Taylor Strategies, the public relations arm of Diageo, the world’s largest spirits producer, recently invited us to a rare tasting of their latest venture, Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company. Diageo’s brands include Guiness, Baileys, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker and the domestic Bulleitt and Dickel whiskeys. We couldn’t resist attending the launch of two inaugural brands from Orphan Barrel: Barterhouse and Old Blowhard Whiskeys.
Diageo searched through old warehouses in Kentucky and unearthed some unallocated barrels (hence “Orphan Barrel”) of great aged whiskeys from the historic Stitzel-Weller rick house. The 20-year old Barterhouse and the 26-year Old Blowhard are the first of the series that Orphan Barrel plans to release in very limited quantities, with more “discoveries” from Kentucky, Canada and Scotland to be launched in the future.
More bottles of Bulleitt make it to San Francisco than any other region, so it only makes sense that it is one of the few cities selected for the Orphan Barrel launch. Northern California, aided greatly by the City, also happens to be the the #1 brown spirit (e.g. whiskey) market in America. With a long history of whiskey drinking all the way back to gold rush days, there has been a recent resurgence of imbibing the barrel-aged moonshine following the 1990’s popularity of the “clear, flavorless liquid from Sweden,” as related by Diageo’s Master of Whiskey Ewan Morgan. It should be noted that Diageo’s Smirnoff is also the #1 selling vodka in the world, so we suspect that the brown spirits still have a long way to go to surpass that, but the City is doing its part.
The tasting was held at the members-only Wingtip Club, which has the feel of a distinguished gentleman’s parlor with plenty of tufted chairs, dark wood furniture and handsome wallpaper. It was set up seminar-style with tables, barstools and pre-poured tastes:
Each place setting had four glasses containing different whiskeys (clockwise from top left): under-matured, over-matured, Old Blowhard and Barterhouse. Whiskey journalist Fred Minnick initially took us through a history of Kentucky rickhouses, then Diageo Masters of Whiskey Ewan Morgan and Steve Beal led us through the tasting. We started with the under-and over-matured, then moved on to the intricacies of the aged spirits. The under-matured has been in the barrel for about two months and definitely had more of a moonshine quality, but showed plenty of promise. The over-mature version was actually a 21-year old whiskey with a flavor profile dominated by wood. Since it was 150.3 proof, Morgan walked us through how adding water not only cut down the astringency and proof, but it actually made it more quaffable.
Beal walked us through the tasting of the Barterhouse and the Old Blowhard. Aged 20 years, Barterhouse Whiskey is named after the “sly fox after he’s made a smooth deal at the local trading post.” As an aside: we thought the fox looked like the one featured in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and we will forever hear George Clooney’s voice when we look at this bottle. The mash, distilled at Bernheim Distillery, is 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye, and with 20-years of aging, it was a very tasty whiskey, exhibiting flavors of toasted grains and oak char with a mildly sweet finish.
The Old Blowhard Whiskey’s label featured a white whale which reminded everyone of Moby Dick, the elusive powerful sea mammal whose chase eventually led to its pursuer’s demise. In the barrel since 1987, the mash for Old Blowhard Whiskey is comprised of 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye, the same as that for Barterhouse. The Barterhouse was great, but with six years of additional maturation, the Old Blowhard frankly blew us away. It was nuanced in flavor rich with tobacco (in a good way), honey and citrus overtones. We felt privileged to be able to have a sample of this whiskey, since we are likely not to see much of this due to its rarity and the $150 per bottle price tag.
Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres catered by Wingtip were served immediately following the tasting. The cheese and charcuterie platters were plentiful:
The bacon cheeseburger sliders were also excellent:
Expertly made cocktails with Diageo’s Bulleitt Bourbon and Dickel Rye were served after the tasting. It was a hard act to follow, but the Dickel Rye Conundrum was quite good, made with a mixture of Rye, Combier, Vermouth and bitters. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the recipe, but we made our own version that is close enough in flavor profile which we’re calling the Dickel Rye Why. It’s a variation of a Manhattan with just a little bit of citrus sweetness added in.
Dickel Rye Why Cocktail
1.5 oz Dickel Rye
1 oz Antica Carpano Sweet Vermouth
0.25 oz Rich grapefruit syrup (recipe below)
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
Put all ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass filled with ice. Stir thoroughly to chill and garnish with a brandied cherry and/or grapefruit rind.
Rich Grapefruit Syrup
Rind from 1 grapefruit
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
Dissolve sugar over medium high heat in water. Add grapefruit peel and simmer for 30 minutes to an hour. Use candied grapefruit peel as garnish for other drinks (note: as an optional step, double blanch peel in boiling water for 10 minutes to get rid of any pith bitterness).
We were more pre-disposed to drinking Rye whiskey, mostly because it doesn’t have the sweetness of a typical bourbon. But the aged Orphan Barrel Bourbons are sophisticated and nuanced, and don’t have any of the sweetness that we would associate with a Bourbon. These whiskeys give Bourbon a great name, so much so that we look forward to their future products.
Many thanks to Zack at Taylor Strategies for giving us an opportunity to participate in this rare tasting. The third variant in the Orphan Barrel series, Rhetoric Whiskey, was also announced at the launch and is expected to ship this summer.