COLUMNIST: BRAD JAPHE
Pax a punch
Casks treated by the condensed sherry syrup known as paxarette have been around for more than a hundred years. Unfiltered traces the history of its use in the Scotch industry and asks if its reputation is unfairly maligned
WORDS: BRAD JAPHE
Scotch connoisseurs have long adored their sherried drams. And it’s easy to understand why. Casks seasoned by the sweet, fortified wine of Spain exert upon whisky all manner of richness and earthy, rancio-laden complexities. Deep in colour, full in body, dark and raisiny on the palate, the resulting liquids check all the boxes that make geeks go gaga. Brands have built entire empires around the flavour profile. But at least some of these enviable elements might historically have been owed to a sort of performance-enhancing drug: a condensed sherry syrup known as paxarette (or pajarete).
For generations, most sherry that arrived upon the thirsty shores of the UK and Ireland did so in the barrel rather than by the bottle. During the height of the wine’s popularity in the 1970s as many as 170,000 butts were exported to Britain. To the whisky industry this was a godsend; storage containers necessary to mature their product were abundant and available inexpensively. And these 500-litre vessels would still be quite wet by the time Scotch producers got their hands on them. Any leftover liquid swishing around immediately upgraded the distillate added thereafter.
“As far back as the late 1800s, legendary Scotch blender WP Lowrie pioneered the practice of treating American oak with cupfuls of concentrated Spanish wine ”
This is how sherried characteristics became associated with quality single malt. But throughout the ages, the wine’s robust allocation was never guaranteed. Shrewd purveyors had already conjured up ways to ensure consistency of colour and flavour during dry spells.
As far back as the late 1800s, for example, legendary Scotch blender WP Lowrie pioneered the practice of treating American oak with cupfuls of concentrated Spanish wine. Like magic, he ended up with ‘sherry casks’ at times when the real McCoy was in short supply. The sorcery soon spread.
‘Pax’ – as it became known – remained something of a secret within the industry for nearly a century, used as needed.
Then, in 1988, the sherry supply dried up for good. Spanish regulations shifted, requiring every last drop of it to be bottled in Spain.
“It led to the demise of the sherry cask for transport almost overnight,” recalls Mark Reynier, former CEO of Bruichladdich and founder of Waterford Distillery in Ireland.
“The whisky industry needed a quick fix, and that was paxarette. Overly-used casks – devoid of any impact on the spirit – could conveniently be reinvigorated by the addition of this Pedro Ximenez grape-based concentrate gloop.
“[They’d] put it in the barrel for 10 minutes under high pressure, and ‘voila’: a pseudo-sherry barrel for free!”
Although prohibited in Scotch, to this day there’s nothing stopping pax from making its way into other prominent categories of whisk(e)y across the globe
After modern brand marketeers caught wind of the technique, it didn’t take long for it to become abused. Less scrupulous producers might even add the syrup straight into the whisky directly before bottling. Then, in 1990, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) revised its rules to ban any additives affecting flavour. This, of course, included the maligned sherry syrup. But it hardly marked the end of its presence within the supply stream. “If it was in the barrel already [as of 1990], those barrels were used years later to blend into an age statement,” explains Robin Robinson, author of The Complete Whiskey Course. “So how much of it is still actually out there is almost impossible to figure.”
What is quite discernible, however, is a profound flavour divide between pax and post-pax era malts. Shockingly, given a blind comparison, there’s a good chance an avowed Scotch aficionado may prefer the former. “Many of us who started drinking sherried whiskies from back in the ’80s and ’90s fondly recall the deep richness, musky-ness and chewy-ness of it, so different from the current whiskies,” admits Robin. “It’s the dirty secret of all of us that we were responding to the paxarette that was inevitably used in them. Our ignorance was our bliss.”
Are you a fan of sherry conditioned whiskies? We are too!
Although prohibited in Scotch, to this day there’s nothing stopping pax from making its way into other prominent categories of whisk(e)y across the globe. Sherry finishes are frequently highlighted in offerings from Japan and Taiwan, for example.
Yet no brand has owned up to the artificial enhancements of such. It doesn’t have to be such a shameful thing. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Chinese restaurants in the United States went to great lengths to proclaim themselves free of MSG.
Then it turned out that most consumers actually enjoy the umami-rich tonalities of the controversial additive, and now it’s enjoying a culinary revival.
Could a similar fate await pax? That would depend on the SWA relaxing its rules, producers being transparent about its usage – and drinkers honest about their own flavour preferences. Our relationship with pax, it would seem, is every bit as complex as the whisky it helped create.