Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Orphan Barrel removes the limits from limited production

Would you think "Orphan Barrel" means limited production? Guess again
Recently I tasted a delicious new whiskey from Diageo's new Orphan Barrel program. In theory it was distilled during the Clinton administration, which is appropriate because I had a discussion about it with three Diageo employees (two live, one online) that felt like asking Bill Clinton if he had sex with that woman.

First, the whiskey: Barterhouse is allegedly a 20-year old spirit that had been sitting in a former distillery, Stitzel-Weller, where in 1961 (says Bourbon expert Fred Minnick) the owner bragged that no chemist had worked on the whiskey. We don't need your stupid science!

Stitzel-Weller was closed in 1991 for distilling, but is still used for warehousing, which is a big deal in Bourbon country because the heat and humidity of the warehouse have a strong influence on the flavor. Barrels of whiskey get put in there that don't end up making it into the blend of Old Fitzgerald or Bulleit, and they just sit there getting older. They are "orphans."

Bourbon is trendy, although it must be noted that much of the sales growth is driven by flavored Bourbons. Nonetheless, Diageo sees an opening for a limited production Bourbon with a great backstory. So it created some of both.

The company has released two "Orphan Barrel" whiskies: 26-year-old Old Blowhard and 20-year-old Barterhouse. The Old Blowhard ($150, 45.3% ABV) is potent, rich and spicy, and would be great in a very expensive Manhattan, but for my taste it's a little too oak-driven to sip.

Barterhouse ($75, 45.1% ABV) is a surprisingly elegant, floral Bourbon, perfect for sipping. I'm not sure I've ever wanted to apply the word "pretty" to Bourbon before, but this one merits it.

Let's get back to "no science" for a moment. Minnick says because of the age, the whiskey in Old Blowhard must have been made in the old Bernheim distillery, with traditional equipment operated by hand. The whiskey in Barterhouse must have been made in the new, machine-operated and presumably soulless Bernheim facility, where they care less about the cut of a man's gib and more about the pH level of the mash, and that sort of thing. If this were a wine story, you wouldn't expect Barterhouse to be the elegant, delightful one. Yay science.

Now, here's an edited transcript of my conversation trying to find out exactly what "limited production" means, abetted by Brian Kropf of Mutineer magazine:

"How many bottles are there?"

"It's a very limited release."

"Can you put a number on that?"

"Blah blah blah a few barrels blah blah old warehouse blah blah historic blah blah Bourbon aficionados blah blah blah."

"Can you tell me how many bottles were made?"

"The Blenheim distillery blah blah blah corn mash blah blah blah and it's great to be here in San Francisco, which is the Bourbon-drinking capital of the world! Give yourselves a big round of applause!"

There was more like that. I tried to be tenacious. But Diageo PR experts are paid more to evade my questions than I'm paid to ask them.

This question wouldn't matter if it was about Bulleit: I don't care if they make a million bottles or a billion, if it tastes good and is good value (it is).

But I'm romantic and naive enough to want an Orphan Barrel to be just that, a barrel. That's the impression Diageo is trying to give. But we were told that there might actually be MORE of the Barterhouse if the first batch sells well. 'Cause, you know, these historic old warehouses just have nooks and crannies that a giant worldwide corporation that makes its money on whiskey has never bothered to look into or put into central accounting.

I chatted with a friend last week who has nine cats, Krazy Kat Lady territory, and I warned her to get them spayed and neutered, or soon she'd have 19, and then 90.

With my praise of Barterhouse, I need to add two warnings, one to consumers, and one to Diageo:

1) Consumers, your bottle of Barterhouse might not taste anything like mine.

2) Diageo, spay and neuter your barrels!

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1 comment:

Clint said...

Enjoyed the post - very accurate & comedic point on the "limited" nature of these bourbons. I was able to pick up 2 bottles of Barterhouse today, in GA, with the numbering on one bottle being 36,000 - clearly not nearly as limited as a "true" limited bourbon, such as Four Roses Ltd. Edition releases each year. I did enjoy the bourbon though- not my top choice by far, but it has an interesting profile to it.