Diagio stokes the “craft spirit” debate with its Orphan Barrel whiskeys

RhetoricDiageo has issued three “orphan” barrel whiskeys lately, Barterhouse, Old Blowhard, and now Rhetoric. Calling its marketing division the “Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company,” the new campaign is built around old barrels said to have been discovered in the Stitzel-Weller warehouse. These barrels are from both the old and new Bernheim distilleries in Louisville. This marks the confluence of several interesting developments in the whiskey world — age statements, rarity, an interesting back story, and a claim to a “craft” label. To begin the discussion, take a look at the Press Release.

I recently came across a bunch of Rhetoric bottles at one of my favorite local liquor stores, Central City Liquors. I was immediately told that these were “Diageo-made bottles” so there cannot be any claim on my part that I wasn’t fully informed by the sales staff.  I can always count on Central City to give me an unbiased and informed opinion. Also, I’d researched the earlier bottlings and understood that these were large distillery products dressed up in fancy bottles and labels.

Since these barrels are 19-21 years old I can’t see that anybody with a brain can be fooled into thinking that these were hand-made by three bearded whiskey guys two years ago.  When these whiskeys were distilled most true small-batch craft distillers were still wearing diapers or at best too young to drink.

Looking at the labels, I can see that the word “craft” is being used very carefully. The Barterhouse label states that it is “well crafted quality,” “always crafted to the highest standards.” The front label for Old Blowhard says nothing about being a “craft.” The promotional plug for the whiskey even admits that “In the warehouses of mass-production, you might say there isn’t much room for a whiskey full of flavor and big on personality.”  There is no hiding the big-company roots in that statement.

Another factor to consider in this debate is the age of the whiskey. The hoopla over the Pappy VanWinkle whiskey was in large part due to the age of the whiskey, its rarity, and the unique flavor profile as a wheated bourbon. Even though the Pappy bottles were distilled in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses, the Diageo-owned Bernheim barrels have a different pedigree. But there is that connection, through proximity, to the old Pappy line. With the Orphan Barrel project, we have 20 year old bourbon either from a production facility that no longer exists (the old Bernheim facility) or from stock made from the new Bernheim facility prior, I assume, to its purchase by Heaven Hill.

Diageo appears to have been caught flat-footed by the massive interest in American whiskey. Although it is the largest spirits company on the planet, it owns no Kentucky bourbon distilleries. It is huge in Scotland and owns the George Dickel brand in Tennessee, but it has been forced to contract out the production of Bulleit Bourbon to the Four Roses outfit (which is reportedly ending). Despite a 5-year run-up in public demand for bourbon, Diageo has either not seen a way to get its foot in the door for its own production facility or it has not tried hard enough. I assume that by now it is desperate to get a Kentucky-based operation up and running. There is conflicting news that the old Stitzel-Weller facility is being upgraded, some sources say that upgrades are just for tourism and others suggest that there are long-range plans to remove the asbestos in the old distillery and rehab it.

The online reviews of these whiskies suggest that they are, as the labels suggest or imply, heavily influenced by decades in barrels. I’ll crack open my new bottle to give it a go. When I do, I will report the findings.

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