Blending gives the opportunity for crafting a more consistent and delicious flavor in a whiskey, creating something that truly is more than the sum of its parts. Usually, the result is proofed down after blending to around 40ish percent ABV — but Barrell is betting that bourbon is best when straight from the bung. And considering their successful track record with single barrel releases, we’re eager to see if they’re right.
Founder Joe Beatrice spent 20 years as a marketing and technology entrepreneur before deciding in 2013 that he needed to do something different with his life. He had been an avid home brewer and wanted to do something in the spirits industry — but instead of starting his own distillery, Joe decided to instead build a company that looked for hidden gems in the whiskey stocks of already established distilleries and made those available to the public.
Joe’s inspiration for the unique twist that Barrell puts on its offerings came when Joe tasted a bit of whiskey straight from a barrel for the very first time. He says that the experience was eye opening, and ever since, he has committed to bottling each batch of whiskey at cask strength — as if it were poured straight from the barrel.
Barrell continues to be an independently owned and operated whiskey bottling company, and in 2017 the company expanded into operating their own distillery. That home-grown whiskey doesn’t seem to have made its way to the market yet, however, and their products continue to use whiskey sourced from other distilleries.
Just like every other whiskey produced by Barrell, the Craft Spirits Bourbon is a sourced whiskey from another Kentucky distillery. In this case, its actually multiple barrels from multiple distilleries which have all been blended together to create the resulting whiskey that’s in our bottle today.
While we don’t know exactly where this came from, we can make some educated guesses about how it got here.
As a straight Kentucky whiskey, this spirit is required to start out as a mixture of grains comprised of at least 51% corn. What comprises the other 49% isn’t disclosed, and could be practically anything from more corn to rye or wheat to other more interesting cereals.
Once those grains have been cooked and fermented to make a mildly alcoholic mash, the mixture is then distilled to create the “new make” white whiskey. Whether that happens in a pot still or a column still isn’t disclosed (and the difference does tend to have an impact on the resulting flavor of the whiskey).
Once the whiskey is produced, it is placed into new charred barrels for a period of at least two to four years as a straight bourbon whiskey. For this specific run, however, those spirits wait a full fifteen years before coming out of the barrel and being blended with other similarly aged whiskey in a large batch to produce the result we’re drinking today. This is why there is no barrel identifier on the label, and why this is marked as bottle #10,474.
This is definitely the bottle of a man who spent 20 years in marketing and design, and I don’t say that in a bad way.
Overall, the bottle is a fluid, rounded shape with nary a sharp edge. The shape of the body is almost like a slightly flattened Mike & Ike candy, sporting a wider front face and slimmer sides, and with rounded edges all around. There’s a nice thick glass bottom which should make this stand out and light up on the back of a bar, and the bottle rounds gently at the shoulder as it comes to the medium length neck. That neck is straight, with no bulges, and is capped off with a cork stopper.
For this bottling, instead of a wood top of the stopper, it appears to be aluminum.
The label is pretty much exactly what I want to see on a bottle (and despite having a straight flat top, it still manages to avoid having an actual 90 degree angle). It’s roughly shield shaped, with all the necessary product information written on the front.
Speaking of necessary information, things like the bottle number and the age are noted in what appears to be a handwritten font. Looking at the label, I can’t see any indication that these items were actually hand written, but I’m inclined to believe that the bottle number and other items are accurate and unique to each printed label.
The liquid here is a beautiful dark brown color just like you’d expect from a well aged bourbon. But there’s a twist here: the aroma is not what I expected. When I see something aged for a particularly long time, I usually expect the aroma to be deep and chocolatey. In this case, though, what we have is something that smells sweet and creamy (which, I think, is the brown sugar and caramel peeking through), with notes of apple, orange, and some raspberry.
Taking a sip, this also isn’t nearly as charred as I was expecting. In other cask-strength well aged spirits, it often tastes like you’re licking the raw charred wood of an oak bourbon barrel… which can be jarring or outright unpleasant. In this case, though, there’s plenty of sweetness and light flavors to balance things out and almost make it taste like an old fashioned right out of the bottle.
What comes through first for me is some orange citrus and cherry, followed by a good bit of brown sugar and vanilla, capped off with a nice black pepper spice and a rich coffee note on the finish. The spirit is nice and smooth, without the usual alcohol bite I’d expect from a spirit this high proof.
Typically, when I’m reviewing a well aged spirit or one that’s bottled at a significantly higher-than-average proof, I’m sprinting to get some ice in the glass. The added ice cubes tend to mellow out an otherwise unbalanced bourbon, especially one that has too much of an alcohol bite or flavors too dark to really enjoy. But here, the spirit is just fine on its own before the ice even enters the picture… meaning there’s a risk that the new addition of ice will throw things out of whack in an unfortunate direction.
However, this whiskey is proving my suspicions wrong again and not too much changes with the addition of ice. The only notable difference is that there isn’t the same chorus of flavors that accompany the spirit — we’re down to just a handful now. There’s the orange citrus up front, a bit of brown sugar and vanilla, and then some black pepper spice on the finish. I might see a touch of the coffee still in there, but otherwise it’s a rather standard flavor profile for a bourbon.
The key thing here is that the saturation on the flavors is still very good. With a lower proof bourbon, the flavors tend to get watery and indistinct around ice; but thanks to the cask strength here, what remains is still well saturated and strong.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The trick to a good old fashioned is to start with a spirit that is sufficiently rich and robust. There needs to be something in the glass for the bitters to work with here — otherwise, it’s just a mildly alcoholic glass of chilled bitters. And in this case, I think this whiskey makes for a great middle-of-the-road flavor profile for an old fashioned: not too light, not too dark, just right with a nice little surprise.
What we started with wasn’t particularly dark or deep in terms of the flavor profile, it was pretty on par for what you’d expect. The biggest difference was how well saturated the flavors were compared to a normal bourbon — a solid flavor saturation means the bourbon stands up to the bitters and makes for a generally even tempered flavor profile in the cocktail.
The biggest twist here is that the orange citrus flavors play a huge role in the final result. It adds a nice bright note to the mix, which elevates the drink beyond the level of a normal old fashioned.
There are two things I look for in a good mule: a balance to the ginger beer flavors, and something unique added by the bourbon that we don’t see with a vodka. In this case, I think Barrell does a pretty good job on both fronts.
The flavors are very well balanced — the sweetness and the orange citrus we’ve been seeing does a great job interacting with the ginger beer for a very fruity take on the cocktail. What surprises me the most, however, is how dark this flavor profile was. I didn’t think that the old fashioned was particularly on the dark side of the spectrum, but what we have here emphasizes the coffee flavor that we saw when taken neat and makes for a much richer cocktail than I might have expected.
As for adding something unique, the black pepper spice is certainly present in the finish here. It isn’t loud enough to be annoying, but adds a complimentary layer of flavor that just makes things great.
This is, by far, the single most expensive bottle of spirits we have reviewed on this site to date. And it shows. There’s nothing unbalanced here, just a good smooth flavor profile and no unpleasant surprises. Which, if I’m honest, is downright surprising for a cask strength spirit. I’ve only seen a few other bottles get this flavor profile right at this high of an ABV, and even fewer with the sophistication of the flavor profile that they’ve pulled off here. This is truly a testament to the art of the blend: the ability for a highly skilled person to see the notes in each barrel they sample and string them together into a beautiful symphony.
As for the provenance of the spirit, that’s definitely a minor concern I have as well. I’d love to know more about where these spirits came from. But in the end, they’ve been honest and up front about using product from other distillers, and, at the end of the day, the perfection of the blend is really their craftsmanship. It doesn’t matter where the spirit came from — it’s here, it’s perfectly blended, and it’s delicious.
|Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon|
Produced By: BarrellProduction Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 15 Years
Proof: 52.45% ABV
Price: $249.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
Blended to near perfection and absolutely worth the high price tag.