Whisky Advocate

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project

January 29th, 2014

John HansellBack in late November, the whiskey media received news from Diageo of the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project, a new series of old and rare limited-edition whiskeys from their warehouses. It’s something we’ve seen from Diageo before, but these are American whiskeys, not Scotch or Irish.

Many of you are aware that Diageo owns and operates the George Dickel distillery in Tennessee. They do not, however, own an operating bourbon distillery.  They own the Bulleit brand, but it’s an open secret that Bulleit bourbon has been produced at the Four Roses distillery in Kentucky; Bulleit Rye is sourced from MGP in Indiana.

Old Blowhard Lo ResBut Diageo does own the Stitzel-Weller distillery (mothballed around 1992), where they have stocks of bourbon aging, some distilled at Stitzel-Weller and some from other distilleries. They also once owned the existing Bernheim distillery (from around 1992 to 1999, when they sold it to Heaven Hill) and a different, older Bernheim distillery (theirs into the late 1980s).

So, in theory, future Orphan Barrel whiskey releases could be sourced from a number of operating and mothballed/demolished distilleries, including Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim (current and older), Dickel, Four Roses, MGP, or their Gimli, Manitoba distillery where Crown Royal is produced. There might even be some additional sources that I have omitted, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, let’s leave it at that.

The first three releases, all bourbons, are about to hit the shelves. The press release states that they were bottled at the Dickel distillery, but they weren’t made there. These won’t be the only three releases; at least, this is Diageo’s thinking at present. The two that were mentioned in the November release (Barterhouse and Old Blowhard) are being released first. A third one, tentatively called Rhetoric, will follow on a month or two later. These bourbons will only be sold in the U.S.

I recently had the opportunity to taste all three (along with another separate new Diageo bourbon release called Blade & Bow). All three Orphan Barrel bourbons have identical mashbills: 86% corn, 6% rye, and 8% barley. Whiskey geeks reading this will identify this as the formula from whiskey made at the Bernheim distilleries.

The youngest of the three is Rhetoric, clocking in at 19 years, followed by Barterhouse at 20 years and Old Blowhard at 26. If you do the math, you will discover that Old Blowhard was actually produced at the old Bernheim distillery. This is from the last remaining stocks. There will be no more Old Blowhard releases, according to Diageo. The suggested retail price of $150 is great when compared to other older bourbons and ryes these days—especially from mothballed and demolished distilleries. (Think Pappy Van Winkle and Stitzel-Weller.)Barterhouse Bottle Lo Res

Barterhouse is from the existing Bernheim distillery. My sources at Diageo say there might be another batch release of Barterhouse, and perhaps Rhetoric, down the road. Barterhouse, at a suggested retail price of $75, is also very attractively priced, considering its age.

But how do they taste? My informal tasting notes are below. Because they are informal, and not official Whisky Advocate reviews, I have not assigned a rating to them yet. This will come at a later date and eventually be published in the magazine.

There’s a sliding scale in flavor profile, with the Barterhouse being the sweetest of the three, Old Blowhard brandishing the most dry oak influence, and Rhetoric somewhere in the middle. I list them in that order, not by age.

Barterhouse 20 year old, 45.1%, $75

Surprisingly lacking in oak intensity, given its age. Very creamy and soothingly sweet, with notes of honeyed vanilla, crème brûlée, sultana, orange creamsicle, peach cobbler, and a subtle array of tropical fruit. Soft and mellow on the finish. It’s very easy-drinking and should be enjoyable under most moods and circumstances. Very nice indeed!

“Rhetoric” 19 year old, 45%, $TBD

Situated between Barterhouse and Old Blowhard in oak influence (and flavor profile in general). Firm spice, botanicals, and dried fruit delivered on a bed of caramel. There’s a kiss of honey to marry with the resinous oak grip, with polished leather and a hint of tobacco on the finish. This whiskey does indeed show its age with the oak presence (much more than Barterhouse), but the sweet notes make a valiant effort to keep the wood influence in check.

Old Blowhard 26 year old, 45.35%, $150

Old Blowhard indeed. The most intense of the three Orphan Barrel releases.  Very robust, with leather, tobacco, and roasted nuts. Quite spicy and resinous too. There’s toffee, maple syrup, and caramel struggling to sooth all this robustness, but the oak maintains the upper hand, I’m afraid.  A digestif, perhaps, after a large meal? Unless you are purchasing for a piece of bourbon history, my advice would be to try it before you buy, as it is very woody.

I did not take notes on the new Blade & Bow offering, but this is a younger, more standard offering that will be a regular stock item, bottled at 45% and sold for around $40. I did not ask the source.

In summary, my favorite of the three Orphan Barrel releases is Barterhouse. It’s very versatile, and the price is right for a 20 year old bourbon. Having said this, you may prefer Rhetoric when it comes out if you like more oak in your bourbon. It was my wife’s favorite. Old Blowhard is the rarest of the bunch, but whether you like it or not will largely depend on your oak tolerance. It’s my least favorite of the three, quite woody, and the most expensive.

45 Responses to “Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project”

  1. JeremyE says:

    These sound like they’re worth looking for. I hope I can find them out here in Chicagoland. It seems like it’s difficult to get educated about American whiskey. Everything seems to be distilled everywhere else except where it’s actually bottled and they tend to be “hand crafted, small batch,” a statement I’m starting to become immune to. At the risk of giving the teacher too many apples, I have to say I really appreciate the information you are able to bring to the table on American whiskey and bourbon. Knowing a little more about these makes them sound far more interesting.

    • John Hansell says:

      Happy to help.

    • todds says:

      Jeremy, i found several cases in the rare spirits case of the binnys up on n clark back on mar 1st. guy said it was going fast. i’ve since found a couple more bottles down in Indy that i picked up and tucked away. I love the Barterhouse. Good luck if you havent found any yet.

  2. Martin says:

    @JeremyE- if you are looking for further education on American whiskeys, Fountainhead in Chicago will be conducting 10 classes on the topic with Chuck Cowdery starting in February. Each class will focus on the history & spirits of the major distilleries, as well as some of the emerging craft whiskeys. The classes will be $30 each.

    John, thanks for the info. Great, as always!

  3. Jeff says:

    I noticed the labels read “kentucky bourbon,” with no mention of “straight.” Why woudl they leave out “straight,” since they obviously meet the age requirement?

  4. Wade Woodard says:

    Any idea why these are TTB class type 141 vs. 101? (Bourbon vs. Straight Bourbon)?

    • John Hansell says:

      Wade (and Jeff): I don’t know. I will ask. If I get answers, I’ll provide them. (Or maybe we can get Diageo to respond.)

  5. John Hansell says:

    Some additional information. It’s quite possible that these whiskeys were meant for the Old Charter brand, but I could not get confirmation from Diageo.

    Also, given the price points on these whiskeys, I expect these to be snapped up rather quickly and flipped in the secondary markets. Yes, it sucks, but this is the sign of the times, I’m afraid.

    • Jason Beatty says:

      Count on these being available at a few select restaurants and bars beginning in March/April… The way to counteract the flipping.

  6. Dan Z. says:

    Any word on what number of bottles they plan to release or if they plan to provide more information about the sources of the whiskeys in this program, now and for future releases?

    • John Hansell says:

      I was given an approximate number of bottles, but let me get some firm numbers and report back.

    • Jason Beatty says:

      I was told that Diageo has MANY barrels at Stitzel-Weller. This themed bourbon will go on for quite awhile. The only question I have is if it’s good? For instance, the latter part of SW years resulted in some musty corn making its way into still, and there were some barrels I have tried that were’nt all that.

  7. John Hansell says:

    Diageo’s official response to some of your questions:

    “We don’t typically release the exact amount but we can say that it is limited and will certainly vary per label.

    As for your question on the label. Barterhouse, Old Blowhard and Rhetoric are all indeed “Straight”. Because of the timing of our launch and the process needed to make that distinction, we kept it off the label for the first run, but it may still be included down the road.”

  8. Lew Bryson says:

    Ringing in a discussion I’m having in Twitter, I think that consumers — especially those new to whiskey/whisky — really don’t have a clue on what terms like “straight,” “bottled in bond,” “blended malt,” or even “blend” mean. We do what we can to educate them, but at the same time, I wonder if the producers are necessarily that interested in educating the public on something that perhaps doesn’t directly benefit their brand. I think that when I see labels with “fanciful names” in very large type and “straight bourbon whiskey” in very small type at the bottom of the label.

  9. DanH says:

    Thanks, very useful information to have. Obviously the elephant in the room is what and when will the bottle with the SW juice be released and at what age? Will this continue to be a mystery as with most things SW, or will they be more forthcoming?
    Keep up the good work with getting us useful info!

  10. Wade Woodard says:

    Lew – I agree that those new to whiskey don’t have a clue about what distinguishes a straight bourbon from a bourbon. But these are targeted at enthusiasts, who probably do know.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      I’m…not so sure these are targeted exclusively at enthusiasts. They’re obviously quite attractive to enthusiasts, but it’s not demand from enthusiasts that’s been driving up the price of PVW and other old/rare bourbons so steeply in the past 12 months. There are a lot of new customers, people who are new to the category and see these “expensive” bourbons as relatively cheap compared to rare, old Scotch whiskies, and have the money to buy them.
      Which is, I believe, ultimately a bigger issue than whether they know what “straight” whiskey is. They’re out there with fat wallets and heads full of mainstream press hype, and they’re changing the whiskey market.

      • Wade Woodard says:

        Lew – my wallet has loved those new to bourbon game folks but at same time I hate them for for making current allocated bottles so hard to find.

        • Lew Bryson says:

          Buckle up, Wade: it’s only going to get worse! That’s what my next column is about in Whisky Advocate: what this is doing to American whiskey prices, and what the endgame might look like. We need to get these people drinking 8 year old, ASAP.

  11. Dean Elston says:

    Great information! Thanks, John!

  12. Jason Weaver says:

    Do we know when Barterhouse and Old Blowhard will be released to stores?

    • John Hansell says:

      It varies by state, of course, but I believe the whiskeys were going to start getting into circulation this month.

  13. DonovanF says:

    @Lew Will you also be touching on the current export explosion of American Whiskey also taking a toll on what’s available to us in the US? It’s frustrating. Equally frustrating are the “flippers” that cherry pick what little we do get allocated to us then turn around and sell those to the overseas market as well, for a nice profit. At least the “pink hat” bourbon drinkers that are buying into the hype are consuming here in the US. What’s worse is staple brands like Blanton’s, Eagle Rare and Elmer T Lee supplies are starting to dry up. Fortunately, Old Weller 107 is still a bargain for what it delivers.

  14. Mike e says:

    Just picked up the barterhouse in western New York

  15. Dan says:

    How much did you buy it for?

  16. Andy says:

    Got 2 bottles of Old Blowhard today here in Colorado. Picking up 1 of Barterhouse tomorrow at another Denver-area shop. Paid $159 per bottle for the OBH, but get 10% off thanks to my continued patronage to my local shop.

    • Andy says:

      Ended up with all 6 bottles of Blowhard and the last 4 Barterhouses in town thanks to my wife (birthday last week)! Haven’t tried the Barterhouse, but have already gone 2″ deep into the first bottle of Blowhard. Very nice!

  17. Jose says:

    Picked a bottle of each. My liquor store still has one bottle of barterhouse I’m thinking about just getting so I can taste. I doubt I’ll drink the OBH since it’s only one time release. I hope it will appreciate in value in years to come. This was in san Antonio tx.

  18. Brian says:

    So found a btl of barterhouse in upstate ny for retail but question is how limited is it? My btl number is 29086. What was the production on these?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      See John’s comment above, Brian: He quotes a Diageo “official response” as “We don’t typically release the exact amount but we can say that it is limited and will certainly vary per label.”

  19. Jose says:

    Well many liquor stores around the country are saying old blowhard is a one time release only. I can see barterhouse maybe enjoying 2-3 releases mmaybe?

  20. Charlie Barrale says:

    Just picked up a bottle of Old Blowhard and I’m pretty excited. I started reading about this last month and was waiting for the release. I’m fairly new to bourbon drinking and collecting. Not sure if I should crack this open or save it. Any suggestions? Any St. Louisians looking for it…friar tucks in Crestwood has a couple bottles they just put on the shelves today at 159.00 or 175 after tax.

  21. John, any idea of a street date for Rhetoric. The first two releases went screaming out the door at my local liquor super store. I was able to get a Barterhouse, but would like to get another in series for my collection

  22. Josh says:

    Everything, by definition, is “limited” so when a company like Diageo makes that claim for anything without a specific number, or even a ballpark, then all bets are off.

  23. Jason Holmes says:

    Sure would be cool if subsequent releases of Barterhouse included “straight bourbon” on the label to distinguish it from the 1st release.

  24. Steve Coomes says:

    John, your Old Blowhard experience mirrors mine. I tasted it a few weeks ago and just thought it dominated my palate. I’m a fan of “punch in the face” flavors, but this was like an old Cabernet that just commanded–no demanded–the attention of every available tastebud and olfactory sensor. Sure, I enjoyed it and felt privileged to try it, but I’m not rushing to spend $150 on it.

  25. SamSneed says:

    I just bought a bottle at my local liquor store for $84. It is not worth the money. I would rather have Bulleit for $24, Blantons for $45 or Pappy for that price. This bottle should be priced around $25, it is not worth much more than that. They are selling a story and making it seem like they discovered these lost barrels and it is a limited supply when in reality it taste like Evan Williams in a nice bottle. I poured two drinks out of this bottle neat and would like a refund.

  26. SamSneed says:

    Also if anyone said that they enjoyed this bourbon and that it is worth the money you can bet that they have no clue what good bourbon taste like.

  27. Wayne Parker says:

    Soon to arrive in Va ABC stores. Any update as to rating would be appreciated. Old Blowhard & Barterhouse are listed & priced as you quoted; $150 & $75. No news on Rhetoric…

  28. Jorge says:

    Anyone know where I can get my hands on a Barterhouse Bottle in the Miami, Fl area. Been calling around with no luck

  29. Ken says:

    John, any word yet on bottle count? With a large supply of both still sitting on shelves in Chicago, I’m skeptical that the bottle count on these could really be considered a typical “limited” release (although as someone else has pointed out, there’s of coursenot an unlimited supply). My wild guess puts the bottle count well north of 25,000 for each, any thoughts?

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