Whisky of the Week – Aberlour a’bunadh

An image of the exterior of Fleming Rooms at Aberlour Distillery where aberlour a'bunadh is made. The iamge is of the gable end of a dark stone build with red window trim and red doors. The word Aberlour is in a sign attached to the building.
Imgrum, @daniel.gratzl

Aberlour a’bunadh is a cask-strength single malt whisky from Aberlour Distillery, located in the village of Aberlour, Scotland. In 1879 James Fleming, son of a local tenant farmer, established the distillery on the banks of the Lour Burn, a tributary to the River Spey. After changing hands many times, Pernod Ricard bought the distillery in 1975.

The new owners immediately began renovations which included the installation of a second pair of copper stills. During construction, they discovered a time capsule containing a bottle of malt wrapped in newspaper dated 1898. The bottle also bore the date 1898, just three years after James Fleming died. Thus, they held in their hands, actual whisky made by the original founder of the distillery.

Cask Strength

The new owners carefully analyzed contents of the 1898 bottle and Aberlour A’bunadh is an attempt to recreate that precious discovery. In fact, the name a’ bunadh (Ah BOON Ar) means “of the origins”. To mimic the character of the ’98 malt, a’bunadh consists of a blend of barrels ranging from 5 to 25 years old.

Like its predecessors, it is a“cask strength” whisky. Meaning the whisky is drawn and bottled straight from the cask. The producers do not add or dilute it with additional water. This produces a strong, stiff whisky. However, it’s surprisingly smooth and adding a few drops of water does not diminish the experience for more tender palettes.

Because it is not diluted it carries an ABV (Alcohol By Volume) ranging from 59 – 62%. This was the strength that whisky was typically sold at in the 1800s. In fact, a’bunadh’s apothecary style bottle is an homage to the small bottles the villagers often used when collecting their purchases.

Sherry Butts

an image of a large aberlour a'bunadh sherry butt adjacent to the smaller Bourbon cask.
Sherry Butt on the left; Bourbon cask on the right

In a further effort to capture the essence of the 19th-century malt, a’bunadh is aged exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts. This was a common practice during the period James Fleming was distilling whisky. Sherry butts differ from American bourbon casks in a several ways.

First, sherry butts are typically constructed of Spanish oak (Quesrcus robur) whereas Bourbon casks are made of American white oak (Quercus alba). The Spanish oak is less dense and allows for a greater oxygen exchange. As a result, it has a tendency to lose more to evaporation or to the “angel’s share.”

Secondly, sherry butts are more than double the size; a sherry butt is typically 478- 500 liters. A Bourbon cask comes in at 180-200 liters. The smaller Bourbon cask has a surface to liquid ratio and facilitates a faster maturation.

Lastly, the sherry butts tend to produce a dark mahogany color whisky with stronger flavor profiles. Dark, fruity flavors such as raisin, prunes, and currants. And less us not forget sherry notes!

Small Batches

Aberlour a’bunadh is a small batch whisky. A somewhat nebulous term, small batch implies the production run whisky is from a small number of selected barrels. Small batch may also refer to the total numbers of gallons produced or the number of bottles made available. Since there is no legal definition for the term, “small batches” vary among distillers.

I have not been able to ascertain exactly what Aberlour means by “small batch”. But since they first released it in 1997, they have produced 58 unique batches. That first year they actually produced five batches but have limited production to a single batch per year since.

Each batch represents a different recipe and carries a different ABV rating. The original release had a 59.6% ABV but that has tended to rise over the years. The highest rating ABV was 61.2 was in 2016. The 2012 release, Batch 41, carries the lowest ABV rating at 59%.  The 2017 release carries an ABV of 61.1%.

Naturally, with 58 batches released over a twenty-year period, someone is going to ask . . . “Which was the best?” That’s easy, they are all the best. A’bunadh has been remarkedly consistent over the years. And like the ABV rating, there are some differences but they are subtle. However,  older batches are difficult to find.

Aberlour a’bunadh – Tasting Notes

an image of a glass of aberlour a'bunadh whiskyColour: Deep rich amber.

Nose: Terrific aromas of allspice, praline, and spiced orange, in harmony with deep notes of Oloroso Sherry.

Palate: Orange, black cherries, dried fruit, and ginger, spiked with dark bitter chocolate. And enriched with lingering Sherry and oak. Superlatively full bodied and creamy.

Finish: Robust and long lasting, with bittersweet notes of exotic spices, dark chocolate, and oak.

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