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Monday, July 31, 2023

Barrell Craft Spirits, Part 1: Four private releases

Having spent nearly two decades of my life engaged in creative pursuits, I know what it feels like when an audience doesn't get an original work. Most of the brain screams in frustration, "They don't understand it, so why are they criticizing it?! It's a Them problem, not a Me problem!" The agony is only intensified by that tiny voice mumbling in the background, "They don't get it because I missed something. I fell short somewhere."

Successfully blending spirits requires a unique skillset. Fashioning one high-quality whisky from dissimilar whiskies, then hitting that mark again and again really is a craft, and perhaps, with its greatest successes, it approaches an art form. 

I don't get many contemporary whiskies, but that's usually not because of the blenders. Most new whiskies from established producers don't come across as creative endeavors, rather they seem like corporate decisions to expand a product line with contrivances that no one ever asked for, like a McPizza or MegaLeg.

That's why I'll give new companies more leeway than conglomerate-controlled brands. For instance, I want to get Barrell Craft Spirits. They've gone all-in on casketry and cask-fuckery (my subtle terms), or in-cask blending (Serge's more thoughtful phrase), to produce something different. Barrell blends whiskies (and rums) from different distilleries and using a wide variety of casks. These casks include pear brandy, apricot brandy, Jamaican rum, blackstrap molasses rum, Martinique Rhum, Sicilian amaro, California Cabernet, Port, Madeira, Oloroso, Armagnac, Tokaji, Mizunara oak, French oak, and toasted American oak. And there are probably more.

Thus Barrell aims to create something new through a level of cask blending that's rarely been tried, but "new" can mean anything from a unique flavor profile, to a cocktail in a bottle, to a garbage fire. It's a risky approach, likely filled with flops along the way. So I want to understand, to get, some of Barrell's creations. Some of these blends do actually work, right?

Thanks to a whiskey group's organizer, I was able to buy into 10 Barrell bottle splits. Yes, this requires a lot of drinking. That's okay, the kids are out of town. 🙄

Part 1: Four private releases

Here's a quartet of four Barrells – one single barrel and three blends – that were selected by individual California retailers. The first two were bottled for my former haunt, Hi-Time Wine & Spirits. The single barrel Barrell appears to be just bourbon without any finishes. The three blends were all cask-finished, and not one of them was called "bourbon", but rather "whiskey".

Okay, I'm well hydrated, here it goes:

Single Barrel Bourbon
#25L8, 8 years old, 54.78%abv
Whiskey Blend
#AQ27, Tokaji Finish, 62.29%abv
Whisky Blend
Roco Wine & Spirits
#CJ30, Oloroso Finish, 61.04%abv
Whisky Blend
Cypress Craft Liquor
#AQ06, Armagnac Finish, 64.33%abv
At first it noses like candy. Specifically, orange creamsicles and black cherry soda. The angles arrive later: fennel seeds, white peppercorns, and nocinoThe nose is all over the place. Port, cheap cream sherry, low-ester Jamaican rum, flowers, brine, and milk chocolate. It gets more vanilla-ed with time.Barrel char. There are other things on the nose, like roses, cherry lollipops, almond extract, maple, and peanuts, but it's mostly barrel char.I did not see this coming. It's cream soda, vanilla fudge, and Mt. Gay rum on the nose. Maybe some hints of lime zest, and eucalyptus in the far back, with time.
The palate comes in hotter than expected. Fennel seeds and black pepper arrive first. The sweets, second. Caramel, dried cherries, and brown sugar, with a hint of tart citrus.The fizzy palate offers black cherry soda and rye-like pepperiness on the first sip. Subsequent sips offer bitter oak, cherry lollipops, and sour cherry candy.Less barrel char in the palate, thankfully, but less of everything in general. Vanilla, caramel, and marzipan. And that's it.The palate is VERY SWEET: vanilla-spiked Mt. Gay rum, bottled sour mix, chile oil heat, and a bit of oak spice, never really coming together.
The finish recombines some of the palate. Tart citrus and brown sugar are the loudest. Vanilla and black pepper, the quietest.It finishes with an odd sweetness, like Aspartame-affected orange and cherry sodas.A simple finish too. Marzipan, caramel, and bitter oak.It finishes all funky tangy sugary, like a sweet rum and sour mix cocktail.
Yes! I recognize this as bourbon.
I thought I did until the finish. So...kinda?
The edgier notes combine well with the fruits and sweets, and the tannins have yet to invade. There's nothing here that differs from younger cheaper bourbons, but I'd still be happy to drink this again, anytime.The palate says, "bourbon". The nose says, "PAR. TAY." The finish says, "Bury me in a cocktail." That's a lot of voices I'm hearing in my head. Not sure if this blend needed more or less time in the Tokaji barrel.It seems like a plain straightforward bourbon, so I wonder why they didn't label it "bourbon". The oloroso cask had almost no influence, and I think this "whiskey" could have used a wee pick-me-up.I went back to the pic of the actual bottle to make sure I'm not drinking one of Barrell's rums. This is definitely something new, a 128-proof sugary cocktail in a bottle, but I can't imagine that being the intent.
Rating: 81Rating: 77Rating: 79Rating: 72


With more NOPEs anticipated and a lack of brutal oak experienced, I declare this tasting a success. I've had a pair of armagnac-bothered High Wests that I wasn't sold on, so I wonder if that brandy doesn't quite work with American whiskey. Would cognac be too gentle? On the other hand, I want to try more sherry-cask-finished bourbons because it could be an intriguing mix, depending on the type of bourbon and sherry. As for Tokaji? Good luck to the blenders.

For Part 2......actually I don't know which whiskies will be part of Part 2, yet. That will be a game-time decision. In the meantime, if you've had any of these four whiskies, please share your thoughts!

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