It’s now been one-and-half year since spirits giant Diageo announced it was launching a series of rare and limited edition American whiskeys under the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project umbrella. Initially presented as “lost” barrels stored for 10, 20 or more years in rickhouses and barrel houses around the country, the bourbons (and potentially ryes and other whiskeys) would be released, an expression at a time “under strict allocation due to limited supply.”
2014 was a great time to kick off a rare bourbon portfolio: the craze for Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23-year had elevated to stratospheric levels; New sourced and non-distiller produced (NDP) bourbons with lengthy ages (and often overly-florid “origin” stories) were coming online at a rapid pace; And interest in extra-aged American bourbon and rye was (and is) at an all-time high. Since Diageo has access (through acquisitions over the years) to several of the most coveted inventories, from defunct distilleries like Stitzel-Weller and the old Bernheim distillery, as well as stock from active producers like George Dickel and others, sourcing their own inventory made sense. Fans of George T. Stagg, Pappy Van Winkle, Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace were already well aware of the potential of some of these very old whiskeys (remember, in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana, thanks to blistering summers and frigid winters, spirits age faster than in Scotland. 10 years can be quite enough age for many American whiskeys, and anything older than about 20 is unusual indeed).
Flash forward to summer 2015, and we’ve borne witness so far to six expressions (two of Rhetoric). Strongbox, a rumored release, turns out not to be, according to a Diageo spokesperson. However, we may see a different seventh expression released before year’s end, if all goes well.
What have we learned along the way? There’s been some resistance to the brand, in part because of course, it’s not spirits company in the traditional sense. There is no Orphan Barrel distillery. Unlike other sourced whiskies—say, Bulleit or Templeton Rye)—there’s not even a visitor’s center or team-you-can-meet. So in a sense, it’s a marketing construct, taking advantage of available whiskies from abandoned projects or closed/sold distilleries (during the 80s and 90s, interest in bourbon plummeted, leaving producers with a lot of extra stock, and no buyers).
Some reviewers, bartenders and aficionados have bristled at the elaborate artwork, “authentic” old-timey names and stories surrounding the whiskies, all attempting to suggest that there’s some “there, there” in terms of company heritage. Since Diageo has a continuity link from the old United Distillers network of producers, the barrels weren’t so much “orphaned” as moved from owner to owner. Others have objected to oak-heavy, very old bourbons (normally blended in small amounts with younger stock to add character) being sold on their own for larger sums than when they were used in blends (most of the Orphan Barrel expressions top $80 or more). Bourbon author and blogger Chuck Cowdery initially was outspoken, not necessarily about the flavor profiles, but about the marketing, suggesting that if an old whiskey hadn’t sold before now, it likely wasn’t fit to sell on its own (or at the very least, wasn’t as “scarce” as the marketers have made it out to be—he’s also a vocal critic of the much-publicized bourbon “shortages”).
However, it seems whiskey fans appreciate the hooch, and more writers are coming around to accepting that, if the product seems a bit trumped up and overpriced, at least Diageo has been fairly straightforward about their goals and where they’re sourcing from (both the distillery produced in some instances, and the warehouses where it’s been recently stored). In the end, for collectors and aficionados, the series provides a rare opportunity to try very old bourbon in a world where Pappy 23 disappears quickly and sells for many hundreds or thousands of dollars.
We’ve spoken with Diageo’s “master of whiskey” (brand ambassador) Ewan Morgan on a couple of occasions about the Orphan Barrel series, and how it’s evolved in terms of presentation and expressions. Most recently we caught up with last month to talk about what seems to be an ever-increasing level of transparency and information concerning the Orphan Barrel whiskeys (based on the release of Rhetoric 21-year).
“We’re learning as we’re going along,” says Morgan. “This is a very new project. We were viewed with a mixture of suspicion and amusement among the bourbon nerds with first launch. And it’s gone from that into this voracious appetite for the next release.”
With the Rhetoric releases, in particular, Diageo and the Orphan Barrel team are nerding out in a big way, comparing the same whiskey blends (from barrels located on Floor 1 and Floor 7 (warmer, accelerated maturation, higher ABV) of the Stitzel-Weller warehouse) year-over-year.
“We know what the liquids are at the start,” says Morgan. “We wanted to do an analysis over the years. We do both quantitative and qualitative analyses. We take the notes from the tasting panels and lay that over with the hard data from the e-nose (electronic nose).” It turned out that the e-nose isolated chemicals (esters and the like) in distinctive proportions for each year’s release. Where the 20-year had notable amounts of Isoamyl Acetate and Ethyl Acetate (imparting citrus and fruit notes). The 21-year contained higher levels of Beta Damascenone and 2-Methly-1Propanol (contributing elements of tobacco and apple notes).
“With the 21-year, we’re seeing more depth of flavor with leather and tobacco notes,” says Morgan. “I don’t know that anyone’s ever gone to the minutiae of maturation like this. For us nerds, it’s great fun.”
Below, information and tasting notes on the expressions so far, in order of release:
Barterhouse 20-Year Kentucky Bourbon: Among the first of the whiskies to be distilled at the “new” high-tech Bernheim distillery (built by United Distillers in 1992), the whiskey aged for 20 years, spending at least some of that time in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses (popular now for having provided a component sourced whiskey, until recently, for the Pappy Family Reserve range). Like Old Blowhard, below, it is a “low rye,” made up mostly of corn, with 8% barley and 6% rye. Despite spending so long in oak, it is relatively “light” golden amber in color. On the nose, however, oak dominates, with notes of brown sugar, baking spices, butter cream and earth notes. On the palate, it is fairly brash but still surprisingly bright, with medium weight. It opens sweet, before moving into a slightly spicy tone on the mid palate, and finishing with a woody tang. 45.1%, $75
Old Blowhard 26-Year Kentucky Bourbon: Made at the Old Bernham distillery, stored in the old Stitzel-Weller warehouses and now bottled at the Dickel facility in Tennessee, this might be a destination whiskey for “collectors” (of unusual whiskies). Here, it’s mostly corn, with 6% rye and 8% barley for a straightforward, nutty bourbon with oak-heavy notes of chocolate, tobacco, dried and candied stone fruit, caramel and tobacco. As it sits, the chocolate and sweet-cigar notes come forward particularly distinctively. The mouthfeel is rich and bold. Fans of George T. Stagg and Buffalo Trace will appreciate the low rye style. sipping it feels like you’ve gone back in time 50 years, draining a glass of old-school bourbon in your den or a darkened corner bar. 45.35% ABV, $150
Rhetoric Kentucky Straight Bourbon 20 & 21-Year: Released in 2014 and again in 2015, Rhetoric, a blend of Old and New Bernham distillates, boasts the same mash bill as Barterhouse and Old Blowhard. But with Rhetoric, Diageo opted to release it in phases, allowing for an increasingly aged product. The first was a 20-year expression. The next batch, left in the barrels, a 21-year. There are plans to release some of the remaining stock each year, so fans can see how the whiskey changes year-on-year. On the nose, the 20-year is spicy and yeasty, with overtones of vanilla, coffee, allspice and cinnamon. On the mouth it is oily, with a sweet entry. There are notes of dark honey, vanilla, bittersweet chocolate and green peppercorn. Where the 20-year is a bit brash, the 21-year has mellowed out and the fruit and chocolate notes have come to the fore. Hints of chocolate, apple, banana and a slight pepper spice round out the vanilla and caramel notes of the 20-year. 45% ABV, $85 (20-Year) / 45.1% ABV, $100 (21-Year)
Lost Prophet 22-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon: Released in 2015, Lost Prophet represents the first “geographic expansion” of sorts for the Orphan Barrel series, drawing as it does from distillate produced in 1991at the former George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace). The mash bill is also somewhat different, running somewhere between 75 to 78% corn, 15% rye and the rest barley. It is extremely aromatic, with hints of chocolate, almond, ripe apricot and baking spice. On the mouth it is bright and spicy, as much from the wood as from the increased rye content. Notes of spice cake, oak, tobacco and leather run across the tongue, with a leathery / spicy finish that is somewhat short. 45.05% ABV, $120
Forged Oak 15-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon: The youngest of the series so far, Forged Oak was produced at the New Bernheim distillery between 1997 and 1998. It once again features a mash bill of 86% corn, 6% rye and 8% barley. Like the other whiskeys in the series so far, after Bernheim, it spent some of its aging time in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. Maple, chocolate, vanilla and cedar give the nose a rich, sweet, fruity bouquet. On the palate, earth and wood notes lead with hints of cocoa powder and currants, with a long, spicy peppery finish. This is a very pleasing whiskey, that also happens to come in at a significantly lower price point than the others in the portfolio (so far). This could be as much to do with its younger age as its availability. According to the fact sheet from Diageo, “While Forged Oak will be allocated, future releases of the whiskey are planned.” From both a flavor standpoint and a price point, it seems this is designed to be an accessible entry point for those interested in the Orphan Barrel series. 45.25% ABV, $65
Opinions vary, of course. If you’ve got the money to burn and access to the whole Orphan Barrel range, *my* opinion is that Rhetoric is the most engaging and balanced of the lot, with Forged Oak not far behind. Lost Prophet is the most aromatic, with unusual menthol-and-spice flavor notes, but the wood increasingly becomes an issue. Old Blowhard reminds me of the whiskeys my parents’ generation drank (that’s a good thing), and Barterhouse is the least dynamic of the bunch. As the project moves forward, there are hints that Diageo may include “orphan barrels” of other styles of whiskey, including perhaps Canadian and Scotch, and most certainly rye and other American whiskeys.
Collectors continue to debate if these releases are worth the hefty price tags. The reality is there are a lot of dynamic bourbons on the market (including many featuring some of the same descendent distillers, mash bills and even barrels) at far lower prices. However, the opportunity to try very old bourbons in a range of styles may be appeal enough for the collector and the adventurous bourbon drinker.
Will some of those buying these bottles be under-informed trendsters and financially secure alpha-types who regularly demand “what’s your most expensive bottle” at bars and tasting festivals? Of course. And certainly Diageo is counting on their support. But many modern fans of bourbon would also like to reach back into the archives in as many different ways as their able. Setting aside the ornate packaging and trumped up stories, these whiskeys give fans just such an opportunity.
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author’s own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author has received small review samples of each of the Orphan Barrel whiskeys thus far, and has been invited to launch events in New York City (he’s been unable to attend any yet). Author is, himself, not an orphan (yet).