Orphan Barrel Rhetoric Review

Producer: Orphan Barrel/Diageo. Distiller: undisclosed/Bernheim. ABV: 45.1%. Age: 21 years. Mashbill: 86% corn, 8% barley, 6% rye. Price: $100-130.

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel project raised a ruckus even before it was launched in early 2014. The spirits giant was coy about the source of the five “old and rare limited edition whiskies” in the line, suggesting that they themselves didn’t know where the barrels came from, while simultaneously trying to capture some Pappy magic by hinting the juice was distilled at Stitzel-Weller.

Chuck Cowdery best expressed the response of gimlet-eyed enthusiasts:

The problem is that while these products have interesting true histories, Diageo isn’t emphasizing that. Instead, they made up a front company to sell them, coined some jokey names, and designed some retro-style packaging, all of which is silly and belittling to the ostensibly fine bourbon inside. This is an example of a scotch company treating American whiskey like flavored vodka.

Sleuthing by Cowdery and others revealed the true sources: Old Blowhard (the oldest release in the line) was from the old Bernheim distillery; Barterhouse, Forged Oak, and Rhetoric were from the current Bernheim distillery (owned by Heaven Hill); and Lost Prophet was from George T. Stagg (now Buffalo Trace).

Diageo has taken some lumps for lack of transparency, and the dust has mostly settled now, making it a bit easier to evaluate the whiskies on their merits.

When I first dove into the line in 2014, the Rhetoric 20 was my favorite. The  2015 release, Rhetoric 21, retains the title. As the ages imply, each Rhetoric release is a year older than the previous one, making the project an experiment in the precise moment at which a fine older bourbon gets too damn oaky. For my money, the 26-year-old Orphan Barrel Old Blowhard, now discontinued, was well past that point.

The Rhetoric is another story entirely. It’s a symphony of dark chocolate, Christmas spices, and damp parchment. You never want to take your nose out of the glass–then the palate is just as rewarding. On the sweeter side. Medium bodied and shining brilliantly at 45.1% ABV, though it’ll yield still more spice with a drop of water. Plenty of oak, but still well integrated. I poured this as a first dram for Big Daddy Oakstave during his last West Coast visit, and I couldn’t get him to drink anything else for days.

I’m a big fan of full disclosure, and of substance rather than hype. I’m also a big fan of this whiskey. Let’s hope Diageo gets the message that good marketing and transparency can go hand-in-hand–and with the canniness of today’s enthusiast community, they need to.

Let’s also hope Diageo keeps releasing bourbons this good. -BO

Buy Orphan Barrel whisky online at Mash + Grape

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