If you take Diageo’s word for it, the Orphan Barrel Rhetoric bourbons are the product of an unknown past. Mysterious. Lost. Legendary.
The truth, however, is that much of the history of these bottles is known, and much of the story is quite good, albeit there are chapters that Diageo may not want you to know.
The Rhetoric whiskies were distilled in the mid 1990’s at the “New Bernheim” Distillery, which is now owned by Heaven Hill. That fact is respectable, as the famous Master Distiller Ed Foote led the production. At the time, these distilleries were owned by United Distillers (which later became Guinness and then, upon merger, Diageo). United Distillers also owned what was formerly the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and its warehouses. When United Distillers sold the New Bernheim Distillery to Heaven Hill, it removed some of its barrels to those old Stitzel-Weller warehouses for further aging. Again, you don’t get much more storied than “aged at Stitzel-Weller.”
It is here that the stories diverge. According to Diageo, many barrels were “hidden away and nearly forgotten in the back of rickhouses and distilleries.”
The truth, however, lies here. In 2013, Diageo and a township nearby a set of Diageo’s warehouses reached an agreement related to mold problems at nearby properties emanating from those aging warehouses. The agreement required that Diageo empty the 185,000 barrels from those warehouses within 30 months. What Diageo would do with them would be its own business. Some would be moved to other Stitzel-Weller warehouses, some would be moved to Diageo’s George Dickel facilities near Tullahoma, Tennessee (where we know Diageo bottles the Orphan Barrel products).
So what does a company do when it is forced to relocate 185,000 aging bourbon barrels? Well, Diageo’s other warehouses were stocked with growing brands like Bulleit and George Dickel, as well as I.W. Harper and still other brands. Diageo would have to come up with a solution to dispose of the bourbon. And fast.
Enter the Diageo marketing team and the birth of the Orphan Barrel series.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think anyone has suggested that the Orphan Barrels themselves are in any way tainted or abandoned. We don’t even know for a fact that the Orphan Barrel products are these barrels, or instead barrels of other bourbon that was displaced by these moved barrels. Likely it is a combination of the two. But all roads lead to the conclusion that Diageo had these barrels aging without an end game plan. When its hand was forced, it came up with a solution that involved a great story and some really old whiskies.
All stories aside, what would result is a new line of bourbons that mark some of the oldest bourbons in today’s market. For each of the Orphan Barrel products (save the Gifted Horse, which blends old and new bourbons), the minimum age is the newest release Forged Oak at 15 years. The remainder of the products are 20, 21, 22, 23, 26 and 28 year products. These are unquestionably “very old” in bourbon years.
Rhetoric 20 (90 proof)
Nose: Strong but pleasing oak flavors of toffee, caramel, cinnamon and smoke; crisp apple; a bit of burn to the nose that would indicate something north of 90 proof.
Palate: Oak, sweet caramel, dehydrated apple; a bit of pepper and cinnamon spice.
Finish: Medium length but lingering charred oak; bittersweet chocolate; smoke.
Rhetoric 21 (90.2 proof)
Nose: As compared to the 20, the nose was much fuller with notes of sweet caramel apple and pear; overall less smoke and char, less toffee but also less burn to the nose; some of us picked up on an herbal/floral scent like a soft mint and a slight hint of red licorice.
Palate: Spicier than the 20 with rye spice and cinnamon; sweet caramel; cherry; creamier.
Finish: Chocolate covered cherry and some of that herbal/floral note like the nose; shorter finish but less bitter.
Rhetoric 22 (90.4 proof)
Nose: Fuller yet again with a bit more old oak; less burn still; warm apple cider (apple and cinnamon); dried fig.
Palate: Dried fig, decent rye spice (pepper and rye) and baking spice; chocolate; drier than either the 20 or 21.
Finish: Chocolate, either semi-sweet baking chocolate or like a nutty candy bar chocolate; longest (and best) finish yet.
Rhetoric 23 (90.6 proof)
Nose: Pear cider; light brown sugar; rye spice; apple pie with baking spice.
Palate: Dark caramel, oak, and a hint that there used to be some cherry/fig; rye and cinnamon; overpowered by the oak character.
Finish: Dry old oak; bitter; somehow chewy; nutty; short and smoky, almost like very over-roasted coffee.
Overall: Each of us was surprised that the oak was not overpowering, at least after we let the glasses breath for 30+ minutes. Fresh out of the bottle (like on a refresher pour), the oak is almost offensive. If and when you try these, let them breath. Order a glass of younger bourbon at the same time and enjoy that while you let this set.
As for our ratings, Chris preferred the 20 year old the best, with the 22 and 21 coming in second and third. Chris believed the 20 was more complex than the 21 and 22, and we all agreed the 20 actually tasted older but more round than the 21. Jay and I both preferred the 22, with myself preferring the 21 then the 20; Jay preferred, 22, 20 then 21. Each of us agreed that the 23 was our least favorite, and that after 22 years, the bourbon was really beginning its downhill slide.
For all, the backbone is consistent, but the nuance changes significantly from year to year. Fruitiness, specific sugar notes and even mouthfeel can be gained and lost in a matter of a year. We were each pleasantly surprised by the distinctions – as there are few other vertical options on the market like this to experience four one-year changes in a bourbon.
In 2018 and 2019, Diageo has indicated that 24 and 25 year bottlings will be released. Stay tuned as we try to get our hands on those to add to the comparison.
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.