The more I read about Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company and its origins for this review of one of its Rhetoric expressions, the more I find the company’s premise both deeply fascinating and utterly absurd.
Founded in 2014, the company – perhaps easier to conceptualize as a project of Diageo – set out “to find and share forgotten barrels of whiskey,” according to a press release issued in 2015.
While claiming to be a global endeavor, so far the Tennessee-based company has been primarily focused on bourbon barrels that were stored and “forgotten” in rickhouses of the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery in the years after it was shut down in the early 90s.
While I find it absurd – and yet still plausible – that warehouses of aging bourbon could be “forgotten,” I’m thrilled for the possibilities the company might find with Diageo’s many brands. That seems to have already started with Orphan Barrel’s latest Entrapment, a 25-year-old Canadian whiskey made from Crown Royal barrels that “aren’t necessarily forgotten, but instead not chosen for another blend,” the company points out.
Rhetoric is “an evolving exploration in bourbon maturation,” or a series aiming to explore how continued aging affects a particular batch distilled in the early 90s with a mash bill of 86% corn, 8% barley, and 6% rye at the Bernheim Distillery and left to age at Stitzel-Weller.
The six-part series started in 2014 with a 20-year-old release and is set to culminate with its 25-year-old iteration in 2019. We’ve previously reviewed 21-year-old and 23-year-old Rhetoric expressions, and we’re skipping back now to review the 22-year-old released in 2016.
With all the same basic attributes listed above for the series, the 22-year-old was bottled at 90.4 proof and selling for about $110 in 2016, though that same Wine Searcher indicator now shows it at about $173.
Tasting Notes: Orphan Barrel Rhetoric Aged 22 Years
Vital stats: Distilled at the Bernheim Distillery and aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery for 22 years. Mash bill of 86% corn, 8% barley, and 6% rye. Bottled at 45.2% ABV and selling for about $173 per 750mL bottle.
Appearance: A darker amber coloring, taking on a bronze or light copper hue.
Nose: A little hard to place at first with an usual bouquet at the front, the nose starts with quick burst of milk chocolate followed by a wave of mellow fruit – primarily banana, sweet apple and pear. While those two flavors remain dominant, they make room for a gentle but assertive hum of chardonnay and indistinct floral scents.
Palate: While the nose was relatively bold in its unique scents, the first sip is contrarily subtle, starting off like a very mellow vanilla with faint hints of the chocolate and banana in the nose. That flavors holds on the tongue for longer than usual as spicy flavors of nutmeg, clove, and oak very gradually build up, but with no more potency than a moderate tingle on the tongue. Swallowing brings a burst of raisin-forward sweetness with a hint of nutmeg. That brings another wave of mild, nutmeg-flavored tingling throughout the mouth that carries with it a mellow chocolate. Those two flavors give and take for a few minutes in coating that lingers on the tongue for another minute or so.
Rhetoric, at least its 22-year-old iteration, is smooth, subtle, spicy and sweet in all the ways that I could ask for in a bourbon. The spiciness and sweetness in my dram of 22-year-old Rhetoric were especially well balanced to create an interesting sipping experience that was perhaps even a little too subtle at times. While I wasn’t overwhelmed in a way that would lead me to give Rhetoric a perfect score, I enjoyed drinking it and I can’t find anything to fault in it. A great sipper, though at a hefty price.