It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year since Diageo launched their Orphan Barrel series, which has had five releases: Lost Prophet 22 Year Old, Barterhouse 20 Year Old, Old Blowhard 26 Year Old, Rhetoric 20 Year Old, and Forged Oak 15 Year. On balance, these Orphan Barrel releases have done fairly well in the marketplace, especially Old Blowhard, which quickly became a hot commodity.
Now Diageo is extending their Orphan Barrel strategy with what it’s calling an “annual release”, planned to span 5 years of aging. The first in this program is Orphan Barrel Rhetoric, which is getting a release at 21 years (vs the initial 20 years) and a .1% bump in ABV. It’s funny that Diageo would bump the ABV so infinitesimally, especially considering that this release isn’t at cask strength, giving them greater control over the final ABV. Point one percent is pretty much the smallest increase they could have done and still claimed that there’s an increase in ABV.
Orphan Barrel Rhetoric “2” 21 year Old Kentucky Straight Whiskey (45.1% ABV, $100) – In terms of color, there isn’t much difference between last year’s 20 year old Rhetoric and this year’s 21 year old. On the nose it’s still old “digested” oak leading the pack, which reads like a varnished old cigar box. Underneath the oak is baked apple, caramel, cinnamon, and dried orange. The citrus note here is much more prevalent in this release along with an increase in cinnamon. Side by side with last year’s 20 year old Rhetoric, this year’s 21 year old release has a much fuller and more developed nose.
As with last year’s 20 year old release, the entry on the 21 year has a soft and round quality, with baked apple, caramel, cinnamon, and oak. At the start these flavors come together nicely with some semblance of balance. The problems with Rhetoric really present themselves as we move towards the midpalate where we lose this nice mouthfeel with a marked increase in acidity. The citrus note that works well on the nose is overly dominant in the midpalate, and it really throws off the balance. In the midpalate the strong orange is joined by an increase in cinnamon and oak. It’s a notably spicier midpalate than the 20 year old with a dramatic increase in acidity. While there’s more structure in the 21 year old expression of Rhetoric, the midpalate still feels a little thin, especially considering the entry. The finish is medium length, fairly dry, and also acidic with strong orange, cinnamon, and oak.
The 21 year old version of Rhetoric does have more character than the 20 year old, but it’s still not a great whiskey, and while successive years in barrel may change elements of the taste experience, it’s not going to change the fact that this whiskey is past its prime.
Diageo is positioning their Orphan Barrel annual release program somewhat as a scientific experiment to show the progression in flavor with successive years of aging. “For Whiskey Nerds and Geeks, like myself, this is a dream come true,” explains Ewan Morgan, Master of Whiskey at Diageo. And that’s the key: Diageo is banking on a relatively small, but very enthusiastic group of whiskey enthusiasts who tend to want to collect and possess whiskey (and, of course, argue about it) rather than really consume it. For them, a series of 5 successive years of aging of a 20-25 year old spirit with successively darker colored labels, custom tailored for collecting, is nothing short of a whiskey wet dream.
The problem with all this is that they are starting with whiskey that is already far too old to really show the core of the journey in American whiskey. It’s far more interesting to follow the journey from new make, through 3 years, then again at 6 years, 9, and ultimately 12. This is the core of the journey of great American whiskey. By the time an American whiskey is 20 years old, it’s lost the battle with the barrel and all you really get to see is the miserable, end of life phase.
While Rhetoric 21 Year Old Whiskey isn’t horrible whiskey, it’s not some undiscovered Stitzel-Weller gem. What it is, is old. For many that’s going to more than justify buying and collecting this whiskey, but if you’re looking for something special to drink, the Rhetoric end of this series isn’t where to start. 82 points.