Fortified wines like sherry and port have long been an important part of the whisky industry. Casks previously filled with these wines impart rich, sweet flavours of dried fruit, spices and nuts when used for ageing.
Loved by drinkers the world over, whiskies aged in fortified wine casks represent many of the most popular and highly awarded styles in the category.
Fortified wines were particularly popular in the UK during the boom years of Scotch whisky production in the 19th century, so the casks were in plentiful and cheap supply. Scottish distillers would age their whiskies in the casks used to transport sherry and port from Spain and Portugal. Sherry and port cask-aged whiskies became the defining style of Speyside in particular, a region which still produces more than half of the single malt whisky in Scotland.
Today, the world is in the middle of a malt whisky explosion, and the sherry and port influenced style popular in Scotland is now widely imitated by producers around the globe.
In Japan, Taiwan, Australia and elsewhere, modern distillers frequently employ fortified wine casks for ageing to create the styles of malt that both whisky drinkers, and competition judges, love.
But there’s a problem. These days, not as many people drink sherry and port, so there are less new casks of those wines being produced. Also, due to more modern transport methods, barrels are no longer used to move wines from one country to another. These factors mean that there are not nearly as many used port and sherry casks available for the booming whisky industry to use. As such, many casks are now “seasoned” with fortified wines specifically for the purpose of ageing whisky. This means that cheap sherry or port is stored in the casks for a short period of time, or in some cases is forced into the wood grain with high-pressure steam.
Many producers now also employ “finishing” to impart fortified wine character to their whiskies. This means the whisky is stored in another kind of cask (usually ex-bourbon) for the majority of its maturation, then transferred to a fortified wine cask for a short period of time before bottling. It’s also worth noting that even historically, the sherry and port casks used in Scotland for ageing whisky were not generally the casks actually used to age those wines, which would stay in Spain and Portugal to be used again, but were instead the casks used for storage and transportation on their way to the thirsty drinkers of the UK.
our developing whisky industry is supported by the outstanding fortified and other wines produced here. One of the best things about Aussie whisky is that when we use fortified wine casks, they are the actual casks used for ageing those wines, sometimes for decades. Aussie whiskies like Sullivans Cove French Oak, Starward Solera, Overeem and Lark have made big waves both at home an internationally, partly on the basis of these excellent casks. However, some Australian cooperages are now experimenting with seasoning casks, and as the Aussie whisky industry continues to grow, genuine fortified wine ageing casks will be harder and harder to come by.
What’s in a name?
Due to relatively new labelling laws, there’s also a bit of confusion around Australian whisky styles and the casks they’re aged in. The terms “port” and “sherry” are actually protected as specific geographic denominations of origin, like “Champagne”. This means that the term sherry can only be used for fortified wines from a specific area of Spain, and port can only be used for the sweet wines produced in the Douro valley of Portugal. In Australia, wine producers must now legally use the term “Apera” for sherry style wines, and “Tawny” for port style wines.
Sullivans Cove was the first distillery in Australia to label our whisky (specifically our French Oak Single Cask) as being aged in Tawny casks. It’s a recent change, so there are still some “port cask” labels floating around, but our newer labels will always say “tawny cask” where appropriate. At Sullivans Cove we always aim to be as transparent and accurate as possible with our labels, and we’re proud of the excellent Australian fortified wines that lend depth and character to our award-winning whiskies.
At Sullivans Cove Distillery
we never use seasoned or conditioned casks. Instead, we work with the best coopers in the country to find us only genuine ageing casks that have held Aussie fortified wines for many years, infusing their rich flavours deep into the oak. Furthermore, we very rarely finish our whiskies, choosing instead to use fortified wine casks for the entire duration of our whisky’s maturation. So, when you see “Tawny”, “Apera” or some other fortified wine on a Sullivans Cove label, you can be sure that whisky has spent its whole ageing time in that kind of cask.
Sullivans Cove is about to release the latest in our Special Cask series, Special Cask #6. This whisky was aged in a single, 300 litre American Oak ex Apera cask for 11 years, and produced only 479 bottles in total. Make sure you’re signed up to our mailing list to see full details of this release and have the first chance to purchase before release to the general public.
So if you like Australian whisky aged in apera and tawny casks, go out there and drink some of these excellent Aussie fortified wines. They’re great in a cocktail, after dinner, or with cured meats and cheeses. And if you don’t drink the wine, we won’t have the casks to make the whisky.
Here’s a list of some great Aussie fortified wine producers to try:
Pennyweight Winery makes outstanding certified bio dynamic fortified wines including fino, oloroso, manzanilla, and ruby styles.
Stanton & Killeen has a range of prestige fortified wines including muscat, tawny and topaque, as well as less expensive white and ruby tawnies.
Buller Wines focuses on sweeter style premium fortified like muscat, tawny and Pedro Ximenez
McWilliams produces a wide range of fortified wines from flagons of cheap cream apera to premium 25yo muscat.
Penfold’s makes a range of premium tawny wines aged up to fifty years for a really special occasion.
Seppeltsfield Winery produces premium fortified wines ranging from dry aperas to rich, sweet tawny.