styles may be familiar with others yet to make a mark in the world of Irish whiskey. 

  • Fino:
    • Production: Fino, a dry and pale sherry, undergoes biological aging under a protective layer of flor yeast. Made from Palomino grapes, it pairs excellently with tapas and seafood. We have yet to see much use of Fino casks in Irish whiskey but there are a number of brands experimenting with this style currently.
  • Manzanilla:
    • Production: Similar to Fino but originating from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Manzanilla boasts a distinctive sea breeze quality, making it a perfect companion for seafood. This is another style that has yet to see much use in the aging or finishing of Irish whiskey.
  • Amontillado:
    • Production: Amontillado begins as a Fino or Manzanilla but undergoes oxidative aging, resulting in a darker color and complex flavor profile. W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants released a small batch single malt finished in Amontillado casks and Micil Distillery in Galway has used this type of cask in the resting of their poitin. 
  • Oloroso:
  • Palo Cortado:
    • Production: Palo Cortado is a rare gem, starting as Fino or Amontillado but mysteriously evolving to combine the finesse of Amontillado with the richness of Oloroso. Dunville’s Single Malts are the most associated with this style of cask currently with The Whistler Irish whiskey releasing a number of whiskeys finished in these rare casks too.
  • Cream:
    • Production: Cream sherry is a delightful blend of Oloroso and sweet Pedro Ximénez wines, resulting in a sweet and dark dessert wine. Redbreast utilized this unusual Sherry style in a one-off release but you’ll struggle to find other Irish whiskeys utilizing this style.
  • Pedro Ximénez (PX):
    • Production: Made from sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes, this sweet and syrupy sherry is a dessert wine, often enjoyed with chocolate-based desserts. A sweeter and indeed richer Sherry contribution you won’t find in Irish whiskeys. Bushmills released a 29 year old single malt with a secondary maturation in PX casks and the Redbreast PX edition has proven so popular that it has become a permanent part of the U.S. range of whiskeys. 

There are a number of regulations governing Sherry production which ensure consistency, quality and reputational integrity:

  • Geographical Origin:
    • Sherry production is confined to the Sherry Triangle, encompassing the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María in the Cádiz province.
  • Grape Varieties:
    • The primary grape variety is Palomino, with Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel used for specific styles like sweet Sherries.
  • Fortification:
    • The fortification process involves adding grape spirits to increase alcohol content, carefully controlled to achieve specific characteristics in different Sherry styles.
  • Biological and Oxidative Aging:
    • Sherry undergoes biological aging under flor yeast (Fino, Manzanilla) or oxidative aging (Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Cream, and Pedro Ximénez), significantly influencing the final flavor.
  • Classification of Styles:
    • Sherry is classified into distinct styles, each with its own aging requirements, contributing to the development of unique flavors and aromas.
  • Aging Requirements:
    • Minimum aging periods are stipulated, ensuring that wines acquire the desired characteristics. Fino and Manzanilla must age for a minimum of two years, while Amontillado and Oloroso require a minimum of five years.
  • Solera System:
    • Many Sherries are produced using the solera system, a fractional blending process that ensures consistency in quality and flavor over time.
  • Controlled Alcohol Content:
    • Sherry’s alcohol content is regulated, varying according to the style. Fino and Manzanilla typically have lower alcohol levels, while Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez can have higher percentages.
  • Labelling and Certification:
    • To be labeled as Sherry, wines must adhere to these regulations and undergo stringent quality control assessments, receiving the Denominación de Origen (DO) certification.

If you have found yourself gravitating to richer, sweeter whiskeys, there is a great chance that those whiskeys were either aged entirely or partially in Sherry casks during maturation. 

We recently undertook a deep dive into Sherry styles, production and their uses in Irish whiskey on The Shebeen Irish Whiskey Show, a replay of which you’ll find below: