Classification: Bourbon Finished in Brazilian Amburana Barrels
Company: Starlight Distillery
Distillery: Starlight Distillery
Release Date: Fall 2022 (Semiannual release)
Age: 4.5 Years
Color: Rusty Orange
MSRP: $80 (2023)
Amburana trees originate in South America largely from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru. It's a soft yellow wood that imparts a distinct taste to the beer or spirit used to age or finish with. Amburana first became known in the U.S. in the 2010s thanks to brewers' experimentation with it. Amburana reached prime time in 2018 at the Great American Beer Festival when the competition announced the winner in their Wood-Aged Beer category: Against The Grain’s 70K Amburana, a 13% ABV imperial milk stout. The brewery happens to be located in Louisville, Kentucky, where whiskey makers soon took note and the great Amburana rush was on.
With the soft porous nature of Amburana’s wood grain, it imparts its flavor quite rapidly and intensely. Starlight Distillery sources their Amburana barrels from Brazil. Depending on the season, Starlight typically ages their Cigar Batch between 6 weeks and 3 months. Amburana barrels are also slightly smaller than the typical 53 gallon American oak barrels, at 48-49 gallons. Starlight Distillery dubs their Amburana finished bourbon in the ever-growing and ever-popular “cigar batch” or “cigar blend” category. The term “cigar batch” is loosely defined as a whiskey that pairs well with a cigar. In the American whiskey space, Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend is one of the most well known examples of this type though it doesn’t use Amburana casks, and instead is a bourbon finished in armagnac, sherry, and Cognac casks.
Starlight Distillery Cigar Batch is released twice a year at the distillery, typically in the first half and then again in the second half of each year. A release generally consists of 1-3 barrel blend, totaling 250-800 bottles. Normally Starlight releases their Cigar Batch as cask strength, but decided to proof down Batch B2207 to 106 to “compliment all three barrels used.” Starlight receives their Amburana barrels as new and unused, and resuses them four times before retiring them. All three barrels used for Batch B2207 were fourth fill barrels.
A beautiful aroma elegantly reveals itself. Burnt orange rind, dates, leather, and tobacco leaf combine to create the base of the aroma. It’s deep seated and rustic, allowing the brightness of the orange rind to come through in moments of expressiveness. Mixed in are additional scents of cinnamon stick, nuts, apple, and steeped malt, creating a wide tapestry of scents. Not to be outdone with itself, fainter notes of bran, toffee, and light clover further reside creating an incredibly complex and satisfying nose that is truly one of a kind.
Baking spices, tobacco leaf, and sandalwood nuts immediately jump out before Starlight’s distinct distillate reveals itself. Coming in the form of soft baked bread, cereal grain, and young sharp oak, the flavor profile overall is extremely distinct, and in turn, demanding of the drinker. With hints of vanilla chai, honey, and milk chocolate swirled within, the ride this palate takes you on is unexpected. Its earthiness combined with its dominating tobacco leaf note won’t be for everyone, but the degree of integration and intrigue it creates cannot be understated.
The finish pivots hard to a cigar box note, with cream soda, fudge, and roasted malt mixed in for good measure. It's rustic and earthy, yet features light sweetness throughout. The finish lingers on the distinct Amburana flavor, that is equal parts wet tobacco leaf and nutty. It maintains its mild intensity and uniqueness throughout, challenging drinkers with its unfamiliar flavors. Intriguing and captivating but likely polarizing from start to finish.
With the rise in popularity of Amburana wood in the beer industry over the last 10 years, it seemed like only a matter of time before it moved into the American whiskey space. In the ever-increasing drive to find the next new finishing technique, Amburana finishing makes almost too much sense. With the dominance of tobacco-like notes throughout its flavor profile, it seems like a no-brainer pairing. At the same time, is tobacco on tobacco what cigar smokers want in a whiskey (I’m told many do), or is an Amburana finished whiskey more for whiskey drinkers looking for a stronger cigar flavor in their whiskey?
The term “cigar batch” or “cigar blend” has somehow managed to be both a vague and well-defined whiskey term at the same time. On the surface, “cigar batch” encompasses what a brand thinks would pair well with a cigar. While that would seem to limit potential buyers to those who only smoke cigars, the unplanned side effect of this naming seems to signify bold, intense, robust flavors. Where bold barrel proof bourbons used to be the OG cigar batch whiskeys with high proofs that could cut through rich tobacco, the term, along with the whiskey business itself, has evolved beyond the original limited scope. As such, comparing different brands’ cigar batches is the most apples to oranges comparison that you can probably get in American whiskey right now.
As a result, Starlight Distillery Cigar Batch is not like a whiskey you’ve ever tasted. While it features a plethora of cigar related flavor notes, there are plenty of notes that are hard to exactly define as they are so foreign to American whiskey. It’s this out-of-your-comfort-zone style of whiskey that I expect many to not fully take in their first sip and possibly become puzzled by as a result. Starlight Distillery Cigar Batch's incredibly unique flavor profile ventures into new territory and will challenge the drinker in the best of ways.
Though $80 isn’t cheap, Starlight Distillery does a lot to justify its price tag and makes a good case at why it's actually a really good value for what they offer. First and foremost, Brazil highly allocates how many Amburana barrels they allow into neighboring countries. This results in a lack of Amburana finished whiskeys on the market. Because of Starlight’s Distillery’s long history in agriculture and winemaking, their storied relationships afforded them the opportunity to procure numerous Amburana casks, resulting in the distillery being the main source of Amburana finished whiskeys in the North American market today. Comparably, a large number of various distilleries released finished whiskeys in 2022 finished in more common barrels such as wine, rum, and tequila, and they were priced from $40 to $150 or more. Considering that Starlight uses an incredibly rare barrel, Cigar Batch’s $80 price tag looks like a steal in comparison.
Second, the Amburana barrels are typically used to age rum and Avuá Amburana Cachaça, Brazil’s native spirit, before being acquired by others for additional finishing uses. Starlight however receives virgin barrels that have never been used before. First use barrels are typically a considerable cost increase for distilleries over multi-use barrels, especially imported ones. Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch also offers an Amburana finished bourbon in as close to a pure sense as possible without aging their whiskey in the barrels from the start (which isn’t an option given how rapidly they impart their influence). Although there is no way of knowing for sure how many times your bottle of Starlight Distillery Cigar Batch has used its Amburana barrel, the relative newness of the product suggests a few at best.
Finally, there aren’t many cigar blend bourbons on the market just yet. Even though it is a very different style of whiskey, the demand that Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend sees and its MSRP of $175 is more than double the cost of Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch. In today’s market, Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch is underpriced, which I don’t see staying that way for very long due to demand for Amburana barrels and cigar batch whiskey in general. Starlight does well to keep their whiskey lineup under $100, but if one of their whiskeys was to break this threshold, Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch will certainly be it.
Starlight Distillery's not-so-familiar use of Amburana barrels to finish their bourbon, results in an incredibly unique and fascinating pour.
I take a particular interest in distilleries that utilize a different type of wood to age or finish their whiskey. In a way, they offer a very pure and organic way to change or influence the flavors. Much like how French oak drastically changes how a whiskey tastes, or the many different wood species Westland is using to age their whiskeys, the end result is often a very pure, well-integrated, and completely new style of whiskey.
The distinctness of an Amburana-finished whiskey is unmistakable. While tobacco notes are abundant, there are a host of other flavors that are difficult to fully wrap your head around which are the direct result of using a new type of wood to age whiskey in. As a result, Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch is challenging and demanding of its drinker. With its layers of complexity and rustic undercurrents throughout its flavor profile, the whiskey is incredibly unique. Because of this, Amburana finished whiskeys are an acquired taste and might not ever become a shelf staple even if the the barrels were easier for distilleries to obtain.
It’s also worth calling out again how well integrated the whiskey is, as it never comes across as a bourbon that was finished, instead as an entirely new style of whiskey. While the proof might be a bit light for many looking for a high proof whiskey to pair against a cigar, for those who are simply sipping it exclusively, it is surprisingly flavorful for its proof and never ventures into the “hot” category. I don't doubt there are a lot more areas to develop and finetune Amburana finished whiskeys. As an early effort, Starlight Distillery’s Cigar Batch comes out swinging, doing its best to help define what a cigar batch can be with its challenging and complex pour.