What good are single barrel reviews, anyway?
Frank once derided them as “pure onanism,” and I can’t say that I don’t see his point. For retail single barrel expressions (e.g. Henry McKenna), the likelihood that any of our readers will be tasting the exact same barrel as the one being reviewed is infinitesimally small. Unless the flavor profile is kept consistent for barrels released under those labels (somewhat defeating the point of a single barrel), there’s no guarantee that our experiences will correspond.
These reviews are marginally more useful case of store picks, private barrels, or whatever else you like to call them. The caveat here is that bottles of these often disappear long before anyone is able to review them. Given the current frenzied state of the bourbon market, consumers often adopt a “buy first, form opinions later” approach, lest they miss out on a desired bottle. The risk is mitigated when the pick has been made by a selector of repute with a trusted palate. More on that in a moment…
Most of the reviews here on Malt are motivated – always implicitly, if not explicitly – by the desire to help a prospective whiskey buyer make a better-informed purchase. It’s why our scoring bands take value for money into account. Though we may produce meandering preludes full of free-associative ramblings, the site ultimately remains utilitarian. Our readers know that they can scroll down past all the bloviating and baroque tasting notes to find a recommendation encapsulated in a simple (perhaps overly so) numerical score.
That’s not going to change, but I think there’s room for other types of review on this site as well. If we stuck to considering the options sure to be available on every store shelf (and, thus, accessible to the broadest swath of our readers), the site would become dully repetitive very quickly. After all, how many times per year ought Jim Beam White Label be tasted and scored?
Rather, reviewing the occasional oddity serves as a reminder of the wonderful diversity of global whiskey, past and present. It’s why we talk about bottles from shuttered distilleries, or take the time to taste a dusty bottle from a bygone era. No, our average reader will not be able to go out and procure one of these bottles cheaply or with ease, if at all. However, the story of whiskey is broader and longer than what the liquor store is selling right now. Developing a familiarity with all types of whiskeys – even those we may never get to try – is part of the process of education that turns a casual drinker into the type of wonkish geek that reads this site daily.
With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to a pair of bottles that are already long gone, but which I hope will provide a window into some of the extremes of flavor that can emerge from bourbon, despite the proscription of raw materials, production processes, and maturation methods.
The source material has me optimistic, given that these are barrels from New Riff, picked by our friend David Jennings.
My first experience with New Riff – also a barrel pick – set an extraordinarily high bar. The flavors that emerged from the glass were so novel, and so distinct, that I made a mental note to seek out additional single barrels from the distillery as soon as practicable. That mental note must have been erroneously tossed in the mental trash can, as I haven’t had a taste of New Riff since.
Fortunately, I’m now able to rectify this oversight thanks to David. While he is best known for being the expert on Wild Turkey, his enthusiasm for bourbon is not limited to the output of that beloved distillery. He does a number of non-Turkey barrel picks every year (such as the Westland barrel we picked together), offering them for sale to his Patreon supporters. Given the acumen of his palate and his excellent reputation in the industry, it’s no surprise that these are usually received with enthusiasm.
So, David picked these New Riff barrels and dubbed them each with “Riff Bird” (a play on his nom de plume and the distillery’s name, obviously) and a descriptor of their dominant flavor note. These bottles were both sent to me free of charge by David, who also provided the photos. Per Malt editorial policy, this will not affect my notes or score. Per my own personal policy and by mutual agreement with David, I will be pulling no punches in my critical evaluation of these bourbons.
Starting with “Candy,” this was distilled on 4/21/17, matured in barrel 2434, and bottled on 6/28/21 at an age of four years, two months. It comes to us at barrel proof of 105.3 (52.65% ABV). SRP was $50.
Riff Bird Candy – Review
Color: Auburn-hued orange.
On the nose: Candy, specifically Bit-O-Honey candy, accents what is otherwise a pretty conventional bourbon nose. There’s some fruitiness in here of a candied variety (think cherry or grape hard candies) as well as a woodiness that vacillates somewhere between fresh cut pine and dried, sanded pine. With a bit more patience I get herbal and spice notes of lemongrass and ginger. Eventually, a little cherry soda starts to appear. Overall, though, this is fairly conventional in its presentation.
In the mouth: Candy once again presents itself immediately, this time with much more gusto. There’s ample sweetness upfront in the manner of Glenmorangie’s Milsean, with richer notes of maple syrup leavened by some more sweet and sour fruit candy notes. This takes on a very perfumed, floral aspect at midpalate, where the wood also becomes more assertive. The balance tips over into a slightly tannic and mildly bitter woody astringency as this reaches the finish, which is the only real nit I have to pick. Fortunately that impression fades fast, leaving a lingering heat and some mildly stony accents.
This earns its confectionery cognomen with some cheerful candy notes on both the nose and the mouth. It’s good bourbon overall, though I’m not sure that it is remarkable enough to please the folks who seek out barrel picks for noticeably off-profile aromas and flavors. The price for this seems fair; taking all this into account, I am scoring the bottle a notch above average.
Moving on to “Smoky,” this was distilled on 3/28/17, matured in barrel 17-1928, and bottled on 6/28/21 at an age of four years, three months. It comes to us at barrel proof of 108.3 (54.15% ABV). SRP was also $50.
Riff Bird Smoky – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden orange with tawny glints.
On the nose: Indeed, a whiff of hickory smoke reminiscent of summer BBQ greets the nose initially. Taking a surprising turn, this tacks toward a grape hard candy aroma that nods at the JHOB “Quarter Pop” barrel. There is vanilla bean and a tomato-based BBQ sauce here; more time in the glass releases a herbal note of eucalyptus and some Wild Turkey-like old leather (I can see why David liked this!). This indeed has smoke but so much more; I love how the nose on this ping-pongs around the aromatic spectrum, seemingly at random, but with every nuance well delineated.
In the mouth: The rich, sticky sweetness of maple syrup creates a delightful first impression. That grape hard candy flavor makes a reappearance at midpalate in almost effervescent form. True to its moniker, this starts to tack toward the smoky flavors. However – unlike in some peated Scotch whiskies – this smoke is not chemical or acrid in nature. Rather, it’s the fresh smoke from firewood burning under your nose, an effect I find as pleasant as it is unique. This smoke yields again to a drying note of limestone as the whiskey moves into the finish. Texturally, that effervescence comes back in the form of a prickly but manageable heat that radiates around the inside of the mouth for a solid minute after the last swallow.
Smoky, indeed! Not just any smoke, though. I’m usually slightly smoke-phobic, though I would say that I like the flavor. The issue is when the smoke becomes bitter or overbearing, which certainly isn’t the case, here. Rather, the smoke plays well with the other aromas and flavors. The overall effect is an interesting, delicious bourbon that distinguishes itself as warranting special consideration, fulfilling the promise of the barrel pick format. This is different from – but every bit as good as – the Justins’ barrel, so I am scoring it the same as that one.
For those of you that were slightly skeptical of a review of unobtainable bottles, I hope that this exercise has convinced you that there is some value to the practice. For those of you hardened cynics who agree with Frank’s condemnation of this format, I can assure you that reviews of this type will remain outliers. After all, there’s so much bourbon that is both excellent and easily found, we’d be remiss not to give it the lion’s share of our attention.
You don’t need to seek out a single barrel to drink remarkable bourbon, and even finding one won’t necessarily guarantee a better experience than is otherwise available. However, the combination of the right distillery, the right barrel, and the right picker can produce magic of the type I was lucky enough to experience with “Smoky.” As long as single barrels like this are still out there, I’ll still be out there searching for them.