In case you’re a bourbon lover who has been living under a rock lately, Diageo has started The Orphan Barrel Project, releasing limited quantities of rare barrels that have been sitting in the warehouses at Stitzel-Weller for more than 20 years. Last night was the official launch party at the Seelbach, and every big name in the bourbon media was there to witness the historic event.
Fred Minnick emceed the event, giving an introductory presentation about the history of the distilleries and distillers involved. The story begins in 1849 when W.L. Weller started his wholesale sprits business and started working with the Stitzel brothers. Later came J.P. Van Winkle and other notable bourbon makers. The story ends with the New Bernheim distillery, Ed Foote, and Stitzel Weller. The final product is bottled at Dickel.
The allure of the Stitzel-Weller story has to do with the people of the distillery. According to Minnick, Ed Foote reported that what made Stitzel-Weller unique was the water, the yeast, and the people, adding that they didn’t believe in the modernization of the whiskey industry. Ewan Morgan of Diageo added this anecdote: In 1961, Pappy Van Winkle was asked why there were no chemists at his distillery. His response was that “no chemist ever did anything for our business and you can tell them I said that.” After that a sign was put up in the distillery that read, “No Chemists Allowed.”
So how did these lost barrels get discovered? Well, they weren’t exactly lost to begin with. Orphans, yes. But they were never truly lost. For starters, the company has been paying taxes on them, and Uncle Sam never loses a barrel. Instead, these barrels were left to age in the warehouses of Stitzel-Weller after being distilled at Bernheim with no particular end product in mind for them (at least not one anyone can say at this point). In other words, they were not allocated for a specific use before now. Once someone realized they were sitting around growing old, the Orphan Barrel Project was conceived.
Ewan Morgan of Diageo told a priceless anecdote about Pappy Van Winkle during the tasting of these rare bourbons. Someone once asked Pappy what happened inside a cask, to which he replied, “As I’ve never been inside one, I haven’t a clue.” During the tasting of Old Blowhard and Barterhouse, we learned what went into the making of bourbon (the mash bill for both releases was quickly rattled off at one point and I wrote it down as 86% corn, 8% malted barley, and 6% rye, but please don’t quote me on that). The char inside the barrels acts as a filter to remove impurities from the juice inside. The barrel also gives the juice the sweet oaky vanilla flavors indicative of bourbon. Different positions within the rack houses alter the characteristics of the bourbon. Barrels in higher positions in the rack houses are hotter and end up having higher proofs. Barrels in lower positions of the rack house are cooler, so they lose more to the angel’s share and end up with lower proofs.
Barterhouse is bottled at 90.2 proof, and while both bourbons are technically Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskeys, according to Ewan Morgan, that fact is omitted from the bottles. The nose is buttery and the flavor profile has brown sugar, vanilla, burnt marshmallow, and dried apricot notes. Fred Minnick pointed out the dried apricot notes as being indicative of Ed Foote juice.
Old Blowhard is aptly named. At 26 years old and 90.7 proof, the nose is fruity with hints of nutmeg and smoky wood. Andrea Wilson, who led the tasting, called it a strong powerhouse of flavor. If you like oak, this is the bottle for you. Adding a little bit of water brings out the orange, chocolate, and slightly more mellow oaky vanilla flavors.
These bottles are rare and their release numbers are limited. Diageo wouldn’t disclose an exact number of cases or bottles, saying instead they planned to keep bottling it until they ran out. The takeaway is that if you want any of these bottles, get as many as you can as soon as you can. They will be released next week.
After the story of the Orphan Barrel project was told and the bourbons were tasted, they announced their next release. Rhetoric will be a 20 year Kentucky Straight Bourbon, though a specific release date has not yet been announced. These rare bourbons are going to go fast, so get them while you can.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Taylor Strategy