A Mysterious Bourbon from Orphan Barrel
Earlier this month, we reviewed an obscure whiskey with murky origins. The Hirsch Special Reserve Twenty Year Old was a tasty showcase of how barrel stock can change hands and how bottling neglected ageing whiskey can become a successful business. Several companies have pursued this strategy on both sides of the Atlantic, and one of our relatives recently gave us a bottle produced by one of the largest spirit producers around. Diageo manages several bourbon brands, and as you would expect with the often tumultuous history of the industry, sometimes barrel stock can be left behind when distilleries are sold or closed off. With the Orphan Barrel brand, Diageo has been bottling and selling stocks of very old bourbon that it has accumulated.
Orphan Barrel is an exciting concept. The brand seeks to find rare barrels tucked away and or neglected in warehouses and bring the unique whiskey to market. Currently, Orphan Barrel has five different expressions: Barterhouse, Forged Oak, Lost Prophet, The Gifted Horse, and Rhetoric (the bottle we were gifted). The nature of the whiskey is a bit of a mystery, and this was a point of criticism in some articles we have read. We had a tough time digging into the origin of our bottle, but ultimately we found that much of the current Orphan Barrel line of whiskeys was distilled in Kentucky at facilities that changed hands many times in the last 30 years (the Bernheim distillery for those keeping score). Orphan Barrel (Diageo) purchased ageing barrel stock that new owners of the facilities left behind. This whiskey aged in some historic warehouses for over two decades and is now being bottled. On the Orphan Barrel website you can find many references to the company’s barrels resting in the Stitzel-Weller warehouse (noted for producing Pappy Van Winkle among other brands).
Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 23 Year Old
Rhetoric is a true bourbon. Our bottle, aged 23 years, was the 4th bottle released in the Rhetoric series, which began with a 20 year old and will eventually culminate in the release of a 25 year old. The entire Orphan Barrel series features an elaborate bottle design, with an embossed scripted label on a uniquely shaped rectangular bottle. With an intriguing story, clever marketing, and a storied lineage, Rhetoric is compelling. Let’s dive into see if the bourbon matches the complex narrative.
On the Eyes: Rhetoric pours the color of deep, pure maple syrup. The whiskey has very rich legs in the glass, which we’d expect from a 23 year, oak-aged spirit.
On the Nose: The first aromas we picked up were strong echoes of dry leather and sawdust. We recently visited Florence and had a chance to go to leather working school, and this bourbon was reminiscent of the artisans’ workshop. We also picked up some harsher acetone notes mixed with sweeter floral notes underneath all the wood and tannin.
To the Taste: At first we tasted a lot of cinnamon spice and heat. Rhetoric was fairly dry tasting, and the center of the palette featured a mix of fresh buttered corn and a lot of oak and leather.
And the Finish: The finish was quick but complex, with notes of tart cherry and stone fruit flavor that lingered lightly.
We found Rhetoric to be a complex whiskey with a fascinating backstory. At the same time, 23 years is a lot of time in the oak. This bourbon takes ageing to the near limits of approachability, and while it is complex it is also a departure from a classic bourbon flavor profile. We’ve been reading a great deal about bourbon this month, and many enthusiasts seem to coalesce around the opinion that a bourbon maxes out flavor balance between 12 and 15 years. While Rhetoric may not live up the lofty narrative Orphan Barrel is selling, the whiskey is an intriguing experiment in ageing and offers yet another perspective on bourbon.