It pays to read the fine print.
More than perhaps any other whisky brand, 1792 has a uniformity in terms of its packaging that means the various expressions (eight in all) could be easily confused if attention drifts. The bottles are identical sizes and shapes; the 1792 logo appears in the same prominent gold font on each. The sole ways to distinguish between them are the colors of the neck labels and the relatively small expression name above the logo.
While the presentation may be consistent, the whiskey inside the bottles is anything but. In my recent survey of the major Kentucky distilleries, I gave bang-average marks to Barton 1792. However, I have written before about the problem of numerical averages, and I’d say this applies specifically to my overall assessment of 1792.
For example, I think their Small Batch is a solidly-above average go-to for everyday sipping. Fortunately, bottles remain widely available, at least in my area. However, the much-awarded Full Proof fell short of its “best in the world” billing by a wide margin, perhaps a victim of high expectations more than any glaring deficiencies in the whiskey itself.
Another area of middling performance for this distillery is the barrel pick program. While I’ve had better and worse examples from 1792, none of them evinced the unique character which is the entire point, for me, of single barrel selections. I’m not certain whether Barton 1792 adheres to the rule of only allowing on-profile barrels into the pick program (rumored to be the policy of Sazerac sister distillery Buffalo Trace, and borne out by my own experience), but I’ve never had a 1792 barrel pick that particularly surprised me.
I’ve been meaning to revisit 1792 for a while, of which I was reminded when I literally visited the Barton 1792 distillery during a trip to Bardstown last month. As I noted in that piece: you’d be hard-pressed to find a distillery that looks more industrial. Barton 1792 boasts none of the elaborate architecture or manicured landscaping that adorn other distilleries. Whereas the likes of Jim Beam and Heaven Hill have Disney-fied their guests’ experiences with shiny new visitor centers, a modest gift shop and tasting room is all you get at Barton. The remainder of the facility is comprised of large stainless steel tanks and brick buildings caked with black grit. Peering through the dusty windows reveals a facility that is clearly focused more on churning out bourbon than on providing a background for Instagram photos.
The distillery’s complete devotion to the functional over the formal actually stands in ironic contrast to the aforementioned packaging, which has an elegant art deco aesthetic. However, there’s no law of man or nature stating that beautiful whiskey can only come from beautiful buildings, nor that beautiful bottles improve their contents. So, shedding preconceptions (both positive and negative), I’ll now commence a head-to-head comparison of 1792’s Bottled-in-Bond against a private barrel selection of that same expression.
Starting with the retail Bottled-in-Bond: this is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, without an age statement (though matured for a minimum of four years, per the legal stipulations of the Bottled-in-Bond designation). It is bottled at the statutory 100 proof (50% ABV) and carries a suggested retail price of $36. This was a sample generously provided by Ryan; thanks to him.
1792 Bottled-in-Bond – Review
Color: Medium golden brown.
On the nose: Initially this is predominately in the high end of the register, with floral scents of potpourri, the sweetness of Bazooka bubble gum, and a gently stony aroma. Gradually, the creamy sweetness of vanilla begins to creep in. There’s a subtle woodiness to this around the periphery, as well as some spicy notes of cardamom and a smoky wisp of campfire ash.
In the mouth: Similarly high-pitched to start, this begins with the spicy kiss of Big Red chewing gum. Toward the middle of the mouth there’s a broadening out, as this takes on some more rounded notes of polished wood. The finish is a disappointment, as the whiskey thins out noticeably while it turns toward more astringent woody flavors. There’s a dilute note of licorice as the only real character on the finish.
Not a great whiskey in absolute terms, this also suffers in comparison to the many excellent competing Bottled-in-Bond options, such as those from Evan Williams and Old Tub. While not officially a bottled in bond offering, I’d put Wild Turkey 101 into the mix here as well. This 1792 is nearly twice the price of those bottles yet it has several obvious areas of relative weakness, with the net effect being a score below average.
Let’s see if we can’t do any better with a single barrel selection? This bottle (barrel #6230) bears a sticker indicating that it was picked by “Big John.” Who, or what, is Big John? Ryan (who also provided this sample; thanks again!) informs me that this is John Cunningham, the owner of a local liquor store chain called “Kork & Keg Liquors,” and the person responsible for the picks. Ryan reported that he paid $39 for this bottle, only a slight premium to the standard retail bottling.
1792 Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel Select #6230 – Review
Color: A very subtly darker medium golden brown.
On the nose: More fulsome upfront, this presents all manner of dark, sticky aromas: butterscotch, toffee, caramel. There’s a charred wood note in here as well as a subtle nuttiness. This is also better than its predecessor from the inclusion of some more fruity aromas of tangerine, which marry with a richer creaminess, this time of vanilla buttercream frosting. After a short while the floral elements are noticeable, but this doesn’t have quite the same spicy kick as the retail bottling.
In the mouth: There’s an off-bitter nutty note of almonds as this enters the mouth. A slightly spicy sweetness of brown sugar fades quickly as this ascends the tongue. There’s a noticeable thinning out of the body in the middle of the mouth, as the whiskey tacks toward more extracted oaky notes. The bitter, tannic bite of wood is the most noticeable feature of this as the whiskey fades into the finish. There’s a faint, diminishing note of butterscotch, but little else in the way of flavor or texture.
There’s a surprising brittleness to the palate that stands in contrast to the plump and self-assured nose. This ends up being a disappointment overall; the bitterness on the palate actually makes it slightly unpleasant to drink. Whereas the retail BiB was innocuous (if weak), this single barrel is unbalanced toward some bad tasting notes of wood. In consideration of this (mostly) and the slightly higher price (a bit), I’m cutting another point off the score.
In some ways, these whiskeys reminded me of recent Woodford Reserve bourbons I have tried, where the wood was pushed to an extreme that marred the remainder of the presentation. Whereas the Woodford profile includes some rich and sweet fruit and chocolate as an offset, there’s not enough body here to compensate.
Reflecting on these examples, I might even knock down my overall Barton 1792 distillery score a notch. I’d certainly deduct points in the Limited Edition and Barrel Pick categories. Overall, I am left marginally less positive on 1792. Those who want to continue to explore the Barton 1792 portfolio should practice selectivity and, returning to the introduction, be sure to read the fine print.
Bottled-in-Bond photo courtesy of 1792. Single Barrel Select photo courtesy of Ryan. Other photos author’s own.