Welcome to a new addition to the blog called the Top Tipple Review. With these reviews I plan on reviewing all of the amazing once-in-a-lifetime samples or bottles that I’ve managed to get my hands on throughout the years. Many of the whiskies that will be featured will either be very far out of the typical bourbon drinker’s budget, very hard to find, no longer be available outside of auctions or personal collections, or a combination of these. I’ll probably never get a chance to try any of these whiskies again, and I cannot think of any better way to enjoy them than to share my experiences of them with my fellow bourbon folk! Sláinte – Paddy
Set up in 2014, the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company was spirits giant Diageo’s response to the craft whiskey boom. Technically a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP) with a healthy stock of very old barrels of whiskey from several once legendary distilleries, these guys set out to release these old and rare whiskies in limited edition bottlings that offer enthusiasts the unique opportunity to both own and taste a piece of history. From a marketing point of view, this series features very old stocks of whiskies from barrels that were once lost and subsequently rediscovered in the backs of barrel houses – hence the name Orphan Barrels. Marketing aside, the result is a collection of once-off, limited edition whiskies that (apart from Gifted Horse, which features a blend of old and new whiskies) are aged from 15 to 28 years from various distilleries once or currently owned by Diageo including the Sitzel-Weller, Old Bernheim, and the George Dickell Distilleries.
Today’s review will look at the Rhetoric line of bourbons. First released as 20 year old straight Kentucky bourbon this, unlike other Orphan Barrel releases, has since seen a further 2 batches released since, with 2 more on the way, and a total six releases planned overall. For each of these releases the bourbon is exactly the same whiskey just aged a year more ( 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25), and currently we’re on the 23 year old batch. The idea behind releasing these whiskies in this ‘one year older’ style was to give whiskey lovers a deeper understanding of how progressive ageing affects the flavour profile of a bourbon that’s already two decades old. Now I’d love to say ‘here are my thoughts on the first four batches of Rhetoric,’ but honestly my first opportunity to taste this line has come with the 23, so this will be a stand-alone review for those who also missed the boat and are wondering if this 23 year old bourbon is any good on its own. Another interesting fact is that as the ages progress the label also darkens on the bottle to represent the progressively aged nature of the whiskey.
This review was based on a small sample of Rhetoric 23. The bottle pictured above belongs to a fellow bourbon reviewer, see the Bourbonator for all his whiskey musings.
Age: 23 years old
Proof: 90.6 Proof (45.3% ABV)
Type: Kentuck Straight Bourbon
Mashbill: 86% corn, 8% malted barley, 6% rye
Producer: Orphan Barrel Distilling Co., TN
Source: New Bernheim Distillery, KY
Appearance: Deep gold with thick, slow legs
Nose: The nose gives deep, thick caramel, floral vanilla, old oak, nutty baking spices, faint cherries and dried fruit
Palate: The palate leads with lots of buttery caramel and intensely floral vanilla on the front, slight spicy nutty earthiness in the middle, and slightly herbaceous oak spice at the back
Finish: The Finish is long, assertive, and opens with oak spice, floral vanilla, sweet caramel, roast nuts and a nice warming down the throat. Once swallowed it leaves the mouth a touch dry with some delicious complex caramel and oak flavoured tannins in the mouth to chew on. These fade to delicious minty herbaceous notes that linger long afterwards and whisper of old barrels.
As a standalone whiskey this is a very enjoyable pour with lots of flavour, complexity and those big bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla, a nice earthy nuttiness, classic cherries, and dried dark fruit. Oak is definitely present throughout but it doesn’t overwhelm the pour instead blanacing out quite nicely with the other flavours. What I also like is the thick layer of complex flavours that left in the mouth after you’ve swallowed that reveals a different flavour note as each layer is stripped back ending in that beautiful old herbaceous slightly minty oak flavour you get from a pour like Elijah Craig 18 but not as intense. The rye spice is also present throughout but is kept under great control the whole way through.
It’s important to note that this whiskey was originally put into barrels under the watchful eye of Master Distiller and Kentucky Distiller’s Association’s Bourbon Hall of Fame member Edwin Foote. Known as being the master distiller of the Sitzel Weller distillery from 1982 to 1992, and subsequently the Master Distiller distiller at Bernheim until 1997, the distillate he perfected in his ten years at Sitzel Weller is now regarded as some of the greatest Bourbon ever made – some of his whiskey was even used for Pappy Van Winkle (including the 2016 Pappy 23)! This legacy alone makes this whiskey something not to be missed and, despite the fact it hasn’t aged for its entire lifetime under his supervision, it still has great flavour and complexity without yet being over-oaked.
Having only ever tried Whoop and Holler from the OB range this is a much better pour with tonnes of character. I’m very excited to see what the future holds for the Rhetoric line as it ages further but I’ve a feeling that 23 might be as far as this pour can go without losing that amazing balance between all the flavours.
Buy or Try?
This bottle puts me in a dilemma. I really like the whiskey and the history behind it, but do I like it enough to pay $120 for it? Maybe! If this was available in Europe I’d probably buy it for the $120 dollars, but this is entirely due to the fact that anything else in a similar age range is ridiculously expensive, and I have to admit I’d love to taste all the expressions side by side to see what differences exist as the ageing progresses. Like all things whiskey my opinion is very subjective, so I’d suggest you try this before parting ways with your hard earned cash because when it comes to $100+ bottles buyer’s regret stings that much more!