Whiskey Review: Orphan Barrel Rhetoric Aged 23 Years

, | June 15, 2017

Rhetoric is one of alcohol giant Diageo’s Orphan Barrel releases, an experiment in whiskey aging and a lesson for whiskey drinkers on the effects of wood and time. We announced this release back in April, and now we’re finally getting the opportunity to taste what 23-year old bourbon from early 90’s Bernheim Distillery stock tastes like.

These barrels were reportedly “found in the old Stitzel-Weller warehouses,” and while many of the Orphan Barrel releases tend to be one offs, the Rhetoric bottlings are released progressively to show the world what extended aging will do to a ‘control’ batch of familiar-tasting bourbon. Previous releases have included 20 through 22 year vintages, with the plan to culminate the series with an epically old 25-year expression.

Much has been written about Edwin Foote, the Bernheim Master Distiller during those years who counted Julian Van Winkle among his fans, and few doubt the quality of the initial distilled product. Overoaking, as one author has pointed out, would be the main concern as this liquid continues to age away (Elijah Craig 25, anyone?) while lacking the supervision of the man who planned this whiskey from day one. We were lucky enough to taste the newly released 23-year along side the 22-year, which allowed for some good insight in to the progression of this liquid and hopeful thoughts for the grandaddy 25-year project.

Rhetoric 23-Year-Old

Tasting Notes: Orphan Barrel Rhetoric Aged 23 Years

Vital Stats: 90.6 Proof. $120/750ml. Aged 23 Years. Mash: 86% corn, 8% malted barley, 6% rye.

Appearance: A brilliant burnt orange which shows some fine filtration. There appears to be a bit of water separation around the edges of the liquid. Legs are thin and lack luxuriousness.

Nose: The aroma is quite full while managing to avoid near any trace of fusel-laden heat. Immediately bursting out of the glass is a fun dichotomy of vanilla and citrus, which together recall candied apricots, creme brulee, and a tiny bright hit of ginger. Closer, deeper breaths focus on the wood, adding more complex notes of leather, marshmallow, clove, and even a bright cedar-like touch from that perceived hint of orange.

Palate: While the aroma sets up a more delicate experience, the first taste of Rhetoric 23 on your tongue comes along with a punishingly dry mouthfeel and sharp, almost astringently perfumed wood notes. Luckily, the whiskey is more warming than the nose would lead you to believe, creating a base somewhat capable of handling these intense flavors. There is a touch of brown sugar and vanilla in front, and then the taste becomes dominated by earthiness. The wood creates more of a bitterness than a newer, more pencil-like oak flavor. A ribbon of smokiness is present as well as dried hay, peanut skins, and a big hit of nutmeg.

After many sips, I breathe out and taste a puzzling hint of moth ball. A dryness coupled with mellow heat lingers for a long time after each sip. Compared to the equally as barrel-forward 22-year, this 23-year incarnation actually seems a little more together and slightly less sharply woody.

Editor’s Note: Samples for this review were provided to The Whiskey Wash by Diageo. While appreciative of this, we retain full editorial control of this article.

The Takeaway

I’ve only had a handful of 23-year old whiskies in my life, and this is among the best, with the caveat that 23 years is, in this author’s opinion, probably way too long for bourbon to be in a barrel. If you’ve liked other similarly-aged products, I’m sure this will be in your wheelhouse (especially at a price which seems reasonable, comparatively.)

We’ve reached the point of no return on the oakiness here, however, and the nuances of what surely was well-distilled product back in the early 90’s has lost its ability to speak to a new generation. The barrels, on the other hand..

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