Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
So, it is with the world of whiskey, in the whirlwind of new releases, new distilleries, old distilleries reopening, new distilleries releasing old bottles, old distilleries releasing new bottles etc. etc., it can be easy to miss some gems that may cross your path.
I am unashamedly an Irish whiskey OG, my love of Scotch is a little more recent and my current relationship with American whiskey is at a point where, yes, we’ve been on a few dates, but they haven’t been introduced to my parents. The main problem living in Europe can often be access to unique or limited-edition bottles of Bourbon and other American whiskeys. Outside of some great standards like Buffalo Trace or Wild Turkey 101 much of the selection that’s widely available seems to be designed for mixing with coke. That’s not a slight, I’m as fond of hi-balls and mixed drinks as the next man but when it comes to writing about something genuinely interesting, well, we need to look a little further afield.
It is a little bit of a chicken and egg scenario whereby we don’t get really interesting bourbon on this side of the Atlantic because we don’t have enough people drinking the standard stuff and the consumer isn’t as interested in the higher end or more unique offerings because the standard bottlings don’t really grab them. In most cases, we can’t be blamed for grabbing a single cask Redbreast or a Cadenhead’s bottling from a shelf rather than putting in the effort to go hunting for unique bottles of American whiskey, but a trip into the unknown can often yield some superb results. Not always, let me reiterate, seeking out a bottle of 1000 hills single malt from Rwanda left me with more mixed feelings but I suppose an interesting experience none the less.
Thus, when a friend who’d recently returned from the states thrust a glass of Barrell craft spirits 15-year-old bourbon 2019 into my hand with an excited look I was intrigued.
The tendency towards sourced spirit in the whiskey nations that have been in rapid growth, particularly Ireland and the U.S has been markedly different to Scotland. In Ireland a horde of brands have released many liquids, all sourced from a small number of distilleries and subsequently applied a host of different finishes, achieving very different and often striking results. I still maintain that the real interest in Irish whiskey will come in a few years when all 20+ of the new distilleries have mature spirit with their own unique hallmarks. Casks can do an awful lot but until we can talk about how the lyne arm affects the spirit from ‘x’ distillery or how the use of worm tubs gives the spirit a meatiness, then I think we’re still lacking something.
Scotland has always had a history of independent bottling as far back as masters Cadenhead, Gordon & McPhail. Both the aforementioned brands are over 100 years old; Ireland has nothing comparable. There is a good deal of transparency in Scottish independent bottling, the distillery is generally listed on the bottle, and if not, there are usually enough clues to discern it. Right now, Ireland, and the US, have seen many brands go down the NDP or Non-Distilling Producer route. In the US this is quite acceptable since provenance has never really been discussed to the same extent. If you were to show many US consumers all the whiskeys produced at the Heaven Hill or the Buffalo Trace distillery side by side, I’d wager they’d be surprised. The acceptability of this practice in Ireland is, I think, a little more open to debate but that’s a conversation for another day. The crew at Barrell were one of the first to set up as true independent bottlers. They are transparent in that they do now make their own spirit, this in contrast to the usual NDP model was enough to be different.
When the guys at Barrell launched their own sourced and blended spirits label in 2013 it was a novel concept. Based out of Louisville Kentucky, right in the heart of Bourbon country, they have been releasing bottles for several years now to some acclaim, this was, however, my first experience.
So, what have we got? Well, the vital statistics are that we have a 15-year-old bourbon bottled at 105.1 proof, distilled and aged in TN, KY and IN with a mixed mash bill of corn, rye and malted barley.
Barrell craft spirits 15-year-old bourbon 2019 – review
On the nose: Intensely fruity. 15 years is a hell of a long time in the world of Bourbon and I’ve often found bourbons of this age to be overly oaked or too sweet but there’s a lovely fruity nose to this that reminds me of the year’s first batch of Wexford strawberries. There’s a touch of tobacco as the nose develops but there aren’t the intense oak notes which I expected from this old a bourbon. Right at the end, there’s a touch of Seville orange which lingers a little as I sit with it.
In the mouth: A very pleasant initial mouthfeel notes of ginger and black pepper with plenty of fruit flavors developing on the tongue. The caramel comes through on the palate and I can get a sense of the cask influence which wasn’t initially evident on the nose.
On the finish there is slight touch of citrus on the finish with a very curious almost phenolic type note. More fruit lingers on the back end with a nice long warming finish, again different to my expectation and quite unexpected given the nose.
I’m a big fan of this drop, if this is the type of stuff the team at Barrell are producing then I’d be very hopeful for their future. Given at $250 a bottle it’s not cheap but in terms of interest and to see what’s happening in the craft US spirits market it’s an extremely interesting insight into the future. Had I actually paid that $250 rather than being gifted this by a friend I would have been ok with it…. not delighted but ok. For a company that only set out on their journey in 2013, this is very encouraging and I’d very much like to try another bottle in the range to see how it compares!
100% worth a go if you’re lucky enough to see it sitting on a back bar and I certainly wouldn’t think you totally lacking in your faculties if you were to pick up a full bottle.