Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.
You can probably guess what happened next: Time passed, and my tastes in rums evolved a bit. Drier rums, like those from Barbados, Martinique, and Jamaica, became the (current) epicenter of my rum universe. Always searching for the soul of a rum in each sip, the Dos Maderas PX (Pedro Ximénez) sherry notes became what I considered to be a distraction. However, my trusty bottle of PX (5+5) remained close at hand, brought out to highlight rum’s diversity to a newcomer – a “gateway rum” to pique someone’s interest. I’d mentally filed it away in its own particular box of my understanding – a sweet, sherry-forward rum.
As demonstrated time and time again, the more you learn, the less you realize you know. After our epic and eye-opening trip to Scotland last year, the strong link between sherry casks and Scotch whisky came front and center. Likewise, I’ve recently become enraptured with Brandy de Jerez, a brandy made in Spain’s “sherry triangle,” solera-aged in ex-sherry casks. A whole new wing of wonky interest opened up as I realized that Dos Maderas wasn’t just a one-off crazy idea. Rather, it’s just one particular example of sherry houses using their casks to age distilled spirits. With fresh eyes, I began to dig deeper into this tradition that I was previously unaware of.
This all came to a head earlier this month when Mrs. Wonk and I visited Spain and spent five days in the sherry triangle. While wonking out over sherry production was the primary goal, my heart skipped a beat when I realized that Williams & Humbert, the sherry house who makes Dos Maderas, was only a five-minute drive from our hotel in Jerez de la Frontera. My friend Eloy Garcia Vergara, who runs a marvelous bar in Jerez called Cubaname Sherry Cocktail Bar & Rum Museum (yes, it really is a rum museum), secured a private tour of Williams & Humbert for us. It turned out to be a highly enjoyable and eye-opening experience, sampling Dos Maderas straight from the solera casks as it ages. I learned quite a bit more about Dos Maderas beyond what’s on the label, and I’m eager to share it here.
Dos Maderas Review
Before getting to the fun new information that we learned in our visit, a quick review of Dos Maderas basics is in order. In Spanish, Dos Maderas means “two woods,” referring to the rum’s double aging process: First, a blend of Guyanese and Barbados rums age in the Caribbean in American oak casks. Afterward, the rum travels to the Williams & Humbert bodega in Jerez de la Frontera, where it ages further, solera-style, in ex-sherry casks.
If you’re already aware of Dos Maderas, it’s likely because of the PX (5+5) expression. However, there are two other rums in the lineup: Dos Maderas 5+3 and Dos Maderas Luxus. Here are the basics of each expression, for comparison:
Dos Maderas 5+3: Aged for five years in the Caribbean, then solera aged for three years in “Dos Cortados” Palo Cortado casks. Retails for around $28 in the U.S.
Dos Maderas 5+5: Aged for five years in the Caribbean, then solera aged for three years in “Dos Cortados” Palo Cortado casks and another two years in “Don Guido” Pedro Ximénez casks. Retails for around $36 in the U.S.
Dos Maderas Luxus: Aged for ten years in the Caribbean, then solera aged for five years in “Don Guido” Pedro Ximénez casks. Retails for around $160 in the U.S., but it is not readily available.
Here’s a bit more about sherry to put the above details in context: Sherry holds an incredibly wide swath of flavor profiles. The different types of sherry range from the driest wines available to the sweetest–clocking in at around 400 grams per liter of sugar. While it’s popular to say “sherry cask aged” in spirit descriptions, it’s somewhat meaningless information without knowing what type of sherry the casks held.
In my wonky overview of sherry, I describe Palo Cortado and Oloroso sherry as very full-bodied and savory. No one would mistake these for sweet wines. On the other hand, Pedro Ximénez (PX) is astoundingly sweet and raisin-forward. The notes that an ex-Palo Cortado sherry cask imparts on a rum are very different than what an ex-Pedro Ximénez cask brings to the table. Many reviews of Dos Maderas PX (5+5) highlight how sweet and PX influenced it is.
Visiting the Dos Maderas Soleras
It’s raining hard—torrential downpour, actually– as Mrs. Wonk and I pull our rental car into the Williams & Humbert parking lot. We’re not exactly sure where the main office is, so we scramble a bit in the rain trying to locate it while avoiding the massive number of retired British visitors who’ve just arrived via tour bus.
Luckily we spot Eloy, who’s decided to join us today. We’re soon introduced to Gonzalo Medina García de Polavieja and Cristina Medina García de Polavieja. They are siblings and have the role of International Marketing Manager and Director of Communications, respectively. We’re shortly joined by Paola Medina Sheldon, their cousin and Williams & Humbert’s Wine Maker and Technical Director since 2010. We later learn that the Medina family owns Williams & Humbert, so we’ll be touring with the actual owners!
By now the flock of tourists has dispersed. Crossing the parking lot and entering the bodega… HOLY SMOKES! This place is HUGE!
Gonzalo tells us that it’s the largest aging facility in Europe under one roof. Built in 1974, the building covers more than 750,000 square feet, or approximately fifteen U.S. football fields. Hundreds of white concrete pillars reach towards the high ceiling, expanding out to a wide funnel, composed of concrete geometric shapes. These funnels in the ceiling provide for efficient rain water collection. At ground level, countless rows of casks (soleras), stacked four high, stretch in every direction. The floor is covered in the chalky, almost white soil traditionally found in sherry aging bodegas—the albero. The lights are low and there’s a chill in the air. This is good, as a cool, moist environment is beneficial for aging sherry.
Our group sets out on the long trek past rows and rows and rows of sherry soleras. We come across an area with a horse riding ring, used to entertain large groups with displays of the horses trained in the style of the nearby Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Onward we walk. In time we get past the sherry casks and find ourselves in the midst of casks of Brandy de Jerez. They look exactly the same as sherry casks – after all, they once were sherry casks. Gonzalo points out a small opening in the floor. A large hose snaking from somewhere in the distance feeds into it. It’s a brandy storage tank—think underground swimming pool–and brandy is being transferred into it from the casks around us.
At last we come to a distant corner of the enormous building. The casks here are painted black like every other cask in the facility, but one cask proclaims we’ve found what we’re after: Dos Maderas! These casks are 500 liters, roughly 2.5 times the size of a bourbon cask. Paola appears with her sherry venencia in hand. To my great joy, she says we’ll be tasting through each criadera and solera of every Dos Maderas expression as well as the source rum from the Caribbean. Be still, my wonky heart!
At the end of the row of ex-Palo Cortado casks used for Dos Maderas 5+3, Paolo pops off a cask’s bung and reaches in with the venencia to extract a sample, which she expertly distributes into everybody’s waiting glasses. She warns us that this sample is very strong – it arrived from the supplier at an eye-watering 74 percent ABV, or 148 proof! This isn’t terribly surprising if you’ve studied how rum is made, but a good warning for us, nonetheless.
Paola begins to explain that it’s a blend of rums from Guyana and Barbados. Hearing the word “blend” and sensing the opportunity, I ask if the rum came via Amsterdam. She smiles and I press on – “Is it from E&A Scheer?” She nods and says yes. Another wonky mystery solved! I tell her that we’ve visited E&A Scheer in Amsterdam and know Carsten, the master blender. This opens the door for more wonky questions about the rum’s source. The Guyanese rum is from Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL), which isn’t a big surprise, as they’re the only rum producer in Guyana. As for the Barbados component, I guessed correctly that it’s West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD). (Side note: The sale of WIRD to Cognac Ferrand was announced just days after our visit to Williams & Humbert.)
Although our sample had already spent a tiny bit of time in Palo Cortado casks, the sherry impact was very minimal. It’s close to what the rum tastes like when it arrives at Williams & Humbert. To me, the nose and palate are dominated by the Guyanese rum, and I’d guess there’s a decent amount of Port Mourant in the blend.
The 5+3 casks form a two-level solera. (Technically, first criadera and solera levels.) Paola reaches in to the solera level of the 5+3 labeled casks and pulls out another sample. This time, the rum is much lower proof, around 42 percent ABV, so it’s easily sipped. What we’re now tasting is fairly close to how it will taste once bottled. I found it quite enjoyable, much drier and without any of the PX/raisin notes of the PX (5+5).
The rum has started to warm us up in the cold, damp bodega. A few steps away are the PX (5+5) casks. I’d always wondered if the PX (5+5) started out as 5+3, or was somehow aged differently. Standing in front of the rum maker, you can ask these sorts of questions. Paola confirms that the PX (5+5) first goes through the 5+3 solera. In fact, 80 percent of what emerges from the 5+3 solera becomes input into the PX (5+5) solera.
The PX (5+5) solera is also two levels but of Pedro Ximénez casks rather than Palo Cortado. Having spent days thinking about solera aging and casks, a critical question popped into my head as I stood there: If these ex-PX casks remain in the solera for years and years, won’t the residual sherry originally in the cask diminish to nothing? That is, won’t the periodic extraction and refilling with rum effectively rinse away the PX sherry, making each batch less sherry-forward than the prior batch? This would be a problem, as the whole point of a solera is to make a consistent product, year in and year out.
As expected, the answer is yes. In time, the cask would go “neutral.” Paola explained that when they refill the criadera level of the PX (5+5) casks, they also add just enough PX sherry to maintain the residual sugar level of the cask when it first became part of the solera. To be very clear, the addition of the sherry is only to the criadera level casks. No sherry is added to the solera level casks, the last stop before bottling.
As with the 5+3 solera, Paola extracted rum from both the criadera and solera levels. The sample from the solera level was instantly familiar, just like I remember the PX (5+5) tasting. No surprises there, obviously!
While the 5+3 and PX (5+5) soleras are adjoining in the bodega, the Luxus solera is a short distance away. I was initially surprised to see that it’s much, much smaller – only ten casks rather than the hundreds in the other soleras. It’s stacked pyramid style – four casks on the bottom, one cask on top. These casks are 600 liters, larger than the 500 liter casks of the other soleras. The ten-year Caribbean aged rum that enters these casks goes in at 45 percent ABV, a touch higher than the 42 percent ABV rum in the PX (5+5).
I confess that we’d consumed a lot of rum by this point (this is hard work after all!) so my tasting notes are best taken with a grain of salt. Having aged for two and half times longer in PX casks than the PX (5+5), the Luxus is obviously a sweet, PX bomb. It’s noticeably different than the PX (5+5), and the first words that come to mind are sweet cherry. I look forward to tasting it again with a less overwhelmed palate in the near future.
Sadly, our time with the rum casks had to end. Saying our goodbyes, the Medinas surprised us with two very generous gifts: a beautifully packaged bottle of Dos Maderas Luxus and a Dos Maderas PX 5+5 tasting kit. In addition to the full bottle of PX (5+5), it contains small samples of the source Caribbean rum, Palo Cortado and PX sherries, the 5+3, and a small cut block of cask wood. Very cool!
Mrs. Wonk and I both want to extend our sincere gratitude to Cristina, Gonzalo, and Paola for their generosity, time, and patience in answering my dozens of questions. It couldn’t have been a more wonktacular time! Who could have guessed we’d come to Spain for the sherry and still manage to find all the rum?