“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower” – Albert Camus
There’s something that I’d like to address upfront. The perception surrounding Stellum, when it was initially announced by Barrell Craft Spirits, was that it was intended to be the value brand in their portfolio. I’ve previously written about Barrell Bourbon; in particular, I noted that one of the reasons I tended to overlook the brand was its price point. The inaugural releases from Stellum – their cask strength bourbon and rye – were priced at $55 and seemed to directly counter this complaint.
However, as the brand has grown we’ve seen them introduce a single barrel lineup and now Stellum Black which is intended to feature their limited release premium expressions. Barrell Craft Spirits has enjoyed a successful run replete with critical acclaim, and though Stellum is still attempting to replicate the popularity of its big brother, I would imagine they will get there. Admittedly, $100 for a limited release does represent a value option in today’s market, but it does make one wonder: how different are the two brands?
With essentially the same ethos of showcasing Joe Beatrice and Cos blending acumen, it seems the only real difference between them is the price point (Barrell has released limited editions up to $500+) and, I assume, the stock of barrels that go into each brand. One can surmise that Stellum is using barrels with a lower age statement and/or a slightly different flavor profile to create a point of difference. So far, I see nothing wrong with any of the above, but I am curious to know just how different is a $100 Stellum Black expression compared to your more standard fare $80 Barrell Cask Strength Bourbon expression?
It’s with this in mind that I decided today to review Stellum Black’s Equinox Blend #1, their second bourbon release under the Stellum Black label. Like the majority of the bottles under the Stellum (and Barrell Craft Spirits) name this Equinox Blend #1 is comprised of barrels sourced from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The brand says, “For Stellum Black, we maintained the soul of Stellum while creating a new dimension of flavor by adding reserve barrels from our stocks,” which would seem to give credence to the idea that these are some of the more exceptional casks devoted to the Stellum brand, though we don’t really know what makes this stock of barrels different from those devoted to Barrel Bourbon.
No matter, this is obviously not the first diffusion brand to be made up of the same stock of barrels as another lineup in a company’s portfolio. The most famous example, of course, would be the fact that barrels which wind up the Pappy Van Winkle lineup are also some of the same barrels that end up in the Weller lineup of bourbons. Examples abound of companies cherry picking certain barrels or designating certain areas of their rickhouse for particular expressions; I would only say here that I’d like to see a little more transparency about what exactly differentiates Stellum bourbon from Barrell bourbon and Stellum Black from Stellum standard.
With that gripe out of the way let’s get down to the brass tacks, shall we? For this limited release we are told, “the Equinox Blend was created using Stellum Bourbon. The team slowly layered in rare sets of bourbon barrels, step by step, until the evening of the Vernal Equinox, when the blend was completed in honor of the changing seasons and bottled at cask strength.” This, of course, doesn’t offer much insight into why the Vernal Equinox was chosen. There’s no mention of its significance to taste, aroma, or any of the parties involved and we’re left to grasp at some specious relation to the brand’s name – Stellum – which is a derivative of the Latin word “stella” meaning star. Again, this is of no real concern, though again I would prefer a bit of insight into the thought process.
What matters above all is how does this expression taste? Priced at $100 (NB: this was a free sample) and clocking in at 117.26 proof (58.63% ABV) with an undisclosed mashbill, made up of barrels sourced from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee in undisclosed proportions, and carrying no age statement we’re left a bit in the dark on the details of this release. However, if we’re to use taste as our North Star then there’s only one thing left to do…
Stellum Black Equinox Blend #1 – Review
Color: Flaxen gold.
On the nose: Cantaloupe and lychee with cardamom, clove, honeyed pie crust, and a faint bit of peanut shell waft out of the glass at first. Soon there’s a slight touch of hazelnut and cocoa powder and a decent bit of rye spice begins to emerge as well. It’s a nice well rounded nose. More and more caramel comes out with airtime along with an uptick in leather and sweet oak which I rather enjoy.
In the mouth: Lychee and rye spice run roughshod at first up the middle of the palate. There’s a satisfying rye sizzle that runs a ring around the tongue. Cocoa powder forms on the back of the palate and creeps up the roof of the mouth soon thereafter. An oak note that starts a little bitter develops nicely into a sweeter flavor on repeat sips as the leather from the nose begins to blossom as well. Given a little more time I get a hint of pound cake and even some faint red berry notes. Overall this is a tasty pour.
Well, I certainly had my doubts about the “why” behind this blend but I have very little about the fact that it is ultimately a winner. While it’s slightly less nuanced than Barrell Bourbon batch 32, it offers a significantly different flavor profile and in my opinion a far more well rounded experience. The aroma is intriguing, the palate has gobs of flavorful notes, and at a pocket-friendly price point in today’s market where “limited editions” are concerned, I think this is an expression well worth your attention. This is easily the best bourbon I’ve tried to date from Stellum, and I personally enjoyed it more than the majority of Barrell Bourbon offerings I’ve tried as well. If this represents Barrell Craft Spirits’ second spring, so to speak, then I can easily see myself falling for it thanks to the quality craftsmanship, reasonable price, and relative availability.
This was a sample provided free of charge by Stellum, which – per Malt’s editorial policy – does not affect our notes or scores.