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Three Barrell Whiskeys

The debates on American whiskey sourcing are some of the more fraught conversations among a highly opinionated class of people. “Sourced” whiskey is distilled and usually partially aged by one company and then sold to another for eventual resale. While there are many variations and approaches that fall in between a clear binary of “sourced” and “not sourced,” one company’s sale of existing stocks of mature/maturing whiskey to another for eventual resale is probably the most common business arrangement in sourced American whiskey sales. Some of these sourcing agreements include companies that finish a sourced whiskey or blend their own less mature distillate with a sourced product.

American whiskey enthusiasts’ scorn for both sourced whiskey and its sellers is, in some ways, well earned. Over the past twenty years, there have been multiple high-profile cases of misleading marketing, while omitting mentioning sourcing by newer craft distilleries in their tours is so common as to be accepted practice. Dodgier non-distiller producer practices, such as misrepresenting sourced distillate as the company’s own in-house material, have been enabled by ubiquitous non-disclosure agreements between original distillers and sellers. It does not help that some U.S. whiskey labels require a law degree to decipher.

Many companies selling sourced whiskey in the United States are dewy-eyed newer distilleries, purchasing mostly mature products to resell, buying time for their own distillate to mature. However, no scrappy upstart distillery I have visited has a boatload of investor cash to sustain itself until its own spirits are ready for sale. As a result, most new whiskey distilleries have to offset their large operating costs while whiskey sits unsold by producing quick-to-market products like vodka and gin, selling sourced spirits, or providing non-beverage services like hosting weddings.

Sourcing whiskey as a new distillery nonetheless brings its own problems for both the distillery and the consumer. From the long-term perspective of the distillery, customers get used to the sourced whiskey flavor profile and associate it with a company’s brand. Despite many companies’ explicit attempts to use the sourcing process to nail down a desired eventual flavor profile for their own distillate, there is often a notable and dramatic flavor shift when distilleries move away from sourced whiskey to selling their own mature distillate, if only because many producers start bottling as soon as it becomes palatable. Fans of the distillery’s earlier sourced products occasionally express dismay at this change in the flavor. Distilleries selling sourced whiskey as a bridge also often price their products at absurd markups for the quality and age and often use finishing as a justification for large markups. This activity may be yet another driver of the “premiumization” of bourbon as prices continue to rise.

Enter Barrell.

Barrell Craft Spirits (BCS) overtly and proudly specializes in blending and finishing sourced whiskey, which was relatively untrod territory in the bourbon world at the time of the company’s founding in 2013. By simply focusing on the blending process and releasing its products at cask strength, BCS avoids many of the downsides faced by distilleries selling sourced products as a financial stopgap to releasing its own distillate. Blending is a critical and difficult role for any producer selling batched aged products, though BCS also has a single barrel program for barrels that do not fit its blended profile goals but are nonetheless deemed high-quality standalone barrels.

As of late 2022, BCS worked with 68 companies for sourcing its products and acquires its whiskey distillate and barrels from an impressively wide array of sources from Texas to Maryland, though its whiskey source descriptions usually only reference relative mash ratios and state of origin. The company also seems to take a small amount of enjoyment from the mystique around its American whiskey sources.

BCS Master Blender Nic Christiansen’s statements in the company’s promotional materials convey a very methodical and bias-mitigating focus to approaching the blending process. Christiansen notes a desire to ensure the products are distinct and competitive through blind tastings compared to other products to ensure Barrell’s batches distinguish themselves. To achieve a consistent profile in their finished batch releases, BCS’ Will Schragis stated in an interview that the company continuously produces the constituent whiskey ingredients—such as the port cask finished bourbon for its Dovetail release—and blends the same type of finished ingredients together before blending them with the other finished whiskey ingredients. Chistiansen has also relayed that she and the BCS team also taste pours from the various barrels destined for BCS batches at different times throughout a given day, as well as occasionally letting them sit for weeks to note how they change over time. This focus on how blend components shift over time is astute at the company’s price point: Barrell fans probably aren’t draining them quickly without friends to lower the cost with an average entry point of around $85.

Today’s review lineup is Barrell Bourbon Batch 029, Dovetail, and CH17, a private pick of mostly 18-year-old Kentucky whiskey finished in an Armagnac cask.

For the bourbon blend, BCS noted “the base of Barrell Bourbon Batch 029 is a… blend of Indiana bourbons. The blend was expanded with 6 and 7-year-old rye-grain Kentucky bourbon… and… 9 and 10-year-old wheated bourbon. Finally, a small amount of 6, 14, and 16-year-old Tennessee bourbon…”

Dovetail was purportedly intended to be a single release product until its initial release of 600 cases sold out rapidly, and the company felt compelled to produce it as an ongoing release product. The three components of Dovetail are unspecified Indiana whiskey finished in Dunn Vineyard cabernet barrels, bourbon finished in late bottled vintage port casks, and bourbon finished in blackstrap molasses rum casks. This bottle is from the sixth Dovetail release, and I purchased it roughly around late 2021.

Finally, the CH13 private release is “ a blend of KY Whiskeys, the largest component being, 18-year-old KY whiskey, finished in an Armagnac Cask.”

Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon Batch 029 – Review

115.88 proof (57.94% ABV). SRP of $84.99

Color: Chestnut.

On the nose: heavy dose of buttered popcorn, honey, cocoa, cherry, hay, fresh toffee, black pepper, clove, roasted pecan, and light rosemary, rosewater, and mint.

In the mouth: A slightly thin texture brings raw grain notes that accompany abrupt cherry and buttered popcorn on the front and mid palate, with lemon caramel (I promise it is a thing), toasted walnut, and rosemary becoming more prominent. Mint, anise, and black pepper on the back palate hold true through a long, gentle, and extremely pleasant finish that holds black pepper and brown butter for minutes.

Conclusions:

This is great whiskey that is both balanced and rich, and it is the bright herbal notes that keep me coming back. The price is a bit of a drawback on this, settling the debate between 6 and 7.

Score: 6/10

Barrell Craft Spirits Dovetail – Review

124.34 proof (62.17% ABV). SRP of $79.99

Color: Burnished.

On the nose: Apple, dried fig, stewed prune, apricot, leather, brown sugar, clove, nutmeg, orange peel, fresh-cut pine, black pepper, and mint

In the mouth: A thick and silky texture carries oak tannin and demerara sugar on the front and middle of the palate, transitioning into a black pepper and mastic resin on the back. The finish brings an outsized black pepper influence at the outset and a regrettably unbalanced wood tannin features very prominently into the finish that lingers far longer than it is welcome.

Conclusions:

Despite the identifiable and salutary effects of the port pipes and chardonnay on the nose and the rum on the palate, the ingredients are not balanced with one another and create a cacophony of wood tannin. The rich and luxurious nose is belied by a relatively flat palate and prolonged astringent finish. I was debating between a 3 and a 4, because the liquid does not on its own place the bottle in the 3 category, but the price certainly does.

Score: 3/10

Barrell Craft Spirits CH13 Private Release – Review

113.78 proof (56.89% ABV). SRP unknown, but purchased for $90.00

Color: Old Gold.

On the nose: Robust sweet cherry, root beer, spicy ginger, black pepper, dry hay, lemon peel, and leather are offset by the prominent presence of cutting acetone; spring honey, Ceylon cinnamon, marzipan, fennel, and marshmallow add complexity to the more prominent stone fruit and citrus notes.

In the mouth: A syrupy and rich texture accentuates a hard punch of nail polish remover right out of the gate at the front and mid-palate. The acetone is tempered by a prominent apple flavor and muted cinnamon and clove from the front through the mid palate and black pepper and ginger on the back with mild yet nonetheless unpleasant oak tannins. The moderately long finish retains the ginger and black pepper notes, transitioning into toasted almond, dry hay, and leather.

Conclusions:

This is an unpleasant bottle. This is certainly my first majority 18-year-old American whiskey blend with harsh ethanol and acetone on the palate that also does not have accompanying prominent long-age oak flavor. CH13 is also unusually light in color for a whiskey of its age relative to other American whiskies. The 18 year maturation is simply not present, though its age statement does not necessarily mean the older sourced whiskey in the blend rested in a typical 53-gallon cask inside an above-ground rickhouse or warehouse. On the merits of its liquid, it is a 3, but the bottle’s price compounds its flaws and settles the score firmly on a 2.

Score: 2/10

CategoriesAmerican
Evan

Originally from the frozen upper plains of North America, Evan is a freelance writer, former political science lecturer, and executive bourbon steward based in the District of Columbia. In addition to being an avid rum, brandy, and Japanese whisky consumer, Evan fell in love with bourbon at a young age and watched the industry boom early in the revival. He finds the distilled beverage alcohol industry's production processes and various business strategies endlessly fascinating.

  1. Surfs says:

    Hi Evan,
    Great reviews. I just purchased a Dovetail, having greatly enjoyed it at a tasting earlier this year. My bottle doesn’t taste like the one you are describing, but it’s a different proof and so a different batch. I guess I got lucky! We don’t have it available in BC, Canada and I grabbed it on a recent trip to DC.

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