“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” – Socrates
When it comes to the whiskey enthusiast community I think there are times when each of us suffers from pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance in this case occurs when we believe that the popularity of a brand among our peers is significantly higher than our own opinion of it. Sure, there are the common examples such as Blanton’s, a brand that’s frequently cited as being wildly popular among a subset of the consumer base (it must be, it’s always sold out!) though it’s just as frequently cited as an overrated expression unworthy of serious consideration. What’s the real truth?
Taste is inherently subjective, and so we all accept that there will be countless times when a brand or expression that others rave about will miss the mark for our particular palate. It’s only natural, of course. Not everyone can like the same things because we’re all different, and what a dreary world that would be, and yadda yadda yadda… you know how those conversations go.
The diversity of the world of whiskey is beautiful because it directly reflects the consumer base, that is, humanity. It exemplifies the individualistic spirit pulsing through our collective Democratic ideals; everyone has their own set of experiences that makes them unique from the next person, if only slightly, and that’s something on full display in our respective perceptions of taste. I’m not here to draw you into the political considerations of such statements, but rather to say that in the realm of “taste” this implicit individuality will always ring true, though that gives rise to the unique form of alienation aforementioned, pluralistic ignorance.
Take, for example, my own perception of the brand at hand today: Barrell Craft Spirits. In my travels I’ve typically found that those who follow the brand fall into two camps. The first: those who consider them to be producers of premium expressions that often go under the radar and offer the quality of high-end whiskey while still remaining relatively obtainable and affordable compared to others in the category.
The second: those, like myself, who don’t quite understand the hype and feel as though everyone somehow knows a secret that we’ve yet to discover. Those of us in the latter camp seem to be quite outnumbered by those who swear by the caliber of Tripp Stimson’s (Barrell’s Chief Whiskey Scientist) barrel selection process and blending acumen, and thus the die of doubt is cast.
Let it be said that my experience with Barrell Craft Spirits is pretty limited. My first encounter with their whiskey was when I tried the critically acclaimed “Dovetail” expression, which to this day is one of the few bottles I’ve ever given away due to dislike. I simply could not stomach the stuff, though my partner at the time happily polished it off and implored me to secure a second. Thus began the sense that my perception of Barrell Spirits was askew from those around me.
What followed was a run-in with Barrell’s Seagrass and Armida expressions, two bottles that I enjoyed well enough, though I was glad to have not spent $80+ on them as they were samples from generous friends. On the heels of those tepid experiences, I tried their Infinity Blend Project, which once again depleted my confidence in the quality of their blends before I had the chance to try their superlative Gold Label Seagrass which tipped the scales in the positive. Most recently I was able to try a 15-year-old expression from them which held its own in a blind flight among 15-year-old expressions from other brands, but it didn’t go so far as to turn me into a fan.
With all this seesawing back and forth I’ve been left with the following set of impressions: does Barrell produce good whiskey? Sure, but you will likely pay a pretty penny for it. Am I willing to pay a pretty penny for Barrell expressions? As of yet, no. Do I feel confident that I can make an assessment of their brand as a whole? Again, not quite.
I’ve tried some of their standout releases, but I realized that the majority of my experience lies with their high-end or experimental expressions, the sort that most bourbon enthusiasts would only shell out money for if they were able to try them before venturing to buy them. I realized that I had yet to sample Barrell’s more “standard” releases, which brings us to the two I will be considering today: Batch 32 and Batch 33 of their cask strength bourbon blend.
I have to admit that Barrell’s lineup confuses me a bit, and so it took quite a while for me to reach this realization. They’re currently up to 33 unique batches of their cask strength bourbon blend but they also have whiskey blends, rye blends, gray and gold label releases, “ongoing releases” such as the aforementioned Seagrass and Armida, along with other seemingly arbitrary expressions like their New Year bourbon and countless private label offerings.
With a bit of focus it’s not hard to ascertain the differences in each of these products, but when faced with that proliferation of options on a liquor store shelf they tend to blend together like the KY, TN, and IN whiskeys that go into the majority of them. As such, and given their price point, I’ve tended to stay away but thanks to a generous set of samples sent to me by the brand I’ll have the opportunity today to give their most commonly lauded lineup a taste.
Without further ado here are some vital details for Batch 32 from their website:
“Batch 032 began with a balance of two sets of barrels: a selection of 5 and 6-year-old barrels with a creamy and tropical profile and a selection of 6, 7 and 10-year-old barrels vatted for their complex, old, woody character. These two sets of barrels were slowly blended over three months. A small group of spice driven 7-year-old barrels with notes of cinnamon toast, coffee bean and chocolate were then carefully added to complete the blend.”
Barrell Bourbon Batch 32 thus carries a 5 year age statement, an undisclosed mashbill, and is bottled at 115.34 proof (57.67% ABV) which is cask strength. The whiskey in this blend was sourced from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, from undisclosed distilleries. It can also be said that this expression won a host of awards but neither that – nor the fact that this sample was provided free of charge – will be taken into account today. I will be reviewing it below based on its own merits and with regard to Malt’s price sensitive scoring system. Regarding that final detail: it should be noted that this bottle carries an MSRP of $90.
Barrell Cask Strength Bourbon Batch 32 – Review
Color: One minute steeped tea.
On the nose: Rich caramel and lush vanilla, like a caramel drizzled cream puff, emerge first. Then there’s a bit of plum or cooked apple with cinnamon dusting. The nose is floral and carries a bit of tobacco. Also of note are aromas of orange peel and a touch of sawdust. Over time a touch of molasses creeps in with peppercorn, thyme, and rosemary rounding out the experience.
In the mouth: Buttered popcorn comes barreling down the palate before fanning out into the cooked apple and orange peel from the nose and introducing a touch of tobacco and freshly cut grass. There’s something of an artificial lemon note that lingers on the finish and a more nondescript tartness that subsumes the sweetness in a way that isn’t unpleasant but also isn’t particularly enjoyable. More brown sugar sweetness emerges mid palate on repeat sips and both the mouthfeel and length of the finish are impressive. That is, until the finish becomes distractingly drying which is my main complaint. It really sticks to the tongue and doesn’t cling to the side of the mouth or the roof at all, but instead dissipates like a raisin in the sun.
I must say this is a solid pour that shows a good deal of balance. Though the flavor profile doesn’t bowl me over, it’s the harmonious blend of flavor along with a rich texture and a lengthy finish that make this one truly enjoyable. For a 115.3 proof product I’m pleased with how approachable it is while still providing a good bite from the spice. My first sticking point, however, would be the price. With a five year age statement (despite there being older whiskey in this blend in undisclosed proportions) I think the price is asking a bit much. This is an academically sound bourbon blend, that surely deserves its asking price from the standpoint of this being sourced whiskey and exhibiting blending acumen, but I think I would be slow to part with $90 to experience it all for the length of a bottle. This exhibits a lot of qualities that would make it a 6/10, but the exceedingly dry finish and stiff price point adversely affected my score.
Now for the pertinent details about Batch 33 from the company:
“Barrell Bourbon Batch 033 is a marriage of high-rye barrels and high-corn barrels ranging in age from 5 to 9 years old. The high-rye barrels were chosen for their distinct stone fruit, black pepper, and nutmeg notes. The high-corn barrels were chosen for their rich butterscotch, coffee, and citrus notes. Two sets of barrels mingled together for two months, then the balance was adjusted for the most optimal combination.”
Because the copy is a bit unclear, let’s plainly state that this is a blend of 5, 6, 7, and 9 year old barrels (in undisclosed proportions) which are again sourced from undisclosed distilleries in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee resulting in an (say it with me!) undisclosed mashbill. It clocks in at 116.6 proof (58.3% ABV) which is cask strength. Finally, the price is the same as Batch 32, at $90 retail.
Barrell Cask Strength Bourbon Batch 33 – Review
Color: A near-identical one minute steeped tea.
On the nose: It’s bursting with brown sugar out of the gate, and I also pick up some of the milk chocolate in a carton that I used to enjoy in grade school. Then come the notes of vanilla extract, allspice, a little hazelnut coffee and oak. Unlike 32, it has a slight bit of minerality that indicates the famous Dickel note – which some consider off putting – but it actually plays nicely with the rest of these aromas. There’s almost a Dr. Pepper note as well, which comes complete with the effervescence of carbonated beverages. I’m intrigued.
In the mouth: It’s surprisingly flat mid palate but the tip of my tongue is dancing with sweetness, while the finish has considerable heft making for an interesting roller coaster ride of sensation. The semisweet milk chocolate flavor is a standout along with a bit of minerality (again, not off putting) but I’m struggling a bit to see the other flavors coalesce on first pass. On the second sip there’s a stewed peach and biscuit note which is savory but I’m missing the promise of brown sugar that I initially got on the nose. There’s some toasted almond that comes in as well. Like Batch 32, it has a wonderful mouthfeel and though the finish isn’t as long lasting or impressive, it also isn’t nearly as drying. A little grapey-ness comes through as well more so than the Dr. Pepper, which is one final surprise in this interesting blend.
Initially I thought this would fare far better for me. While Batch 32 had a decent opening impression on the nose that improved on the palate, the reverse occurs in Batch 33, where the nose intrigues but is soon curtailed by the muddled but enjoyable palate. Again, there are a lot of elements here to like and I can see a large segment of drinkers enjoying those elements, but they just never come together in an “ah-ha!” moment for me – not to be confused with an A-Ha moment, where a speciously 2 dimensional world bursts to life. Wait, those are kind of the same…I digress.
The disappointingly tame midpalate interrupts what would be an otherwise sensational tasting experience and though I imagine waiting for the bottle to open up would reward one’s patience, with only a 100ml sample at my disposal I don’t have such a luxury. Let it simply be said that I preferred Batch 32 and thus I’ll reflect that preference in my score.
Frank’s Final Thoughts:
Have I been made into a Barrell Craft Spirits believer? Frankly, no. I can see a lot to like in these blends and indeed I did enjoy them, but I’m left wondering how much more they offer than the sea of comparably aged products on the market today. I do appreciate that the older whiskey in these blends offers a depth of flavor that isn’t often found in five year old age stated bourbon, and I would further commend the Barrell Craft Spirits crew for their acumen as blenders.
That said, I feel the same now as I did at the outset – these are fairly tasty expressions that carry a premium price, and I continue to feel inclined to try them before I buy them. The awards, acclaim, and gnawing sense that my peers enjoy this brand far more than I do will surely cause me to give them another shot, but I’d be more inclined to do so at a lower price point.
Images courtesy of Barrell, as are the samples, which does not influence our notes or scores.