“This is the big one! You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya, honey!” – Redd Foxx
Amburana barrels, the exotic cask du jour, have done a fusion dance with ex-honey barrels for a new highly unique release by Penelope Bourbon called Rio. Having made waves with their well-received Cooper Series – which previously saw the release of their Rosé Cask Finished bourbon, a rye finished in Tokaji barrels, and Valencia, a straight bourbon finished in Vino de Naranja casks – the brand is back with their most intriguing offering yet.
The ex-honey barrels utilized for this release all come from the same source, but what makes the Penelope process unique is that they blended bourbon from five different “turns” of the honey. That is to say: the barrels were initially filled after the honey was first dumped, then the barrel was emptied and filled again, and again, and so on until the barrels finally had five different fills of straight bourbon. What makes this noteworthy is that while the first fill carries a rather overt honey-soaked flavor, each subsequent fill imparts less of the sweetness from the cask. Blending the different “turns” together enabled Penelope to really hone in on their preferred profile.
Having had the opportunity to visit their facility in New Jersey and to try each of the different turns of Penelope’s honey finished bourbon individually, it was remarkable to see how each offered something slightly different. I quite enjoyed the first turn, though it more closely resembled a flavored whiskey than a finished one. Once I tried the fourth and fifth turns the bourbon became far more prominent, with only accenting hints of honey making their way into the juice. Seeing firsthand just how different each turn was, I left confident that the blenders at Penelope had enough variance on hand to execute their vision.
That said, Amburana casks are as expressive as they are polarizing and, when they told me that they would be blending the honey-finished components and finishing them in Amburana barrels, I was at once intrigued and dumbfounded. No one in the American whiskey world has dared to combine the two popular casks until now, and though they are both popular, it remained to be seen if popular kids could actually get along in a single bottle. I even sensed some nervousness from the people tasked with the undertaking!
Alas, I was not able to taste the final honey blend but – having tried those initial samples and knowing what Amburana typically imparts on whiskey (a heavy dose of cinnamon with subtler aspects of tobacco leaf and leather) – I knew that this was a release that had the potential to be far more than a curiosity. Finally the wait is over and the brand was gracious enough to offer me a bottle free of charge, to try on my own. I should further note that this bottle was provided under no obligation to review it, and receiving it for free won’t sway my score. I’ll be judging it as though I paid the suggested retail price for it.
One final note: it was recently announced that MGP, the distillery Penelope sources their bourbon, rye, and light whiskey from, has acquired the New Jersey-based brand in a bid to expand their premiumization strategy. MGP has been placing a larger emphasis on their in-house brands in recent years, and there’s long been a question of how that would affect some of the well-known brands who have built their name with that sourced whiskey. Surely some of those brands will pivot to other sourcing partners, and others will simply fall by the wayside, but it’s worth keeping an eye on whether MGP makes the decision to bring any other well-established brands into the fold in the near future.
With the business acquisition out of the way, let’s settle our business here with the bottle specs. Penelope’s Rio is the fourth installment in their allocated Cooper Series, and it features Penelope’s standard four-to-six-year old four grain bourbon (a mashbill that is 75% corn, 7% rye, 15% wheat, 3% malted barley) finished in American ex-honey and Brazillian oak or Amburana barrels. It clocks in at 98 proof (49% ABV) and carries a suggested retail price of $80.
Penelope Rio – Review
Color: Golden amber.
On the nose: Immediately, I get a blast of honey over wheat toast for a nose that’s warm and sweet, but also thankfully still apparent as a bourbon (as opposed to a cloying flavored whiskey). After a swirl and a second pass, the Amburana’s influence faintly emerges revealing the other key component of fairy milk, cinnamon, in addition to the obvious top note of honey. In time, a bit of milk chocolate and graham cracker emerges before melding together and giving an impression of chocolate Teddy Grahams. As you can see, these nosing notes are really sending me down memory lane to the genesis of my sweet tooth. Rounding out these notes is a bit of black pepper, the faint aroma of brandied cherries, and an even fainter indication of marshmallow, completing the s’mores trifecta of flavor.
In the mouth: What first makes an impression is the exceptionally slick texture as the first sip glides over the tongue. The honey is predictably the most pronounced flavor, taking root at the tip of the tongue and blooming across the palate and up the roof of the mouth from there. Initially making an impression is the fact that despite its sweet flavor profile and slick mouthfeel, Rio drinks well above its proof which I count as a good thing. At 98 proof, it’s evident they had to work hard to keep the sweetness in check, but it doesn’t result in them sacrificing the bite that makes bourbon, bourbon.
On the finish, the sweetness goes from traditional organic to lavender honey and it lasts a surprisingly long time for the proof. With the rising influence of oak, a bit of mulled wine, and cinnamon bark clinging to the tongue as well the finish has a hair more complexity than the rest of the sipping experience.
I ventured to revisit this pour on a second night, and I found that, though the sweet notes are still there in spades, there was actually more earthiness than I had first given it credit for. Tobacco leaf makes an appearance as this bottle opens up, owing surely to the Amburana cask influence, and the cinnamon becomes more pronounced. There’s also a meatiness like bacon fat that presents itself at midpalate, though the finish becomes a bit shorter the overall experience has become richer on night two.
Penelope’s Rio is a party on the palate, but one that was initially missing two of bourbon’s most prominent party guests: earthiness and spice. Make no mistake; this is an unapologetically sweet pour that does what it sets out to do rather well. The honey influence is extremely pronounced, but well done in my opinion, and Amburana shockingly gets second billing as a restrained but welcome feature player. There are layers to the sweetness and so long as you’re prepared for it, those layers do a fine job of showcasing themselves without completely washing out the base bourbon.
That said, this bottle initially risked being “one note” before the rising influence of cinnamon spice and tobacco leaf managed to keep the sweetness balanced. If you’re looking for a nuanced bourbon that grants space for the underlying whiskey while using the secondary casks sparingly, then this may not be the option for you. However, if you’re someone who enjoys these honeyed pours, I would encourage you to appreciate the delineation between each of the sweet notes, admire the texture, and then sit in awe as the long-lasting finish coats your tongue. You might want a coffee after this dessert pour, but give it time to open up and you’ll be rewarded with some savoriness as well.
Frank with another dope review! I’m glad to read that the honey barrel finish and the amburana finish didn’t become a “Clash of the Titans” in this bottle!
Thank you kindly, BBM! I hope you get a chance to try this bottle soon.
I hate to be critical of anything Frank writes as his reviews are always top-notch and welcome. This particular product, though, somewhat troubles me. The entire topic of different finishes for bourbon whisky – the essential nature of which involves aging in new oak casks – strikes me as problematic. Once you age it (or “finish” it) in various wine, beer, gin, or like this example, amburana wood casks, is it still bourbon? It may have started that way, but where does it end up? And where does the line get drawn, if it ever does, before it is no longer bourbon, but merely flavored whisky? Greater minds than my own will need to sort that out.
One style note which is personal to me – describing the liquid in question as “juice” is a common practice in the wine industry, where it obviously makes considerable sense. But I despise using that work to describe spirits, whether bourbon or otherwise. I know lots of people have adopted the terminology, but it strikes me as just wrong. It’s not juice. Please call it liquid.
I certainly appreciate your comment Greg! I do think there’s a clear line where most purists no longer consider something bourbon and that line probably starts with finishing casks. That said I, like you, leave that discussion to greater minds than mine and as it stands “Straight bourbon whiskey finished in _____” is what we’re calling projects of this sort.
Your point on the colloquial use of “juice” is taken as well. Thank you as always for sharing those thoughts!