Taste Test: Penelope’s New Bourbon Shows Why We Need to Stop Finishing Whiskey in Amburana Wood

Stop by your local liquor store, or peruse your favorite online retailer, and you will find more cask-finished whiskey in all categories than you could possibly hope to taste in a lifetime (an unhealthy goal anyway). Many of these are good, some are middling, and a few feel like they’ve gone overboard. The latest example of the latter comes from Penelope Bourbon with its new Rio expression.

The culprit here is not the whiskey, to be clear. Penelope is a relatively new brand (founded 2018) that just made big news—MGP, the Indiana distillery that produces the whiskey for Penelope and many other brands, just acquired it for more than $100 million. So basically MGP saw how well Penelope was doing and decided it would be better to own the brand than to sell it whiskey—that’s not unheard of in the business world. Penelope’s bourbon is a blend of three MGP mash bills, a four-grain recipe of 75 percent corn, 7 percent rye, 15 percent wheat, and 3 percent malted barley. The whiskey is bottled fairly young at about two to three years old, but is a nice sipper nevertheless. Then there are the cask-finished whiskeys of the Cooper Series which are given a secondary maturation period in barrels like French rosé or Hungarian Tokaji, and are quite good. But Rio gets into different territory.

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This new bourbon is finished in two types of barrels—honey and amburana wood. We’ve covered whiskeys finished in honey barrels before, and the results can be appealing if done right. Whiskey finished in amburana wood, however, can be… intense. Transformative. Altering. And, in this case, overpowering. People talk about how Japanese mizunara oak brings an incense-like character to whiskey, but amburana is a steroidal version of that. This wood comes from Brazil and other South American countries, and has been used to age beer over the years. But the aggressive cinnamon, nutmeg, and almost Nag Champa-like flavors it imparts into whiskey can leave you wondering what said whiskey actually tastes like.

If you’re a fan of Penelope Bourbon, you know what the whiskey tastes like—it’s full of grain, vanilla, oak, and dark fruit flavors. But in the case of Rio, those are mostly lost to rampant, aggressive notes like the ones mentioned before, turning the palate into a baking spice bomb that is not necessarily something you’d want to sit and sip. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly what you’re looking for—if that’s the case, I’ve got a whiskey for you.

A few months ago, I had the chance to sample an unreleased Bushmills single malt Irish whiskey that was finished in amburana casks. I had the same reaction—overly spiced, overly incensed, just overpowering. WhistlePig released a Boss Hog expression a few years ago that got this treatment, and RD1 launched an amburana-finished bourbon this spring. Taste is entirely subjective, but in a world of so many artfully cask-finished whiskeys—including some from Penelope—amburana wood seems like a poor choice. It bullies the whiskey’s inherent flavors away, takes over the party with bloviated conversation, and (deep cut alert) pushes past the palate like Donald Trump rushing to get ahead of the Montenegro prime minister at a NATO meeting. But if all this has done is to pique your interest, give Rio a try and see what you think.

Score: 80

  • 100: Worth trading your first born for

  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet

  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram

  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market

  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable

  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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