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A Shortcut to Whiskey Unicorn Status?

February 17, 2023

Story: Fred Siggins

art: Nick Hensley


A Shortcut to Whiskey Unicorn Status?

February 17, 2023

Story: Fred Siggins

art: Nick Hensley

Rare South American amburana wood, which is credited with lending whiskey a “cinnamon roll in a glass” profile, has become a distiller obsession.

In 2022, Atlanta’s ASW Distillery bottled its Fiddler Amburana, a high-wheat bourbon finished in amburana casks. “The result is what many have described as a ‘cinnamon roll in a glass,’” says Chad Ralston, chief marketing officer. It was the brand’s second fastest-selling release of all time. 

ASW is not alone in exploring the potential of amburana as a finishing cask for whiskey. The South American hardwood, which grows in the jungles of Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, is most commonly used for maturing cachaça. But after making waves in the craft beer scene in recent years, amburana casks, with the wood’s mouthwatering Cinnabon aromas, have caught on among whiskey distillers and drinkers alike, creating a frenzy of collectors seeking to secure a bottle of the coveted finish. 

“We’ve loved the beers finished in amburana wood that we’ve tried,” explains Ralston. “The cinnamon, floral and tropical notes really shine, so we thought it might make a nice complement to our flagship bourbon.”

Indeed, amburana wood’s intense aromas have proved to be a popular complement to aged whiskey. Much like Japan’s lauded mizunara oak-aged whiskies, which fetch eye-watering prices, amburana whiskey provides a unique point of difference for producers and a new experience for consumers. 

“Amburana wood gives off lots of baking spice notes,” says WhistlePig’s Chief Blender Meghan Ireland, who was the first to introduce an amburana-aged whiskey to the American market, in 2018. “Most prominently it has great notes of both vanilla and cinnamon, which balance with the spice notes of rye really well,” she says. WhistlePig fans have lapped it up, so much so that the brand has included this particular cask type in its Boss Hog VII release, part of its coveted Boss Hog series. 

The trend caught on quickly, with amburana releases from Indiana’s Starlight, Atlanta’s Fiddler and Chicago’s Koval distilleries (as well as versions by Red Line, Penelope and Nulu) all hitting shelves within the past three years, along with a profusion of private barrel picks for retailers around the United States. One such selection, from Kentucky retailer Happy Hour Liquor & Bar, captures the zeitgeist with its Zoolander-inspired label, which reads: “Amburana: so hot right now.”

Australian Rye Whisky

Make Way for Australian Rye

Out from under the shadow of Scotch, Australia has set its sights on rye whiskey, offering a singular new look at the style.

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Not Your Grandfather’s Blended Scotch

Long considered an afterthought among serious drinkers, the blended Scotch category is slowly becoming a hotbed for innovation.

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Fermentation Fever Hits Whiskey

Where once the barrel ruled all, whiskey distillers are finally taking a deeper interest in the role of yeast in determining the character of their spirit.

Pablo Moix, co-founder of independent bottler Rare Character, was another early adopter of the Brazilian hardwood, recently releasing an amburana-finished single-cask whiskey as part of the brand’s Native Wood series. For Moix, whose business partner Pete Nevenglosky is a founder of Avuá Cachaça, the use of Brazilian casks was a natural next step. “We’re big fans of all wines and distilled spirits from all over the world, so the ability to integrate them into American whiskey is exciting,” says Moix. 

And it’s not just American whiskey that is experimenting with amburana. Teeling, the undisputed hero of the Irish whiskey revival, has leaned into the lack of restrictive regulations in the country’s production rules by experimenting with nontraditional casks. “Irish whiskey, unlike Scotch, can be matured in any type of wood,” explains Teeling Master Distiller Alex Chasko, who recently introduced a 12-year-old whiskey finished in amburana. “The ability to explore other hardwoods and take the best from what the rest of the world has to offer is a key advantage,” he says. 

As brands and consumers alike continue to gravitate toward amburana, sustainability may be a sticking point. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, amburana is categorized as endangered, making it a limited resource. The main threat to the Amburana, however, comes from habitat loss in the form of land clearing for agriculture rather than harvesting for casks, so the careful cultivation of native species like amburana could actually help with reforestation efforts. “I believe [amburana casks] will remain a bit of an oddity as it has become somewhat of a rarity to find sustainably harvested ones,” explains Ireland, WhistlePig’s blender. Of course, in the spirits world, scarcity has a way of breeding demand. And the instant demand for these limited releases only reinforces their growing unicorn status. 

Though amburana might remain hard to find, as the whisk(e)y category continues to expand across the globe, the use of exotic woods is becoming common practice. Native red gum is being used to mature whiskeys in Australia, for instance, while chestnut is being explored as a way to age Irish whiskey, adding to the growing list of left-field barrel types filling warehouses from Oregon to Osaka. Even the famously staunch Scotch Whisky Association recently changed the rules to allow maturation in “nontraditional” casks such as mezcal or Calvados. 

Despite how quickly the bottles are flying off the shelves, the question of whether amburana represents a passing fad or a genuine frontier remains an open one. “Whiskey drinkers seem to really like it,” says David Othenin-Girard, spirits buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in California. “But is it a bit gimmicky? We shall see. The proof is the pudding.”

Amburana Whiskeys to Seek Out

Amburana cask whiskeys are still mostly found in American craft whiskey production, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice has shown up in South America, too, at Bolivia’s Andean Culture Distillery and Brazil’s Lamas Destilaria, to name a few. Though they can be hard to find, here are the major players worth seeking out.

WhistlePig Old World Cask Finish 100% Amburana Rye
Starting out as 12-plus-year-old whiskey from MGP, this rye is made using a mash bill of 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. Matured in new 200-liter American oak barrels with a medium to long toast and a level 3 char, WhistlePig puts a spin on it by re-racking into new amburana casks sourced from the Kentucky outpost of Speyside Cooperage. This expression is released as private barrel selections for select retail stores like The Whisky Exchange. WhistlePig has also included some amburana cask–matured whiskey in its Boss Hog VII release.

Teeling Explorers Series 12 Year Amburana Finish Irish Whiskey
Generally found only in duty-free outlets, this 12-year-old blended Irish whiskey from Teeling is first matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in new, toasted amburana casks, touting itself as “the only commercially available amburana cask–finished Irish whiskey.” Previously, Teeling also bottled a 14-year-old amburana-finished single malt as part of the Wonders of Wood series, and a 15-year-old single-cask single malt for independent Dutch bottler The Duchess.

Rare Character Straight Rye Whiskey Amburana Cask
Respected American whiskey bottler Rare Character has released several straight rye whiskeys finished in amburana wood for various retailers (as well as select bars and restaurants) in recent years. Bottled as single-cask offerings at full cask strength, these whiskeys are generally at least five years of age and have been well-received by those lucky enough to get hold of them. Look for more in the future, including the potential for other Brazilian wood types, as part of Rare Character’s Native Wood Series. 

Koval Amburana Barrel Finished Rye
Chicago distillery Koval makes its rye with a 100 percent organic rye mash bill, which has gained the distillery an international reputation for quality. The distillery’s single-cask, 100-proof amburana-finished rye was released last year and is already hard to come by, although a quick search of the web reveals a handful of bottles still floating around. Limited releases of Koval Amburana Finish will be available in select markets in the U.S. later this year, so a bottle of this coveted whiskey may be just a Google alert and a quick trigger finger away.

Tagged: update, whiskey