Aberlour distillery (pronounced: ab-er-LOO-er) might well be described as Macallan with dignity. However this comparison is somewhat unfair, as Aberlour whisky is very much an individual distillery that needs no such association to affirm its great quality. While other distilleries have made much noise about...
Aberlour distillery (pronounced: ab-er-LOO-er) might well be described as Macallan with dignity. However this comparison is somewhat unfair, as Aberlour whisky is very much an individual distillery that needs no such association to affirm its great quality. While other distilleries have made much noise about exclusive sherry cask maturation and their ‘supreme quality', Aberlour has been producing some of the finest, most elegant and delicious sherry matured Speyside malts for decades. One of the gems of Scottish distilling, it is a distillery well worth taking that little bit of extra effort to get to know because it doesn't throw its marketing weight about quite as loudly as certain others, thankfully.
Stills: 2 Wash 2 Spirit Capacity: 3.5 Million Litres Water Source: Ben Rinnes Mountain Owners: Pernod Ricard
1960-1973: Great Casks and Old School Beauty
Aberlour in the 1960s was one of the larger distilleries operating in the post-war era, this was due to its expansion in 1945 making it ready for the inevitable whisky boom. Traditional production techniques were still in practice during these decades and, combined with a high usage of phenomenal casks, the whisky from this time is predictably fantastic.
The best examples are the early official bottlings of Aberlour from the 1960s through to the 1980s. These were a mix of no age, 8-year-old and 12-year-old bottlings, all in cube shaped bottles. These can still be found at auctions at relatively reasonable prices ,which is very curious as the whisky inside is utterly stunning: waxy, immensely spicy, herbaceous and minerally, with notes of Riesling, barbeque sauce, vinaigrette and oily fruit qualities.
If you can get one then go for it because they are all excellent examples of old school whisky making and most offer a glimpse of Aberlour's raw flavour as a spirit, as very few of them were overtly sherry influenced. However there was a 1964 ‘vintage' bottling from the early seventies that was fully sherry matured and is probably one of the finest examples of Aberlour in bottle anywhere. Many of these bottlings were also at higher strengths (50% was very common) and provided the inspiration for today's A'Bunadh series.
There are also several aged official bottlings from this time, many are stunningly clean, sherry matured malts, although they lack something of the power of the younger official bottlings. They are expensive these days but well worth trying if possible, they display big rounded fruit qualities with wonderful layers of rancio, tobacco leaf and tea. Great aged malts in other words.
1973-Present: Growth and Elegance
Aberlour was expanded and refitted in 1973, new condensers were installed, the stills were steam heated and fermentation techniques started to conform with the rest of the industry and the sudden fascination of commercial distiller's yeast. This meant that the immense oiliness and coal-like qualities of the distillate were tamed. In place of the old style, a much more elegant and modern expression of Aberlour started to appear. The distillate style from then on was much more focused on soft fruits, spices, and chocolate notes in the sherry expressions and in bourbon wood it became quite malty, green, aromatic and sweet.
Nowadays Aberlour manages to remain one of the few major distilleries with a concise and reasonably consistent core range that is not dogged by excessive pricing, silly wood enhancements or overly pompous marketing. The 10, 12 and 16-year-old bottlings are all well crafted, sherry driven examples of Aberlour's wonderful house style that seems to balance the taught richness of heavy sherry with a lively freshness that keeps them complex and interesting. The 18-year-old is the only widely available aged expression for now and it is excellent, if a little sweeter than the other expressions.
There are also the legendary A'Bunadh bottlings. These are cask strength, NAS, small batch bottlings of Aberlour matured solely in fresh sherry casks. They are extremely powerful bottlings that reveal intense notes of spice, dark chocolate and stewed fruits. They are also good value and offer a style of whisky that is certainly an acquired taste, but if you like big and bouncy sherry then A'Bunadh delivers plenty.
A'bunadh's success has greatly enhanced Aberlour's profile among malt fans, and most of the core range is now bottled in the squat, dumpy bottles that A'bunadh first appeared in. The A'bunadh series has now also spawned a couple of spinoffs, Casg Annamh - a mix of ex-bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks - and the US-only A'bunadh Alba. Aberlour's core range also now includes a 14-year-old and occasional small batch vintage White Oak releases that are exclusively bourbon-matured.
In September 2020 Aberlour received planning permission for a large scale distillery rebuild and expansion, which includes full redevelopment of the production area including the mash room, the tun room and the still house. Precise details of Aberlour's expansion are not known at the time of writing, but plans of the forthcoming new still house appear to show eight stills, which would double the distillery's capacity.
So long as Aberlour is able to maintain its supplies of good quality wood and its healthily simplistic approach to its product range and pricing then it should be able to remain a whisky of great quality and popularity.