Time to pick sides, again!
Whisky can become factional in a way that is sometimes befuddling to me. Partisans choose their camps, battle lines are drawn, and no quarter is given until… well, that’s the funny thing. These wars rage ad infinitum, without a decisive victory or a clear winner. It’s explicable in that most of the skirmishers meet Churchill’s definition of fanaticism, in that they’re incapable of changing either their minds or the subject. This is especially so in the hellacious cauldron of Twitter, where it seems that death is preferable to the dishonor of admitting fault or ceding a point to an opponent.
I can understand disagreeing about and debating whisky. However, it’s important to remember that most of these arguments will be prosecuted in error, relating as they do to those famously non-disputable qualities of taste. Most of what we like – and dislike – will be attributable not to the inherent characteristics of the liquid itself, but rather our reactions thereto.
To illustrate the point: I’ll occasionally receive pushback on a review; generally, this occurs when I have given a poor score to a whisky that someone else loves. The offended party will typically forward arguments of a mostly subjective nature before leveling accusations that I am either hopelessly incompetent, blindly biased, or such an incorrigible malcontent that I wouldn’t recognize good whisky even if it were splashed in my face.
In response, I am fond of quoting the immortal words of philosopher-king Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like… your opinion, man.” Perhaps it’s the hyper-politicized environment of the last several years, but I am increasingly rejecting an ideological approach in favor of a fickle whimsy that, hopefully, makes me harder to pin down or categorize. I oscillate between sipping bourbon whiskey and Scotch whisky. I’ll follow a fleet-footed Highland dram with a heavily peated Islay malt. Barrel proof or 40% ABV? No difference to me. Bourbon or sherry? Both make me merry!
I previously noted the dichotomy between bourbon barrels and sherry casks in my review of the Aberlour A’bunadh Alba, which emphasizes the former. By way of contrast, the original A’bunadh is a leader in the “sherry bomb” category, being presented as a full-bore expression with the sherry influence (and the ABV) turned up to 11.
What if we lowered the volume, though? It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of Scotch whisky is consumed at a potency closer to 40% ABV; cask strength whisky remains the preserve of a small-but-vocal niche of enthusiasts comprising an infinitesimally narrow sliver of the global pie of whisky drinkers. While my default position remains that I prefer whisky that is as close to direct-from-the-barrel as possible (no dilution, no filtration, no artificial color, no blending), I embrace the opportunity to try different styles. Being aware of one’s own preconceptions is not enough; one must also challenge them with regularity.
Today, I’ll have an opportunity to do just that. In a sotto voce take on the A’bunadh vs A’bunadh Alba shouting match, I’ll be tasting two Aberlour whiskies from different cask types. One is ex-bourbon barrel, the other ex-sherry butt. The commonality – other than the distillery and age – is that they are both presented at 40% ABV.
You’ll remember my Zoom tasting with the Aberlour brand ambassadors, in which the team that won the trivia contest was awarded this pair of promotional bottlings of each of the component whisky types that are blended to create Aberlour’s mainstay 12 year old expression. Though my team fell just short, the generosity of my friendly local brand ambassador Callum O’Donnell ensured that these samples subsequently found their way to me.
Though these were free samples and aren’t available at retail, I’ll be scoring them as though they were full-sized bottles costing $50, in-line with the going rate for the Aberlour 12 Years Old. Let’s kick off with the bourbon barrels:
Aberlour 12 Years Old First Fill American Oak Barrel – Review
Color: Pale wheat.
On the nose: This has a lot of the fruity and creamy notes that are showcased to such good effect in the A’bunadh Alba. Ripe peaches meet with a rich dairy note of butter. There are some more exotic fruits in here such as lychee and underripe cantaloupe, as well as subtly spicy accents of kola nut and nutmeg. With more time in the glass, I get the sweetly fizzy and subtly spicy scent of ginger ale.
In the mouth: This presents a piquant woodiness as it meets the lips, transitioning immediately into a soapy mouthfeel and some dilute notes of weak English Breakfast tea. The fruity notes from the nose are watered down to the point that they remain only echoes of their aromatic incarnations. This momentarily perks up with a grassy flavor as it moves into the finish, where there’s a re-emergence of the soapy notes and a bit of tannic astringency, in the manner of green grape skins.
Conclusions: Though the nose hinted at some points of the best of bourbon-matured Aberlour, these notes receded on the palate to the point that they were but whispers. Thinking about awarding this a score, I am forced to consider whether I’d be a buyer of this if I saw a bottle on the shelf for $50? While there were some appealing parts, ultimately I was left wanting by the lack of follow through. As a consequence, I am docking this a point off of average.
Following on, I’ve saved the sherry butt for last. I nearly said “the best,” but the woeful quality of sherry “seasoned” barrels and knackered sixth-fill casks has turned this once-darling of whisky drinkers into a walk through a liquid minefield. As I can’t recall being put off by any of the sherry-matured whisky I have tried from Aberlour (and, indeed, as this is labeled “first fill”), I am going into this next dram hopeful that it will demonstrate a marked improvement over the last.
Aberlour 12 Years Old First Fill Sherry Butt – Review
Color: Medium-pale brownish orange.
On the nose: Abundant dried fruit aromas: raisins, dates, currants, figs, sultanas, you name it. Again, the spicy notes add some needed diversity, with scents of star anise and lemongrass giving this a subtle accent reminiscent of Asian cuisine. There’s also a savory umami-type note and an oxidized whiff of oolong tea that only heighten that impression.
In the mouth: Keeping with the Asian cooking theme: an initial kiss of soy sauce yields to a slightly bitter and sour note. The soapy texture of the former dram is replicated in the middle of the mouth, where this has a momentarily sweet burst of dried fruit before taking on a desiccated woody note and a drying texture. This again tacks off-bitter, with a lingering flavor of almonds. After a few seconds, there’s a slightly odd aftertaste of rubber balloons, though not in the overpowering and slightly nauseating
Conclusions: This has more texture than the prior dram, but it otherwise suffers the same drawbacks as the bourbon-matured whiskey. There’s so much promise on the nose, but this is left unfulfilled by flavors that mostly underwhelm. About the best I can say for it is that the sherry butts appear to have been mostly high quality, with little in the way of the struck match or rotten funky notes that mar those whiskies matured in substandard ex-sherry oak. Engaging in the same mental exercise as before: would I be a repeat purchaser at the hypothetical price of $50? Again, no, hence the same score…
Putting on my blender’s hat, I mixed the roughly equal portions of remaining whiskey in my two tasting glasses together. Lo and behold, the resultant whole was decidedly better than the sum of its parts. For a slight loss of nuance (in terms of individual notes fading, especially on the nose), what instead resulted was an overall more complete experience. Presuming this is indicative of the quality of the 12 Year Old Aberlour expression, I’d be scoring this dram about 5/10, which is to say that it performs adequately for the price.
In light of this, I can make the following recommendation: those of you looking for a full-on bourbon blast or a sherry surge should track down the respective A’bunadh expressions. However, those looking for a solid, balanced expression at a reasonable ask should heed Marvin and Kim’s wise counsel: “It takes two, baby.”