If you have consumed whiskey and whiskey media, you start to identify moments in time.
I can remember a moment in time where store picks became as sought after as limited fall releases. As whiskey consumers anticipated their annual fall disappointment, we began to see distilleries have spring releases. Eventually marketers and new brands got wise to this, and it seems we have a new bottle to chase every month now.
Another moment in time was the finished whiskey controversy. Should bourbon finished in anything be allowed to say bourbon on the label? Was it an effort to hide bad whiskey? Was it a gimmick? Could finishing really produce better results than a well-aged bourbon that stayed true to the laws that spawned the industry and liquid we all know and love?
Then there was this time that I realized finished whiskeys stopped being one-time experiments that were released in a limited fashion. You could now even get them as store picks. A few years back, a friend of mine was in a liquor store in northern Illinois with a decent reputation for their store picks. This friend was still in that initial phase of his whiskey journey. He was keen to buy anything and everything that had a cool label, novelty or was just plain different.
He is also a good friend that has read my reviews, and I have been on the record as saying that Cognac finished bourbon is a cheat code. He also read a recent Barrell review I had done and was interested in the brand. So, when a good store with a good reputation had a pick from a good brand with what could be a good finish, he had to jump on this bottle.
A recent burglary left me cleaning out my garage and I happened upon this bottle. Full disclosure: it has spent two summers and two winters in my alley-facing rickhouse. As I picked up the bottle there was a quarter left in it. All of us whiskey hoarders have these bottles, ones that we remember being so good that we were afraid to empty it. So, I sampled it out. I poured the rest of the bottle into sample bottles and decided that I needed to share this bottle with the world.
The one thing is that I didn’t drink the bottle. The last time I had a drink from this one was 2020. I remembered it being good. Should I write a review on it? Still, there was one glaring problem.
I’ve reviewed Barrell quite a few times on this site. I think they are fantastic at blending and finishing whiskey. My scores for them seem to be getting progressively higher and before I put another Barrell review out there, I decided to check my phone.
I consumed more whiskey media that day. In fact, it was Twitter where news of a new finished whiskey was making headlines. It caused a discussion amongst our group… and there was Taylor Cope, our fearless leader here at Malt.
Taylor recently wrote a cathartic article here in his review of Woodinville. We all have a whiskey journey and Taylor seems ready to pass “Go” on the Monopoly board here. It sounds like he isn’t chasing Marvin Gardens anymore. We all know he thinks Park Place is overpriced. The questions are as follows:
“Can a finished bourbon that I remembered liking two years ago earn a decent score from the Bourbon purist?”
“Is Matt mad and remembers something being better than it truly was?”
“Is this store pick at 66.87% ABV a hot mess like the man who bought it?”
Only one way to find out: bring on the Taylor.
[Change of narrative voice]
Taylor here. Matt gave me this sample and sent me his preamble, which I didn’t bother reading ahead of tasting the whiskey. I opened it up, poured it out, and my thoughts are below. As before, I am scoring without the benefit of knowing the price of this or the specifics (I added these in later, during editing); the score is just my impressions of this whiskey on its own merits. I’ll consult his introduction and append my thoughts after I have had a chance to consider this without interference.
Barrell Whiskey Private Release Blend #AJP3 – Taylor’s Review
Finished in Cognac Park VSOP casks. 133.74 proof (66.87% ABV). $69.
Color: Medium-pale golden orange
On the nose: This wafts across the room from the glass in a oily, rich, and sweet cloud. A proper sniff yields a delectably sweet, honeyed nose that is more suggestive of Sauternes than whiskey; nosed blind, I’m not sure I would have identified this correctly. There’s a grassy suggestion of rye whiskey, but mostly I get that wave of rich sweetness. There are some interesting accents at the margin; I’m sensing sarsaparilla, cumin, cinnamon, kola nut, and barbecue sauce, all married to a stony minerality. All of the sudden it seems more like a rum; what a confounding shapeshifter this is, in the best of ways. Over all of this, there is a fat, sloppy brushstroke of oaky vanilla that – despite its exuberance – definitely adds to the overall effect rather than detracting from it.
In the mouth: The first sip of this is notable in that it puts the spicy and savory flavors in the spotlight, in contrast to the nose, where these aspects exist mostly as supporting characters. That carries on into the middle of the mouth, where this has a tingly and piquant spiciness that recapitulates the cinnamon and kola nut aspects of the nose. There’s a split second right in the middle of the mouth where these spicy notes recede to allow that honeyed sweetness to come trough, before the spicy accents reassert themselves, now joining a tannic woodiness as this becomes unbalanced toward the cask. That woody extraction carries this into the finish in a slightly bitter manner that is redeemed only by some sweeter notes of nutmeg and cinnamon-sugar.
Judging by the nose alone, I’d tell you that this has succeeded in transforming American whiskey into something else. It’s like an expatriate international jet-setter with a hard-to-pin-down accent. Unfortunately, the palate is unbalanced to start, becoming only more so into the middle of the mouth and especially so on the finish. It’s a pity; the potential was there, but the wood becomes overbearing to the point of changing this into a whiskey to be endured rather than enjoyed. It gets so astringent, so mired in the cask influence, that all the charming sweet stickiness from the nose is drowned under a wave of the crudest, most stentorian woodiness.
Looking back now, I see this was a Cognac finished Barrell bourbon, coming in at quite a punchy proof. Whatever magic the finishing barrel worked to create such an appealing nose was offset by the wood becoming oppressive in the mouth, in a way that marred the overall experience for me. Barrel might be masters of finishing and blending, and Cognac may be capable of elevating bourbon to heights unattainable on its own, but there isn’t much evidence of either here.
A complicating factor here was the… um… sub-optimal storage conditions that Matt described above. For whatever Barrell might think of this review, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be happy that this had undergone prolonged oxidization through the large seasonal fluctuations in temperature here in Chicago. As a consequence, I won’t be offended if you treat this review as a far-from-authoritative judgment on the merits of this bottle (and of Barrell more generally) or disregard it in its entirety.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation here was the price; Barrell has garnered a reputation for pushing into the premium end of the market, with triple-digit price tags to match. Like Matt and his friend, I would also have been tempted to take a flier on this bottle if I had seen it on the shelf of a well-reputed retailer that I felt like supporting.
Netting out all of the above, I can honestly say that this experience hasn’t biased me against future dalliances with Barrell. I’ll rely on Matt to keep the samples coming my way, in the hope that he’ll be more conscientious about their storage next time.