The Solera System Ageing Process (Guest Post by Dan Upton)
So, a couple of weeks ago, rather pissedly during a live commentary of Cocktail, I promised to write an article for BartenderHQ about The Solera Ageing process. After forgetting about it and being gently reminded by Dave, I’ve had a go at writing a little something. So here is my first attempt at putting some knowledge to paper.(ed – I’m not sure if Dan realises I don’t print these out) I hope it doesn’t end up as waffle.
“Solera” translates from Spanish as “Bottom”. However, as a process it refers to the rapid ageing of liquids via barrel transfer. The process is believed to have originated from 18th Century Spain and Portugal, from the wine and fortified wine bodegas and has become an increasingly popular method amongst modern spirits and wine producers. The most recognizable styles include; Sherry, such as Pedro Ximenez and Madeira Wines.
Here is a basic picture to try and illustrate roughly what happens within a Solera system.
It all begins with the “Sobretabla” level. This is the entry level for the youngest liquids, which ranges from vinegars to young wine vintages and overproof Eux de Vies (these are freshly distilled fruit brandies, before any ageing has taken place). After some time, a percentage of the spirit from the “Sobretabla” is moved down to the next “Criadera” or next level in the system. This period of time and percentage of liquid varies between spirits producers. However, it is universally accepted that around 50% of the liquid is moved and replaced with a fresh batch after roughly a year.
After another year, the liquids are moved down again the “Criadera” levels again, with a fresh batch of liquid being added to the “Sobretabla”. The “Mother spirit” left behind in each barrel after half has been moved is topped up with the spirit from the barrel above in the “Criadera”, and so on until the desired flavour profile is achieved at the “Solera” – basically the bottom. Depending on the individual spirits producer and style depends on how many times the “Criadera” is moved down and topped up before bottling. However among Rum producers, it is often as few as 6 times.
Barrel styles and the conditions in which the barrel are kept in can also be changed throughout the process in order to affect the overall result at the end of the Solera. For example, The Auchentoshen Solera uses Sherry cask as a finish to give the spirit a recognizably sweeter taste profile. Switching between ex Bourbon and Fresh Oak Barrels throughout the “Criadera” might affect the overall result at the end. These decisions are often left to the Master Distiller or Blender depending on what result they desire from their end product.
With each transition of liquid down the stages of the “Criadera” comes a final product in the “Solera” or the bottom ready to be bottled. Over time and with careful upkeep, the “mother spirit” left behind in the “Solera” gathers an incredibly complex flavour profile which is similar to spirits aged using a traditional single barrel technique.
The Pros of Solera
The technique is often seen as incredibly efficient, with the overall consistency of the blend changing slowly over years rather than drastically from year to year or vintage to vintage, making adjustments by the Master Blender or Distiller easier to control. The technique can also produce a vast amount of the end product in a relatively short time, therefore keeping up with supply and demand, which is preferred by cocktail bartenders as the spirits have incredible versatility.
For bar owners, the wholesale price of Solera Aged products is very attractive, because the price is brought down by the short production process time. From a bartender and consumer’s point of view, it offers a flavour profile and complexity unlike other young spirits, making for some interesting drinks.
The Cons of Solera
However, the techniques and final products aren’t exempt from criticism. Traditional spirits producers are often vocal on how they see the process as cheating, challenging the labeling of Solera products with a specified age. The issue comes as the end product is a blend of many different vintages and years. It is virtually impossible to put an exact age on the youngest liquid in a Solera blend, which as law dictates is the age that can be printed on the label. However this has not stopped producers from creating a Solera blend in order to keep up with increased demands for premium and complex products.
Over recent years, the spirits market has seen an influx in more Solera aged products, some coming as a surprise to the skeptics. New products from Scotch Whisky producers Glenfiddich, Auchentoshen and The Glenlivit come as some of the most surprising, as the move towards Solera over a traditional single barrel aging process is seen by some as an almost sacrilegious move.
Rum producers have remained one of the oldest industries loyal to the Solera system, with some producers continuing with the method since day one. With Diageo’s part acquisition of Ron Zacapa in 2011, the Solera Rum’s distribution outside of it’s local Central American roots increased dramatically, making it a back bar essential in cocktail bars.
Other Spanish style rums including Dictador, Ron Metusalem and Santa Teresa all use the Solera process, borrowing from their fortified wine and bodega roots. Dessert wine styles from the Med, like Sherry and Madeira, are still as popular today within cocktails and cooking as ever. With an increased interest in Scotch and Whisk(e)y production in general worldwide, Pedro Ximenez specifically has seen its old casks used throughout spirits production in ever changing and interesting ways.
In conclusion, the Solera system is an important keystone within spirits production for producers, bar owners and consumers alike. The products that come from this method fill a very large gap in the spirits industry, the demand being for an affordable, complex, versatile and consistent spirit. Whether you are a classic single malt or traditional blend fan, you cannot deny that the products coming onto the market from classic Whisky producers are heavy hitters, receiving good critical responses and becoming fan favourites.
So, how did I do? Answers on a postcard…
About the Author
Dan Upton is a bartender with 7 years experience in the industry.
In that time, working closely with many Brands and industry legends, he has gained an extensive knowledge of all things Booze and Bar.
Also Likes Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain. What a very sexy man.