Hard Truth Vs. Penelope Rio: Which Amburana Whiskey Is Best? (2024)

Hard Truth Vs. Penelope Rio: Which Amburana Whiskey Is Best? (1)

Which of these whiskeys most skillfully uses the contentious Amburana cask?

No cask is more polarizing among whiskey enthusiasts than those made from Amburana, a tree native to South America and most common in Brazil. Amburana was a red-hot trend in whiskey in 2022 and particularly 2023, when it truly blew up.

Many love Amburana casks for the distinctively sweet flavors they impart upon whiskeys aged in them. While it’s hard to compare that special Amburana flavor to anything, tasting note most commonly associated with Amburana is a potent cinnamon. Some thoroughly enjoy Amburana-finished whiskeys, while others find the flavor overpowering and detracting from the taste of the whiskey.

One Reddit user described an Amburana-finished expression from Starlight Distillery in a way that sums up many drinkers’ opinion perfectly: “…although I liked it, it didn’t really taste like whiskey to me and I don’t know how much I could drink. It comes off like a flavored whiskey that tastes like a cinnamon roll with some smokiness.”

Whether or not you’re a fan of this contentious wood, one universal truth holds: Some Amburana-finished whiskeys are better than others. After all, the cask finish is merely one factor, not the end-all-be-all.

In this article, we’re going to compare and contrast two particularly interesting whiskeys. Both incorporate Amburana, yet they’re starkly different and unique.

One of these whiskeys is rabidly popular and hardly ever found on shelves in the wild: Penelope Rio. The other is a new competitor, released in late March by an extremely under-the-radar whiskey brand, Hard Truth.

About Penelope Rio

Hard Truth Vs. Penelope Rio: Which Amburana Whiskey Is Best? (2)

Read Our Review

Penelope Rio debuted in 2023, amid the Amburana craze and shortly after Penelope was acquired by MGP Ingredients. In an interesting twist, Penelope opted to finish Rio in not only Amburana but also in honey casks, adding a distinct tertiary cask. Upon its release, Rio received largely positive reception, with Breaking Bourbon dubbing it “unexpectedly wonderful” and Whisky Advocate calling it “Playful, simple, and delicious.”

As expected of an Amburana-finished whiskey, however, Rio was polarizing. In a review titled “Penelope’s New Bourbon Shows Why We Need to Stop Finishing Whiskey in Amburana Wood,” Robb Report wrote that the unpleasant Amburana flavor “bullies the whiskey’s inherent flavors away.”

Still, Rio certainly had an audience, and because of how slim its release run was, many who were hoping to taste it never got a chance to do so. Good news struck for that segment of whiskey drinkers in March of this year, when Penelope announced a second run of Rio would be hitting shelves.

The 2024 release was larger than the initial drop with an allocation of 5,000 cases, giving more drinkers a chance to taste this rare bottle.

Distilled from a mashbill of 74% corn, 16% wheat, 7% rye and 3% malted barley, Penelope Rio is bottled at 98 proof. It has a suggested retail price of $89.99, but realistically speaking, you’ll be lucky to find this bottle in the wild for less than $200.

About Hard Truth Distilling Farmer’s Reserve

Hard Truth Vs. Penelope Rio: Which Amburana Whiskey Is Best? (3)

Read Our Review

Farmer’s Reserve is the second in a collaboration between the Indiana-based Hard Truth Distilling Co. and Mellencamp Whiskey Co., which was co-founded by Hud Mellencamp, the son of the famous American singer-songwriter, John Mellencamp. Each bottle in the series is decorated with artwork by John Mellencamp.

This whiskey is a blend of Hard Truth’s Chocolate Malt Rye and Sweet Mash Bourbon. The blend is rested on toasted amburana before being bottled at 106 proof.

Farmer’s Reserve has a suggested retail price of $69.99. The limited release went up for sale online at Seelbach’s but has since sold out.

Taste Test: Hard Truth Farmer’s Reserve Vs. Penelope Rio

When tasting these whiskeys side by side, their differences leap out much more than any similarities. When you lift the glass of Rio toward your nose, sweet amburana and honey smack you over the head, with lots of honey, praline and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s an incredibly rich and waxy nose. The Farmer’s Reserve is more subtle, with sweet aromas full of custard, pecan pie, dark chocolate and ginger, plus a light minerality. It doesn’t approach the richness of Rio, but it’s more balanced, with more going on. The bourbon and rye work together in the blend to add complexity.

On the palate, Rio is heavy on the Amburana, which drives the car a touch more than I’d like it to. The honey is very prominent as well, and the two cask finishes interact nicely together — as long as you’re in the mood for something crazy sweet. Gobs of honey erupt on the palate, joined by Honeycrisp apples, almond extract and a kiss of cappuccino.

Farmer’s Reserve is much less sweet, with a warm, spice-laden palate. That Amburana Cinnamon Toast Crunch character is joined by chocolate shavings, some cracked pepper, a nice hit of oak, some lovely peppermint from the rye and a little bit of a caramel apple character, with some Granny Smith-esque acidity popping out amid the sweetness. The minerality from the nose returns on the palate, but it’s light and inoffensive — it works. The Amburana is impressively contained here; it’s utilized expertly. This pour has much more of a dark chocolate/mocha bittersweet character as opposed to the all-out onslaught of sweetness that Rio presents.

Penelope Rio’s finish is wildly long, hanging around seemingly forever with tons of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and gingerbread. Farmer’s Reserve finishes very differently. The rye is in control at the start of the finish, delivering mint, cinnamon and clove. The long finish continues with modest Amburana, lovely chocolate cake and oak.

The Verdict

Hard Truth Distilling’s Farmer’s Reserve is an expertly crafted rockstar from head to toe. It’s more of an everyday drinker than Rio; it can serve as a special-occasion pour, and it would be a delightful holiday dram, but it’s also not so sweet to the point that you’d struggle to sip it on an everyday basis.

Penelope Rio, on the other hand, is not a daily sipper for most drinkers. This is an incredibly rich whiskey, and you need to be in the right mood to drink it. It’s a dessert pour through and through and requires a major sweet tooth.

These whiskeys are both great examples of spirits that properly utilize and balance Amburana, but Hard Truth’s use of rye in the blend makes it a more interesting, versatile pour.

Penelope went a different route, opting for a barrage of sweetness, with a sweet spirit (bourbon) finished in two sweet casks. And that’s not necessarily a knock. Penelope was going for something entirely different than Hard Truth was, and it did a great job of delivering a delicious, rich bourbon for the sweet-toothers out there who clamor for it. There is undeniably a large sect of drinkers who will love this bottle.

Overall, though, I find Hard Truth’s approach more interesting, and Hard Truth Farmer’s Reserve is the winner for me over Penelope Rio. Its use of the Amburana is impressively restrained. You walk an incredibly fine line when you choose to finish a whiskey in Amburana, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better example of doing Amburana right than this bottling from Hard Truth and Mellencamp Whiskey.

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Hard Truth Vs. Penelope Rio: Which Amburana Whiskey Is Best? (2024)
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