When a whiskey producer puts their whiskey in a barrel, they are making an informed bet. They are betting that what will come out of that barrel will be a whiskey that matches the flavor and character profile of their product line and that the whiskey will age “as expected”. Distillers have a deep understanding of the journey that whiskey takes in a barrel through its aging process, what stages it goes through, and what destination it should reach. The problem, of course, is that even though we understand how aging works, it’s not something that can be tightly controlled. Two barrels of whiskey distilled from the same mash, on the same day, on the same run, aged right next to each other, in the same row of the same rackhouse can age completely differently. Sometimes this difference is so extreme that the barrel isn’t usable by that distiller, and so he sells it.
At any given time, there are millions of barrels of whiskey aging in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Scotland. At the same time, there can be thousands of barrels for sale on the open market. If someone buys this whiskey and then bottles it, it’s considered “merchant whiskey”. This category of whiskey has been dicey over the years with a number of notable companies not disclosing that the whiskey they are releasing was produced elsewhere. Although there are some bad apples in the merchant whiskey bunch, there are a number of examples of companies who have mastered the merchant whiskey space. The most notable is Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, whose Willet, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Johnny Drum have helped set the standard for the space. Recently, Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey line has also helped moved merchant whiskey further into the mainstream (although they had acquired companies and not just barrels) and shown that consumers are willing to buy whiskey with brands that don’t reflect where they are made.
The Barrell Bourbon Company is a relatively new merchant whiskey company focused on delivering different barrel strength whiskeys from a variety of sources. To date, the Barrell Bourbon Company has released three batches. Due to the nature of merchant whiskey, the exact source and age of the whiskey isn’t disclosed, although the state it’s from is. The Barrell Bourbon site breaks down the mash bill for each of its releases.
Barrell Bourbon Batch #1: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (121.6 proof / 60.8% ABV, $84.99) – This single barrel whiskey was distilled in Tennessee, although it is NOT a Tennessee-style whiskey. It was aged in Kentucky for 5 years and is bottled at cask strength. It’s mash bill is 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% malted barley. Although it’s a cask strength whiskey, you wouldn’t know it from the nose, which is aromatic and balanced without being aggressive or edgy. The nose is a beautiful blend of charred oak, cinnamon, caramel, marzipan, green apple, and black cherry. The presentation of the oak on the nose is spot on and is another compelling argument that 5-7 years is really the sweet spot for bourbon.
The entry for Barrell Bourbon Batch 1 is flavorful and lush with cinnamon and caramel leading things off. As with the nose, the strength of this whiskey isn’t immediately apparent on the entry. The mouthfeel of the entry is also exquisite. As we move to the midpalate, the oak spice begins to really emerge and is joined by allspice and cherry. As the spice and oak intensify, the mouthfeel transitions from lush to more dry. It does this without losing balance. The integration in the midpalate is exquisite as the oak and cinnamon combine in perfect harmony and are well supported by the accompanying spice. It’s also in the midpalate that we really get the heat from the underlining proof of this whiskey. This dash of heat helps drive a medium dry finish which spotlights the oak and cinnamon spice with a touch of brown sugar.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 1 really started things off with a bang with a whiskey that captures some of the best of this style and age. 93 points.
Barrell Bourbon Batch #2: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (117.8 proof / 58.9% ABV, $84.99) – As with Batch #1, this batch was distilled in Tennessee with the same mash bill ratio. It was aged 5 years, although where it was aged isn’t disclosed. Even though it shares the same mash bill and age with Batch 1, the nose on this second batch is decidedly different. While there’s still solid oak and marzipan, here it’s more vanilla than caramel, and orange peel rather than cherry.
Although the nose for Batch 2 seems lighter, the whiskey is every bit as lush on the palate as Batch 1. The entry for batch 2 has that “oooooh this is good!” mouthfeel that’s well balanced and lush without being oily. In the entry it’s vanilla, brown sugar, marzipan, and oak. The oak spice intensifies towards the midpalate where it’s joined by some ginger, clove, and orange peel. The midpalate is much spicier than the first batch with more heat, even though it’s at a very slightly lower proof. This level of heat works here as the brown sugar note is much more pronounced in the midpalate, and so the balance is much stronger with more heat.
The heat spikes significantly at the end of the midpalate and then drives a fairly dry finish. The finish is dry enough that some of the accompanying flavors kind of evaporate, but it leaves a nice cooling sense on the palate, a mark of good distillation. A touch of water helps elongate the finish and enhances some of the more charred aspects of the oak.
Great flavors, solid integration, a great mouthfeel, and an acceptable finish round out another compelling argument that the folks at Barrell Bourbon have a real knack for picking good whiskeys with great flavor and character. 91 points.
Barrell Bourbon Batch #3: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (122 proof / 61% ABV, $84.99) – This batch was distilled in Kentucky and shares the same mash bill ratio as the other two releases: 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% malted barley. It was aged for 5 years (it’s the only one that states this on the bottle, though) and bottled at cask strength. Even though it is the same age as the other Barrell Bourbon releases, the presence of oak is much more pronounced on the nose, even driving it. The nose is solid oak plank combined with cherry and light brown sugar.
The oak from the nose is immediately there on the palate along with strong cherry, vanilla, and light brown sugar. The mouthfeel for Batch 3 isn’t as lush and sweet as the first two Barrell Bourbon batches, but it’s still delightful. As we head towards the midpalate the cherry note really intensifies along with the oak. In the midpalate it’s joined by cinnamon, black pepper, and clove. Even though it’s 122 proof, there isn’t really an intense heat spike in the midpalate. It’s spicy, yes, but it’s balanced and well integrated. The finish is fairly long and slightly dry, and manages to maintain the cherry and oak notes that linger for quite a while.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 3 has a completely different character from the first two batches, but it still manages to maintain the same kind of appeal. The presentation of oak here is exquisite, much better than some of the much older releases we’ve reviewed this year. 90 points.
While there’s been a lot of chatter about where people source their whiskey and the disclosures that surround it, Barrell Bourbon proves that you can indeed deliver compelling merchant whiskeys while still being forthcoming about what you are doing. With a greater focus on what’s in the bottle over where the barrel comes from, Barrell Bourbon has the potential to curate some great whiskey. Their first three batches show that they have the knack to spot and buy good whiskeys. The big question is, can they keep that ball rolling?