Cats vs. Dogs. Coke vs. Pepsi. Rangers vs. Celtic.
Shall we add another dueling duo to the list of famous rivalries? If so, might it be Bourbon Barrel vs. Sherry Cask? Today’s dram seems to implicitly suggest this face off as a natural competition between warring factions.
This question has become germane due to the evolutionary selection of beverage styles. Scotch whisky consumption has boomed, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this. At the same time sherry consumption has stagnated, as it has remained the preferred libation of the type of person who will be dying soon. Thus, the demand for sherry casks (for the purposes of maturing and finishing whisky) has increased as the supply has slowly dwindled.
The response of the whisky industry has underwhelmed. Fourth-fill sherry casks, “knackered” in the parlance of my British peers, have served as ersatz substitutes for the Real Deal Holyfield. Worse, we get sherry “seasoned” or “rinsed” casks, which – to once again abuse a threadworn cliché – are to proper sherry casks as a lightning bug is to lightning.
As a consequence, the reformed sherry bomb hounds of the world are losing their religion. Jason recently noted his partiality for the subtle influence of an ex-bourbon cask, relative to the often forceful overlay imposed by a sherry or other wine cask. With the profoundly mediocre or overtly flawed options on the latter end of the spectrum, who among us could blame him?
That said: there is still sherry being produced in Jerez, and some of that is matured properly in decent casks. Those casks must make their way up to Scotland, presumably to the long-established Speyside distilleries which have been consistent customers through the decades. While it would be foolish to dismiss sherried whisky out of hand, us savvy (read: cynical) consumers will be forced to play the odds.
Perhaps the way to think about this is through the framework of “dichotomy” rather than “rivalry.” For example, Elvis and The Beatles. People can like them both (I’d put myself in that camp), but nobody likes them both equally (I’ll never tell). Maybe this is more “Tunnock’s Tea Cakes vs. Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers” than Old Firm?
So if I offered you a sherried Aberlour at cask strength, or one matured in a bourbon barrel, which would you choose? That dilemma brings us to the traffic of our stage.
With the release of A’bunadh Alba, Scotch whisky drinkers are now able to make what might be closest thing to an apples-to-apples comparison of these two cask types (at least as far as official bottlings go). In contrast to its predecessor in the A’bunadh range, there’s nary a sherry cask to be found within sniffing distance of the new Alba. Rather, Quercus Alba (American Oak) barrels are used, resulting in a bit of wordplay. Aberlour asserts that “Alba” is Gaelic for “Scotland;” unfortunately Google Translate lacks a Gaelic setting, so I am unable to independently cross-check this. As before, A’bunadh is said to mean “the original,” making this… umm… “the original Scotland?” “A Scottish original?” Sure, OK, whatever.
So, what else to say about this one? The back label on the tube this came in has some interesting tidbits that caught my eye. First, this is made with barley “now locally sourced from the fields near our distillery.” This is the first time I have noticed this aspect of Aberlour’s production; a perusal of their website indicates that their barley is grown within 15 miles of the distillery.
Second, the label specifies that ex-bourbon barrels are filled with Scotch Whisky “for the first time.” Third, the label notes that “A’bunadh Alba is as close as you can get to tasting a dram at original cask strength at our distillery.” However, the front of the bottle specifies that this is “bottled straight from the cask.” Is this first-fill bourbon-barrel matured whisky bottled at cask strength, then?
To dig deeper, I got in touch with Andy Weir, Pernod Ricard USA’s Brand Leader for Aberlour. He generously spared some time to chat with me. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
MALT: I understand this is a U.S. exclusive?
Andy: It’s a U.S. exclusive, probably for the first year or so. We kind of drove the bus on it a little bit, working with Sandy Hyslop (Master Blender) and Graeme Cruickshank (Master Distiller). It was time to give people who understand the concept of A’bunadh – which is pure, and cask strength, and unadulterated – and kind of expand the concept into something that uses bourbon casks instead of sherry casks. It’s been a bit of a departure for us, but it’s been huge. We won that big award last year, #5 in the Whisky Advocate list.
MALT: It’s so different from the normal A’bunadh. How has that gone down with consumers?
Andy: I haven’t heard anything negative, so I‘d say pretty good. People like surprise, people like it when a brand takes a bold step into something new. Now, it’s not totally new; we’ve had single casks that are exclusively in bourbon casks. But there’s no doubt that Aberlour is known for a more sherried style. It’s a little bit different from what we’re used to doing. Obviously we’ve always aged whisky in bourbon casks anyway. This is a now a core part of our range; it’s not just an in-and-out. People love cask-strength whisky.
MALT: The flavors that jump out are exotic fruit and dairy, milky flavors. How much is the cask and how much is the distillate?
Andy: We are known to be a citrusy, forest-fruity, blackberry bramble new spirit. Those tropical fruits are something I’ve heard: papaya, dragonfruit, soft summer fruits. You get that a lot from the combination of our new spirit and bourbon cask. What this does is show the consumer: you can take the same DNA, the same new spirit, and just age it one side in bourbon and one side in sherry. What we’ve got in this A’bunadh range is the constituent parts of our 12 year old, and 16 and 18 year old. Those are a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, double cask matured. You’ve got those different sides of the coin available in the purest expression.
MALT: The label and website specify barley from within 15 miles of the distillery. Is that all the barley Aberlour uses? When was this changeover made?
Andy: It’s not been a long running thing; I don’t know the exact date offhand. I’d say, over the course of the last 10 or so years, we’ve started to build a network of local farmers from whom we only source our barley. Within 15 miles, there are 20-something farmers that go into Aberlour.
MALT: So 100% of Aberlour’s barley needs are now met locally?
Andy: Yes, within 15 miles.
MALT: I also saw the mention of bourbon barrels being filled for the first time. Is this 100% first-fill bourbon barrels?
Andy: It’s entirely first fill and it’s entirely bourbon. In most cases, in Scotch, you’re going to get American oak: a lot of Tennessee whiskey in the mix, a lot of Jack Daniel’s casks floating around Scotland. So for this particular one, it’s 100% first fill and 100% bourbon cask.
MALT: Do you have a relationship with a specific bourbon distillery within the Pernod Ricard portfolio?
Andy: Our bourbon portfolio is very, very young. We literally – in the last two years – have built a bourbon portfolio. We’ve now got Smooth Ambler, TX, Rabbit Hole, and now Jefferson’s. Moving forward down the line, I think you’ll start to see those relationships provide some wood management supply.
You can talk to any distiller in Scotland, they’ll tell you: It’s not about the bourbon. It’s not about which bourbon was held in the cask. It’s about a good, well-coopered Quercus alba white American oak cask that’s in good condition. It doesn’t really matter to anybody what it held. That’s standard for us as well. Being the size we are, between Aberlour and The Glenlivet, we have some pretty solid relationships with cooperages and suppliers from the States.
MALT: It also says this “is as close as you can get to tasting a dram at original cask strength at our distillery” but also that this is “bottled straight from the cask.” Can you clarify whether any water was added?
Andy: None at all. It’s cask strength. To that point, you can see when batch #002 comes out, in the next couple of months – we’ll probably do three batches of this a year – the strength will vary. A’bunadh runs from about 58% to 62%.
The back-end operations of releasing an ongoing cask-strength product are actually extremely complicated and tedious. I’m involved in that, in my role. Every single time we’ve done a new one we have to go through a labeling process, we have to set up a new item in our system. It takes a whole lot of heavy lifting.
I don’t know what the next strength is yet, I haven’t seen it across my desk yet. It could be stronger. I doubt it will be lower; this one’s actually quite low. That’s what’s exciting about it, the fact that it’s a random 57.1%, or A’bunadh is 61.9%, is a testament to the fact that it’s completely cask strength, no water added to the bottle.
MALT: Why did this come in lower strength than the A’bunadh sherry casks?
Andy: Yes, we’re talking about smaller casks, but that also just comes down to conditions. Literally, you make a batch and you put the hydrometer in. There’s some magic, there’s some science. What comes back is what the hydrometer reads.
MALT: I have to ask – since it was a point of controversy with A’bunadh – about the pricing strategy with A’bunadh Alba?
Andy: It should be about 10% lower than the A’bunadh. A’bunadh should be about $100 in this market; A’bunadh Alba should be about $90. You will see some pretty aggressive specials as the product launches.
MALT: What else do you want people to know about this?
Andy: This is an exciting thing for Aberlour. We’re interested in innovation and trying new things, and getting people excited about the brand.
Aberlour has been around 140 years and has been marketed and sold in the U.S. for the best part of 40 years. It’s always been sort of on the fringes, a bit-part player. That time has come to an end.
Aberlour is now being considered among the most successful brands in the States. We’re starting to see nice growth here in the U.S. Not just growth in sales; people talking about the brand. Part of the reason for doing Alba – and I had to lobby a lot to get people to think about Alba – was that it’s a chance for people to come back and reevaluate A’bunadh.
A’bunadh has been one of these sacred products within the company. It’s been out since the late 90’s. It really was the pace-setter; it set the way for non-age-statement whiskies long before distilleries were launching anything non-age-statement.
There’s so much competition out there, so much proliferation of innovation from all these distilleries all the time. Here we are with this phenomenal product that there’s a cult following behind. We just have to remind people that A’bunadh is “the original.” This is the purest expression you can get, in this case from a bourbon cask.
My sincere thanks to Andy for sharing his time and insights. With all that in mind, it’s time to taste the inaugural batch of A’bunadh Alba.
This is batch #001, bottled at 57.1% ABV, non chill-filtered. As Andy noted, this is a U.S. exclusive for the time being, having been released back in September. Retail price is listed at $77, but I was able to snag a bottle on sale for $72, which is well below the MSRP of $90. This compares favorably with the standard A’bunadh (list price of $100, on sale for $80 at the moment).
Aberlour A’bunadh Alba – Review
Color:: Medium-pale wheat.
On the nose:: Delightfully odd, in the sense of diverging from my expectations. “Peaches and cream” would be a reductive descriptor, but there’s so much more to this. Imagine a whole jungle full of exotic fruits (mango, papaya, lychee, guava) married with an entire dairy worth of milk derivatives (buttermilk, Greek yogurt, crème fraiche). This vacillates along a sinusoid between these two poles, bouncing from rich fruitiness to smooth creaminess and back again. As I sniff longer, there’s also a cereal note and a slightly soapy nuance.
In the mouth:: Zippy to start; this does not make much of an impression at the front of the mouth. The midpalate once again echoes the bipolar nature of the nose, with an interplay of milky and plump, tropically fruity flavors. I also get the sweet cinnamon flavor of apple pie filling. This transitions to the finish with both the flavor and texture of soap. At the back of the tongue, I get a slightly stale flavor of old cut tobacco and dried autumn leaves.
I may need to invent the term “bourbon bomb” to adequately encompass what this has going on. It’s as full flavored and as forcefully personable as the regular A’bunadh, but it goes in a completely different direction. Where that has the expected dried fruits, this is bursting with a ripe fruit cocktail full of the types of delicacies you’d find on an Asian breakfast buffet. There’s an element of the nose’s fruity/creamy dichotomy throughout this, though in less overwhelming form in the mouth. It tastes a bit like dessert, which might be a good indication of which point in your evening will best suit this one.
At the price I paid, this is a lot of whisky for the dollar. In a world where more and more of big whisky is going the route of flawed conceptual releases with momentary cask finishes at minimum potency, Aberlour deserves commendations for releasing an elemental product at high strength. A worthy addition to the brand’s focused portfolio, I’d recommend that Aberlour fans try a taste of this.
Photograph provided by Aberlour.