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Orphan Barrel’s Samantha Johnson Talks About Her First Project In This Line Up

For a decade, Diageo’s Orphan Barrel project has been on a mission to seek out what they feel are rare, almost-forgotten barrels of whiskey and share them with the world.

And this spring, the brand introduced Master Blender Samantha Johnson’s inaugural release, Scarlet Shade, Orphan Barrel’s first-ever rye offering in its collection of whiskey.

As this limited release is hitting liquor store shelves, Samantha Johnson visited with The Whiskey Wash to chat about this new addition to the Orphan Barrel lineup and the world of remarkable, lost and forgotten spirits.

Samantha Johnson Orphan Barrel
Master Blender Samantha Johnson visited with The Whiskey Wash to chat about this new addition to the Orphan Barrel lineup and the world of remarkable, lost and forgotten spirits. (image via Diageo)

The Whiskey Wash: Tell us how you got into the whiskey industry?

Samantha Johnson: “I initially uncovered my passion for working with whiskey while completing my senior thesis at Hanover College where the goal was to speed up the maturation process by rapidly aging the liquid to mimic a four-year-old aged whiskey. Having this experience sparked my interest and I knew I had to pursue a career in the whiskey industry.”

“After graduation, I landed a position as a Quality Technician at Bulleit Bourbon Distillery, supporting distillery operations through fermentation and yeast performance, and sensory analysis. Then I joined the blending team in 2020, where I’ve had the pleasure of blending whiskeys such as I.W. Harper 15, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Classic Recipe, and now Scarlet Shade.”

TWW: If you had to describe the Orphan Barrel philosophy in one paragraph, what would it be?

SJ: “Through the lens of a blender, the Orphan Barrel philosophy allows me to exercise my creative style by rummaging through our stocks, discovering what is available, and then crafting a unique experience for whiskey enthusiasts to enjoy. There is an expression … ‘good things happen to those who wait,’ and finding forgotten barrels can turn into a once in a lifetime experience that will never be available again. You’ll be talking about those memories made for years to come.”

TWW: What do whiskey enthusiasts get most out of these rare, lost or forgotten blends?

SJ: “Enthusiasts will get a different experience with each expression of the Orphan Barrel series. They will have a rare bottle to add to their whiskey collection, and an opportunity to celebrate and cherish a unique whisky that will never be offered again.”

TWW: What’s special about those dark, dusty corners of rickhouses?

SJ: “Some of the finest whiskeys come from the dark, dusty corners of our warehouses. Sometimes stocks get left behind, lost, or forgotten from previous offerings, and those stocks get to mature, evolve, get older, and eventually we will stumble upon them and create something incredible.”

TWW: Can you tell us about the new Orphan Barrel release you were able to hand blend?

SJ: “What an experience! When planning for the next Orphan Barrel, I came across these old rye whiskey barrels, and I got excited. Reviewing the inventory that was available, I evaluated each lot, carefully selecting flavors, trialing a few blends, and finally creating what you’ll experience with every pour of Scarlet Shade … a rich sip full of vanilla and sweet acetone notes, upon a solid foundation of spice, followed by berry and orchard fruit notes. It lingers for a while until you are ready for your next sip. Truly an experience like no other.”

TWW: Being a special whiskey that traveled across the entire bourbon region, how did that affect the liquid itself?

SJ: “We have a long-standing history with the finest rye whiskey producers in Indiana. These distillers used the 95% rye, 5% malted-barley mash bill, along with our historical proprietary, propagated yeast. The whiskey then crossed state lines and matured to perfection at the historical Stitzel Weller location in Louisville, Kentucky. There it experienced Kentucky’s hot, humid summers, and crisp, cool winters.”

“Kentucky’s seasons allow for barrels to expand and contract, allowing the whiskey to absorb the character of the newly charred, white oak barrel year after year. Then, 14 years later, these barrels were uncovered and tasted absolutely remarkable! The stocks were tasted and carefully selected and blended together to give you the delicious straight rye whiskey that is Scarlet Shade. Once a final blend was created, the selected barrels were emptied and the whiskey traveled to Tullahoma, Tennessee to be bottled for whiskey enthusiasts to enjoy.”

TWW: What’s the significance of the name Scarlet Shade?

SJ: “As the first rye release to the brand’s collection of premium whiskies, Scarlet Shade is named after the sweet traveler who both heralds luck and honors lost loved ones … the red cardinal.”

TWW: For your palate, what is the perfect age for a bourbon, and what are some of the most desired aromas and tasting notes to achieve?

SJ: “Specifically for my palate, I enjoy an older whiskey – something that has had time to age, develop some complexity, highlighting both the mash bill of the spirit and the character of the charred, American white oak barrel. I am always looking for a whiskey that offers a new, unique experience that makes it stand out and is memorable compared to other whiskies. You’ll find that with Scarlet Shade – a bold, memorable experience.”

“What that perfect age is, especially for a bourbon… I think all good things come with patience and why not let the barrel have its influence on a whiskey. So many factors influence the maturation process (temperature, humidity, location, location in the warehouse, the warehouse structure itself, just to name a few). And as blenders, we have the responsibility to oversee our maturing goods and pull those barrels when they are ready.”

TWW: What’s the holy grail for the Orphan Barrel project, what is that elusive spirit that’s being chased?

SJ: “Each offering of the Orphan Barrel project has its own story to tell and is a unique experience each time for whiskey enthusiasts to enjoy. But there is no limit to what whiskey makers can create! We already have something in the works for the next addition in the Orphan Barrel series. But while you wait, sip, and enjoy a glass of Scarlet Shade responsibly.”

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