Monday, November 16, 2009

Scotch and Sherry, together forever

The streets of New York teemed with whiskyfolk last week, those distillers, blenders and other assorted makers of the world's best spirits, gathered for Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. And in a strange coincidence, the presence of one of them may have finally resolved the mystery, to me, of why some older single malt Scotches pick up a passion fruit tang.

I sat down with former Glenrothes distiller John Ramsay, who shared with me a few variants from the distillery, including the hard-to-find Glenrothes 1975 (the distillery is one of the few which until recently issued vintage only whiskies). The 1975 is especially odd, because it had been vatted in 1987 and then left to age further, and the result was a surprisingly youthful, fresh, floral and crisp malt, but one with all the tell-tale signs of age, including that passion fruit quality on the finish.

A few days later, at a sherry seminar, the passion fruit appeared again, this time in a Bodegas Tradicion Oloroso VORS sherry. As I learned in Jerez last year, some Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado sherries can have rivetingly intense flavor components - lime, licorice, roasted nuts, mushrooms - with no comparison in other wines and spirits. But the Tradicion Oloroso, along with lime and papaya and some salty tropicality, had loads of passion fruit notes, probably a result of long oxidative aging.

Is that the missing connection? Not all Scotches are as sherry-driven as Macallan or a few others, but nearly all have a sherry component, even if the casks used have been used so long that they are almost neutral in effect. Except that, as César Saldaña, the head of the board that oversees the regulation of sherry, pointed out that day, as the wine ages and a panoply of flavors are created, water evaporates and exits slowly through barrel walls, penetrating deep into the wood. Maybe even bringing with it some of those umami-like flavors so present in most sherries; to me, passion fruit is one of those edgy, savory flavors.

So who knows? Perhaps it takes another 20 or 30 years of aging in one of those Oloroso barrels before the passion fruit re-emerges and joins into the Scotch whisky mix? Or maybe the oxidization that occurs in Scotch is similar to what happens with very old oxidative sherries and the sherry connection is just a coincidence. But as William Burroughs said, "In the magical universe, there are no coincidences and there are no accidents." If the sherry and Scotch-making processes - ancient, misunderstood, endlessly unfolding - aren't part of the magical kingdom, there mustn't be one.

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