This 8 year old Bunnahabhain 2013 started its life in a bourbon hogshead. Later it moved to a Vino de Color cask until Artful Dodger bottled it.
Vino de Color is an allowed complimentary product in sherry production, similar to E150 in whisky. In itself it is not a sherry but a barrel-aged mix of young wine with arrope, a gooey black syrup that is the result of cooking down fresh grape must (usually Pedro Ximénez) to about 20% of its volume. Arrope is similar to sancocho which is cooked down to about 33%. In the past, both were essential elements in Golden Sherry or Brown Sherry. In fact the (in)famous Paxarete (usually misspelled as paxarette as if it were French) is also a kind of vino de color.
It fell into disuse in the 1970s but a lot of sherry bodegas still have a stash of vino de color. It contains a lot of pigment, with lots of sweetness but also a firm bitter side. It’s a little rough to drink neat, but it can certainly add punch to a middle-of-the-road blended sherry. And if you’ve ever visited Bodegas Tradición or tried La Bota n°33 from Equipo Navazos then you’ll know vino de color can be quite wonderful after decades in a barrel.
There’s a certain group of whisky lovers that thinks Paxarete was the magnificent key to some legendary ‘dark sherry’ whiskies of the 1950s and 1960s. Personally I’m not convinced of the benefits, supported by Pip Hills’ explanation of the (demise of the) process in his book Appreciating whisky. Yet I’m really eager to try this Bunnahabhain. It has a deep brown colour, with less of the red hues you’d expect from regular sherry casks.
After emptying this cask, owner Seb Woolf used it to finish ‘On a Saw Mill’, a blended whisky in this Cut Your Wolf Loose series.
Bunnahabhain 8 yo 2013 (52,3%, Artful Dodger 2021, bourbon hogshead + Vino de Color #900710)
Nose: interesting. Caramel comes out first, with dark cherries in syrup, blackberry jam, chocolate and a hint of truffle. Ground coffee too. Then a surprisingly high level of acidic notes appears, like rhubarb jam, raspberry eau-de-vie and a whiff of PX sherry vinegar. Oranges with cloves. A very wide range of aromas.
Mouth: less impressive now. The astringent woody notes, the herbal liqueur (Fernet Branca and similar) and bitters are well in the lead. Hints of quina too. I’m sure this works as a cough syrup. Highly concentrated, thick and… a little painful to drink. In fact it’s remarkably close to a real vino de color at high strength.
Finish: long, dry, herbal. Some sweetness returns to round off the edges.
Most people think of Paxarete as a kind of übersweet Pedro Ximénez. They’re forgetting the melanoidins that are the result of the Maillard reaction while cooking the grape juice, which leads to bitter, burnt and coffee-like notes. Very educational whisky, but I couldn’t drink a bottle. So yeah, for now I won’t be signing the petition to bring back paxarete. Still available from Master of Malt if you’re curious.