Around about this time last year, a few sips into one of the drinks that are the subject of this column it occurred to me that the best Christmas nighttime drinking is all about wood.
Most of the drinks I turn to as a calmer mood takes over from the jangly, tinselly brightness of Christmas Day have benefited from mastery of the mellowing effects of ageing alcohol, for various lengths of time, in oak barrels of various sizes.
In Portugal’s Douro valley, port producers perform an annual experiment, making two very different styles from the same sweet, red fortified wine. Vintage port will go into a bottle after a couple of years in oak vats, retaining its inky purple colour and dark fruit when sold. Tawny ports, by contrast, stay in vat for years longer, even for several decades in the case of the flurry of very rare collectors’ tawnies that have emerged in recent years (such as the extraordinary, €895 a bottle 1934 Dalva I was lucky enough to try a small sample of recently).
The effects of oxygenation are more advanced in porous barrels than they are in bottles, in which only a small amount of oxygen, passing through the cork, is in contact with the liquid. It’s that process which brings the special cast of flavours to tawny ports: the nuts, the dried fruits, the treacle and caramel, and dark baking spices, as well as the colour that gives the style its name.
Colheita ports are relatively rare; most tawny ports are blends of vats of differing ages with an average age statement rounded up to a decade (10-year-old, 20-year-old etc). These rely even more on the chef-like skill and librarian’s memory of a master blender – the same abilities that bring magic to blended, oak-aged drinks such as whisky, rum, cognac and very old sherry.
In all of those drinks the taste isn’t only wood. Character and quality depends equally on the raw materials, the length of time they spend in wood and the way they interact with it: its flavours (American oak tends to deliver sweeter, more coconut flavours than the toastier aromas of French) and the oxygenating effects it allows.
The suave, golden harmony of great grape-borne cognac; the molasses-richness of dark rum; the peppery iodine-wildness of Islay whisky made from peaty malted barley; the salted nut savouriness of very old sherry … the string of relaxed dark nights between Christmas and new year seems to me the perfect time to sit, sip and explore this world within a world.
Taste the Difference Oloroso Sherry
(£8, 50cl, Sainsbury’s)
The range of sherry made for Sainsbury’s by Lustau has long been one of the highlights of the Taste the Difference range. The oloroso has a touch of sweetness but is intensely flavoured with tangy dried citrus and nutty length and great with a slab of manchego.
Warre’s Colheita Port 2009
This superb-value colheita (a tawny port from a single harvest) from venerable port shipper Warre’s has been bottled at a beautiful point on the continuum between ruby youth and tawny age. The result is all Christmassy dried dates and nuts, and a hint of brambly jam.
Villa de Varda Amaretto
Not a product of wood-ageing, but a drink that is very much of the woods, a sweet but gloriously complex amaretto that is very far from the mass market norm thanks to its high-definition capture of the scents and flavours of almonds foraged in the forests of Alpine Trentino.
Hine Rare VSOP Cognac
(from £43.90, thewhiskyexchange.com; waitrosecellar.com)
The flagship VSOP cognac from one of the region’s grand old names, Hine’s Rare gets its seductive silkiness and aromatic fineness from a combination of top-notch grapes from more than 20 of the region’s best crus, plus an average of eight years’ rest in French oak barrels.
Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum
A molasses-based, 150-year-old family secret recipe is the base of this luxuriously rich old rum from Bermuda. The components have spent 16-19 years in charred oak barrels, and the result has a liquorice-toffee dark depth, a crackle of spice and a beguiling softness.
Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength Batch 012 Bottled 2020
The standard 10 Year Old Laphroaig (from £30) is one of my failsafe single malt choices, but this special cask strength bottling is another level of evocative wild Islay magic: an extra-concentrated version of the classic Laphroaig mix of heather-honeyed smoothness and smoke-and-sea-spray pungency.