Ok, there’s a lot to get through upfront. Firstly, if you get the title reference, well done – that’s going back about sixty years. Secondly, if you know me, you’ll be wondering just what I’m up to as I’ve spent over a decade praising anything the colour of soy sauce. While I’ve always liked anything with a sherry influence, I’ve admitted to being one of those people that love whiskies that have been in sherry cask for twenty-plus years and are heavy on the leathers and tannins that we associate with such drams. The occasional accompanying mushroomy, meaty, earthy notes are my jam as well. An ‘over-sherried’ whisky ticks all the boxes for me. Or so I thought.
In recent times two separate things have happened to change my perception. Firstly, many companies (independent bottlers especially) have been trying to produce young ‘Sherry-Bombs’. This makes sense – the very dark, heavily sherried style of whisky is more popular than ever. If people just want whisky to taste like sherry but at 50% ABV than what difference does the age make? And, to an extent this is correct (and justified by the demand seen). The second thing was that I have become more interested in Cognac and Armagnac than I ever have before.
So, firstly to young sherry bombs. Surely I should be thrilled by this trend? I have elsewhere always been an advocate of young whisky and it’s potential. I love sherried whisky. So here is a clear way for me to enjoy the flavours I want but at, presumably, a lower price as a younger whisky is going to be cheaper. Some of them, when the correct distillery is employed, work well. Something like Mortlach at eight years old that’s been sherried is delicious (there is such a product on the market though not with the distillery named). The reason is that Mortlach – through its distillation methods – has a meaty, sulphurous character that stands up well to the punishment of a sherry cask. This doesn’t replace the nuance of the sherry bombs I mentioned earlier that spend twenty-plus years in cask, but it provides a balance and a robust style that is still appreciable for fans of the older drams. Benrinnes, Craigellachie and other distilleries that produce similar styles of whisky can all shine through sherry at between five and ten years old.
However, what happens if the distillery doesn’t quite stand up to the cask? This came to a head for me last night, when I tried two whiskies back to back – one a five year old, one a twelve year old. I’ll not go into detail on the spec for risk of clouding perceptions. Point is, they were both exceptionally dark, single cask sherry bombs between 57-61% – surely, then, right in my wheelhouse. However, I found them both lacking. Were they worth their RRP? Yes. Were they big, rich, chewy drams as you’s expect? Absolutely. They were, and I can’t stress this enough, good whiskies. However, they didn’t hit the buttons, the places on my palate, that made me fall in love with sherry bombs. This wasn’t the first occasion for this, but it was the final piece in a puzzle I’d probably been struggling to finish for a good few years. The upshot being that while I knew that I enjoyed sherried whiskies, a lot of what I enjoyed in them wasn’t directly caused by sherry, and this had caused me to occasionally bark up the wrong dram over the years.
So what does all this have to do with the brandies I mentioned earlier? Well, for the last year or so I’ve been trying to increase my knowledge and appreciation for a category I’ve long enjoyed. I first discovered my love for Cognac and Armagnac about eight years ago, but had never expanded much on it. There were a couple of houses I knew I enjoyed the output from, would often have one with an espresso after a meal when I saw a restaurant had a decent list, but that was about it. So, given the relative price of brandy compared to whisky (it tends to be a lot cheaper), lockdown seemed a good time to buy a few bottles and familiarise myself. I picked up some older bottles (both of brandies that were aged for a long time and those that were bottled a long time ago), and tried to figure out what exactly I wanted from these products (at this point I thought I knew exactly what I wanted from a whisky, my journey in brandy was going to prove this wrong).
This went along as such for a while, exploring different liquids and finding that some sub regions of Cognac and Armagnac (themselves two of the three main regions for French brandy) were more to my taste than others. I enjoyed them as two of the finest aged spirits produced in the world, but they weren’t necessarily influencing my whisky journey. And then I tried an XO Cognac from the Frapin house, bottled in the 1980s (pictured below). It blew my mind. I bought it from auction because, and this is true, it had a domino on the back of the bottle and I thought that was a laugh. It tasted like a sherry bomb. How could this be? Cognacs can only be age in casks made of a couple of types of oak (Limousin and Troncais) and they can only have contained brandy before. Most houses will age a spirit in new oak for about a year, and then move it to refill for the rest of it’s (possibly very long) stay in cask.
My first bit of research of lead me to find that Frapin, a Grande Champagne (the sub-region said to be the finest quality in Cognac) producer, would leave their new spirit (Eaux de Vie) in new oak for up to two years. Well, this made some sense; new oak has a fairly ferocious effect on the spirit and employing it for a bit longer would contribute somewhat to the heavy sandalwood and leather flavours I was getting. But why did it taste, quite frankly, like a 27 year old Glendronach single cask? It had all the rich fruits I associate with sherry casks but with a depth of palate I have rarely experienced before. The next thing I discovered was that while XO Cognacs now only have to be ten years old (and even then only six at the time this was bottled), as it’s the oldest classification in cognac they will often have brandies in them much (sometimes decades) older. So this was another contributing factor – very old liquid in some active wood stacked up with some of the elements of my beloved old sherry bombs. But why were the flavours so close? I’d spent years worshipping at the Oloroso Altar, and everything I believed in was unravelling around me.
Eventually, thanks to friend lending me of a couple of books penned by Nicholas Faith (Classic Brandy and Cognac, both of which I can recommend), I got to grips properly with the French (arguably originally Portuguese) term Rancio. This is, at it’s heart, a chemical reaction that starts in spirits in around their second decade of maturation. While I’ll not bore you (‘why stop now?!’ I hear you cry) with the chemistry, the upshot is that this process creates a change in the spirit, characterised by the development of flavours such as, to quote Faith in Cognac (London, 2013) ‘exactly like the essence of a fine fruit or Christmas cake, which combines a certain nuttiness with the richness of dried and candied fruits’. Sound familiar?
Now, it must be stressed, French brandies have a difference in primary product (grape rather than grain) as well as production methods (though only slight) when compared to whisky. So I am by no means saying that everything that attracted me to older sherry cask whiskies is down to Rancio, however I now see it’s a huge factor. Hence why younger sherry bombs don’t quite do it for me, and some older whiskies not aged in sherry do. While I’ve always instinctively known I like the integration found in older liquids, I now know exactly what it is I’m looking for – and it’s not inherently linked to the cask. I have unshackled myself from my last (for now) prejudice in whisky.
My favourite point about this harks back to when I used to work in a distillery, and the most commonly asked question on tours was ‘can you not speed up the ageing process by shaking the barrel/temperature manipulation/smaller casks etc?’. My answer then, as now, is that you can artificially – and many have tried – but you can’t replace the effect of time on a liquid, no matter what you do. I see this now to be true of sherry bombs as well – while you can get sherry flavours into a five year old whisky in spades, you can’t replicate the joyous combination of the cask and the Rancio that time allows. The Cognaçais have always known this, often measuring the age of their brandies in decades not years. As a high school friend of mine used to say: ‘you can’t rush genius’.