It's a steamy, late summer's day in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and a group of spirit aficianados are ambling into one the region's most acclaimed sherry bodegas at the Lustau winery. They're here to do a tasting of…wait for it…a new Redbreast Irish whiskey release. What's a nice Irish whiskey doing in humid Andalusia? Given the striking, practically monastic beauty of the site, one might think it was a strategic move to get the crowd into a good mood before sampling this new, non-age-statement whiskey. After all, Jerez's sherry bodegas are next-level romantic and pack in a lot more old-world charm per square foot than your average industrial-era spirits distillery, most of which wouldn't look out of place in, say, Hamilton.
It turns out, however, that the bodega's aesthetic advantage is not, in fact, the main motivation for the location of the tasting. Instead, it's a tribute to the behind-the-scenes role that sherry wine has played in the development of the taste of the much-celebrated Redbreast and, by extension, Ireland's whiskey stock in general.
The tribute isn't just limited to the event or a footnote on the bottle. In fact, it is right in the new product's name: Redbreast Lustau. "What we're doing by giving the credit right on the label is that it's an acknowledgement of not just the Lustau bodega, per se, but more an acknowledgement of the general sherry business," explains distiller Billy Leighton. "We appreciate what they're doing for us. We don't take sherry casks for granted."
It's about time, since the sherry business is practically an endangered species, with global sales shrinking every year. That has real implications for whiskey makers, since the single greatest influence on the flavour of aged spirits – more important than the type of still or the yeast used in the initial fermentation – is the wood. For example, new oak gives American whisky its powerful vanilla-and-caramel taste. After one use, those casks are often sold to other spirits producers, who coax those same flavours out in gentler doses. The same is true for ex-sherry casks, which are responsible for the Christmassy dried fig, raisin and fruitcake notes that you can often taste in a sherry-finished whisky.
We owe the discovery of this taste to a long-established, boozy relationship between the British Isles and Spain. At the Lustau bodega, cellar master Sergio Martinez reminds us that sherry was a "travelling wine" and that was responsible for its unique style, the result of fractional blending and fortification. Neither of the techniques were attempts to tweak the taste, but, rather, ways to facilitate trade; fresh wine would have spoiled on the long voyage to the U.K., so casks of wine were fortified with a splash of distilled alcohol prior to sailing. The Irish and Brits came to love the punchy, strong wine and, before long, it was everybody's favourite holiday tipple. But what to do with thousands of empty sherry butts? Thrifty merchants stored local moonshine in ex-sherry casks and, soon enough, accidentally discovered that it started to taste better that way. A lot better.
Just as trade with the English helped shape the flavour of sherry, so did sherry help shape the flavour of the Isles' whisky. It's one of many neat little stories of symbiosis and trade in the spirits industry that makers are beginning to draw attention to, in order to play up the complex heritage and inner workings of the craft. A new spirit of collaboration is also replacing individualism in the industry. Other recent partnerships include Jura Brooklyn (Scottish spirit aged in American bourbon casks), Hornitos Black Barrel, which is a tequila-bourbon hybrid, and Corazon tequila's project with the world's most sought-after bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle. Even Jerez de la Frontera's wineries are moving beyond the sherry business and into whisky with Nomad, a collaboration between sherry giant Gonzalez-Byass and Whyte and MacKay's master blender, Richard Paterson.
Redbreast's Billy Leighton and Lustau's Manolo Lozano's joint efforts have resulted in a remarkable whiskey. Redbreast Lustau is elegant, restrained and, unlike your typical fruitcake-bomb, quite subtle in how it shows off its sherry rearing. Unfortunately, Lozano never got to see the final bottle, with his bodega's name on the label. "Sadly, Manolo Lozano, the winemaker, passed away in April," explains Leighton, "He had no English and I had no Spanish but we communicated so easily when he would give me advice on what would and wouldn't work for the style of whiskey we wanted to make."
We're all in it together now, even in the booze business.
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