Aberlour A’bunadh Batch No.53.
These days, anyone who is into whisky understands what’s meant by the term ‘sherry bomb’. It describes a rich, often dry whisky that’s full of spices and depth, usually matured exclusively (or at least extensively) in ex-sherry casks of some kind. However, there is one bottling series that perhaps helped propel this term and flavour profile into the wider whisky community more than any other: the A’bunadh series from Aberlour Distillery.
Now celebrating its ‘Silver Jubilee’, marking 25 years since it first became available on the market in 1997, A’bunadh undoubtedly still reigns supreme amongst sherry bomb fans. Importantly, this year’s quarter-century landmark coincides with the distillery’s reacquisition of a rare and complete vertical collection of every A’bunadh ever released over the years, some of which were opened and shared at a special tasting at the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival 2022.
The A’bunadh name is derived from the Gaelic bunadh – meaning origin, stock, root, or foundation. Matured exclusively in first-fill oloroso sherry casks, it honours Aberlour’s use of sherry wood across all its whiskies to create the distillery’s distinctive overall profile. The whisky itself is released in batches, with small variations in aroma and flavour across each vatting.
Aberlour master distiller Graeme Cruickshank describes how A’bunadh was regarded as a curiosity at the time of its launch: “It was a pioneer in the late 1990s. There was nothing like it: first fill, cask strength, non chill-filtered, and in small-batch releases.”
These concepts and core values of boutique production might be readily embraced by whisky fans today, but this was rare to see 25 years ago. Unsurprisingly, these credentials helped A’bunadh to develop a cult following that has since grown into a loyal fan base. Today, shops are now stocking (and selling out of) batch 71.
Releasing the whisky in batches, without any age statement, provides A’bunadh with unusual flexibility. As a no age statement (NAS) whisky, there is no need to worry about using stock of a particular age. Furthermore, the release of each new batch leads to excitement about the latest A’bunadh’s flavour profiles. The whisky stays at the forefront of these conversations, and each new batch is eagerly reviewed and compared. As a result, Aberlour walks a tightrope between two contrasting production philosophies: on one hand, the brand – and by extension, the taste profile – must remain consistent and recognisable across all releases, yet, on the other hand, there should be a recognisable difference across each A’bunadh to justify the very concept of batch releases.
Aberlour master distiller Graeme Cruickshank
While vatting gives the distillery some measure of control over the flavour profile, not every cask originally earmarked for A’bunadh reaches the bottle. A cask set aside a decade ago might not fit the profile when sampled, and it may be redirected for a core-range whisky instead. This hands-on production process also means bottle quantities often differ from batch to batch. Cruickshank characterises his relationship with A’bunadh as his ‘custodianship’ of the series, which he inherited from his predecessor, Douglas Cruikshank (no relation). “I knew the standard that was set before me and knew, ultimately, that when I picked up that baton I couldn’t let any standards slip” he says.
“We’re not going to sacrifice on quality. If we’ve laid down stocks for the next batch of A’bunadh and only 85 per cent of those casks in that run meet the mark, then that will be the batch size.”
A’bunadh’s longevity was something difficult to predict back in 1997, and complete vertical collections covering every batch are incredibly rare. In a fateful coincidence with the 25th anniversary of this series, just such a collection – the first of its kind to come to market – came to the attention of private broker and whisky advisor Mark Littler in early 2021.
Despite the various batch numbers and the limited quantities in which they are produced, the long-term continuity and sheer scale of the series have so far ensured that A’bunadh bottlings are not generally considered to be collectibles. A’bunadh is, as Littler describes, a “drinker’s whisky”, making the task of selling the collection a daunting one, especially if it was going overseas: “The biggest barrier was cost of transport – you’ve got 66 bottles and then you’ve got 66 cartons – the cost of shipping it was just overwhelming.”
However, the Aberlour Distillery itself made the successful offer, seeing the series rightfully returned to its birthplace. Littler, who is as interested in the history behind the bottles as much as the liquid inside them, took the opportunity to look through the various batches over the years and document their differences. For example, the first five batches weren’t actually numbered, having no unique identifiers until batch six, and the tubes in which they are offered today replaced boxes from batch 32 onwards. Fans of the series will know that there is no numbered batch 43 – it is instead marked as ‘AHC special batch’. This odd blip in production seems to be due to the entire batch being brought out for a private event and initialled for the occasion. As this is considered the honorary batch 43, the series then continues with batch 44 up until the present day’s batch 71.
The Aberlour team welcome the collection of A’bunadh bottles home at the distillery visitor centre.
There are further curiosities in the collection: a Millennium edition, one of 2,000 bottles, is the only A’bunadh with an official age statement (12 Years Old), with the label marked upon a silver plaque. However, there are 37 bottles containing the same liquid that have a paper label instead. The collection Littler sent to the distillery contains both examples.
Of course, fans of the series may be more interested in the liquid inside the bottles and what the distillery has planned for them. For the 2022 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Aberlour hosted an event that saw the collection opened for the first time. Cruikshank described what was in store for the lucky ticket holders: “We’re going right back to batch 1, then over to the Millennium edition, then it’ll be batch 34, then batch 53 (because that was my first [as master distiller]), and we’ll finish up with batch 71.”
Despite the rarity of the collection, the distillery seems to be resisting the temptation to display and preserve, opting instead to open these bottles to the public – keeping the notion of a ‘drinker’s whisky’ strongly associated with the series.
A’bunadh’s relative affordability compared to many other cask strength and limited-edition releases of similar profile helped make it a whisky enthusiast’s staple. After first entering the market at £36 per 70cl bottle, more recent releases were priced at £60 before a recent increase that saw others priced just under £80.Though there is now a lot more competition in this category, other ‘sherry bomb’ profiles on the market today have a long way to go before they catch up to the lineage of the A’bunadh.
“This series has been going 25 years – through thick and thin, hell and high water, and it’s survived.”, Littler reflects, looking back on this historic sale of the collection back to the distillery. “There’s a reason why it’s survived: clearly, it’s profitable for its producers, and why is it profitable for its producers? Because the public love it! It must be one of the first ongoing series that was based on a profile decision in terms of cask strength, natural colour, sherry dominant profile, that has been released and re-released.”
In many ways, this profile decision foresaw the direction of the market. The small and loyal fan base that was there from the beginning expanded over the years to become a staple of the whisky community – and long may it continue. Here’s to the next 25 years.
The full collection in all its glory.Words
Paul Archibald & Felipe Schrieberg