Back 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.
But 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 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.