Move Over, Sherry. It’s Time For Madeira

November 10, 2016

Whiskey drinkers have long been familiar with the role of sherry casks in the aging and finishing processes, most commonly with Scotch. This practice has been increasingly common with American whiskey in the past five to ten years. Today, even more varieties of casks are being deployed, including other former fortified wine casks. Here is a highlight on one of our favorites: The Madeira cask.

A Brief Lesson

Editor’s Note: Madeira gets its name from where it is produced; a small island off the coast of Portugal. Like its cousin sherry from Spain, it is a fortified wine. This means that a distilled grape spirit is added to the wine after fermentation which acts like a preservative. Without getting into the details of the production of Madeira, one difference between it and sherry is that Madeira is heated while aging, while sherry is not. As with sherry, there are many different styles to choose from. They range in style from dry to extremely sweet. Flavors generally tend to be caramel, dried fruits, and baking spices.

A new (November 2016) release from Belle Meade will offer a great glimpse at what Madeira provides: Belle Meade Bourbon Madeira Cask Finish. For brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson, the choice to turn to Madeira wasn’t difficult. “We gave some thought to other types of wines, both fortified and unfortified, but when we did our first test with this particular type of Madeira, we knew right away it was the one we were going to use,” said Andy Nelson.

The release was finished for between two and four months in Madeira casks after being filled with a blend of six and nine year old bourbons from Belle Meade. “I think the defining characteristic of this Madeira Cask Finish is the vanilla sweetness that the Malmsey Madeira imparts,” explained Nelson.

“Malmsey is on the sweeter side of the Madeira family and when we opened up the Madeira casks, the air was filled with this beautiful, rich vanilla aroma,” he continued. “That comes through in the final product but you really have to be careful with sweet flavors. We definitely wanted it to be subtle and I think it worked very well.”

More American Whiskey and Madeira

It’s only fitting that some American whiskey producers are now turning to Madeira. This fortified wine was known to be enjoyed by our forefathers, including the likes of George Washington himself.

Take a look at WhistlePig’s Old World series. That series included releases from a spectrum of cask types, including Madeira, as well as Port, Sauternes, Cognac, and Sherry. Their Old World 12 Year Old release was a blend incorporating multiple finishes, with the most dominant being, you guessed it, Madeira.

Hillrock Estate in New York has employed the cask with their Madeira Cask Finished Double Cask Rye.  It rests for 6-8 weeks in ex-Madeira casks. There’s also a new bourbon from the High Wire Distilling company in South Carolina: New Southern Revival Bourbon Madeira Finish. They take their Four Grain Bourbon and rest it in former Madeira casks for six more months.

World Whiskey and Madeira

Of course, it’s worthwhile to take a look across the pond as well. There you’ll find the most prominent and recent additional usage of Madeira casks, with this year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira. They took a batch of ex-bourbon matured Laphroaig, and married it together in Madeira casks. The red-hued whisky offered a sprinkling of fruit and spice to the more typical Laphroaig profile.

Keeping things truly global, you can also check out the Welsh brand Penderyn. Their Madeira Single Malt uses the cask for finishing. Heading over to Ireland, you’ll find Tyrconnell’s 10 Year Old Madeira Cask Finish.

With so many Madeira-finished whiskeys hitting the market, there is no time like the present to get yourself acquainted.

There are plenty of Madeira finished whiskeys to choose from!

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