Mythbusters: Paxarette is back

Mythbusters: Paxarette is back

The controversial sherry cask treatment making a comeback

Thoughts from... | 22 Mar 2024 | Issue 198 | By Chris Middleton

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Before Spain forbade the export of bulk casks in 1986, Scottish distilleries were developing an alternative way to increase the supply of sherry-treated casks solely for whisky maturation: filling new casks with sherry for a year or two to absorb the wine. Two years later, under a broad ban against additives, the UK Scotch Whisky Act stopped paxarette or pax, a traditional sherry-suffusion treatment for spent casks in Scotland.

 

Surreptitiously, the pax practice has crept back over the past decade as sherry casks incur appreciably higher costs, coupled with shrinking supply, forcing distilleries in new world whisky-producing countries to seek remedial solutions.

 

Paxarette is the most recognised sherry cask treatment that recently lent meaning to whisky maturation. Paxarette’s etymological origin is found in the Pajerete region, neighbouring the modern sherry triangle in the Cadiz province of Andalusia, Spain. Pajerete was a sweet malmsey-like dessert wine developed in the 17th century, where harvested grapes were sundried on mats for weeks, turning them into raisins to enhance their sweetness. Neighbouring wine regions Jerez and Malaga copied this style of premium wine, calling their sweet wine paxarette. In Jerez, winemakers employed an old Moorish method that reaches back to antiquity by boiling grapes and pomace into a sweet, non-alcoholic syrup called arrop. In the late 18th century, sherry bodegas began blending arrop syrup into casks of maturing wine: ‘vin de color’ enriched the liquid’s visual appeal, and ‘vino dulce’ added a fruity sweetness to the taste. Jerez winemakers formulated superior syrups using Pedro Ximénez grapes called paxarette when added to sherry. Syrup reduced by one fifth is called arrope, and sanchoco when reduced by one third. Its whisky vernacular arrived in the late 1960s when liquor writers borrowed this wine term for the sherry treatment of used whisky casks.

 

From the 1780s, the beginning of the modern whisky era, genuine Scotch was commonly defined as whisky aged in sherry casks. Alarmingly, as the demand for blended whisky burgeoned in the 1870s, Britain’s imports of sherry peaked. The apex sherry year was 1873, falling 75 per cent by the late 1890s. Meanwhile, Scotch production more than doubled between 1873 and 1899 to 37.8 million gallons.

 

Whisky distillers faced a cask crisis: ex-rum and ex-brandy containers were deemed less desirable for flavour amelioration. The supply delta was resolved with an 1890 patented process by William Lowrie and his partner Robert Barr heating sherry under mild steam pressure, resulting in stave absorption extending an exhausted cask’s flavour life and restoring vinous colour to the cask. By the 1880s, new American oak casks were the primary filling containers for patent grain spirit and some malts. After a couple of years, the young whisky transferred to sherry casks for flavour finishing. Ex-bourbon barrels did not appear in Scotland until after the Second World War.

 

W P Lowrie & Company was one of Scotland’s largest whisky blenders and cooperages, and agent for Jerez’s largest sherry firm, Gonzáles Byass. Lowrie’s company never used the word paxarette or made syrup.

In the 1970s, modern liquor writers began coining the term ‘cask paxarette’. Lowrie’s sherry treatment was widely used for Scotch whisky maturation and was employed through much of the 20th century by leading brands including Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, and Johnnie Walker.

 

Intriguingly, Scotland banned the long-standing cask paxarette treatment for adding colouring to whisky, yet specified in the 1988 and 2009 acts plain spirit caramel or extrinsic E150a — food-grade burnt sugar or heat-treated carbohydrate from sugarcane or corn.

 

As global demand for casks and increasing constraints on European and American oak harvesting accelerate cask prices, distilleries are turning to cooperages for innovative regenerative techniques (e.g. STR), while non-Scotch distilleries are starting to experiment with modified paxarette suffusion treatments. Pax in our time. 

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