So I’ve been putting this review off, for a number of reasons. You can tell, because I’m reviewing Batch 017 of Barrell’s batched Cask Strength Bourbon releases and they’re currently retailing batch 24. Oops. Barrell burst onto the boutique whisky scene in the mid-20-teens largely because after the single malt craze turned into the bourbon craze, everything with any kind of high price tag or significant age statement had already been snatched off the shelves and was in allocation at every retailer. Suddenly, here was a new name on the shelf with a whopping price tag. It had to be good, right? It was the only bourbon on the shelf above $40!
One of the few things I know about Barrell, aside from the obnoxiously difficult-to-Google name, is that they are blending American whiskies in much the same way that Compass Box blends scotches. In other words, they are buying, finishing, and blending American bourbons and ryes and selling them at a markup, albeit at cask strength and with some very reassuring details on the bottle. Still, it’s been a long time (actually, never) since I’ve considered $90 a good deal in bourbon. Thus, I put off buying (and then put off tasting) the Barrell because I couldn’t wrap my penny-pinching nature around the idea of a pricey blended sourced bourbon.
So here we are, a day late and about ninety dollars short to talk about a bottle you can’t buy anymore. Batch 017 was released in early 2019 and was intended to be an homage to “classic” bourbon — the kind that is suddenly hard to find on shelves. It’s a blend of straight bourbon whiskies from Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky. The three component whiskies were all rye-flavored bourbons (mash bill corn, rye, and malted barley) aged 10 years and 4 months, 14 years, and 15 years so this bottle is “officially” 10 years and 4 months old. It’s up to you if you want to mentally count the extra age on those older casks. The Indiana bourbon is almost certainly from MGP. The rest are anybody’s guess. The batch is bottled at cask strength (technically, batch strength) of 56.25% ABV. I purchased bottle #13,174.
I should note that the company has some excellent details on their website about each batch. Whisky producers take note: Everyone should do this.
Nose: Shy at first, with only a vague kiwi note and some far-away caramel. Now, a hint of roasting coffee beans and another rest… warm cherry pie, corn-heavy sweetness, and dense fudgy caramel. After even longer in the glass, there is a lovely cotton candy note accompanied by pistachio fudge. What a journey.
Palate: Hot! Hot hot hot. After a brief delay the tongue burn lights the tongue on fire. A few eye-watering moments later I can taste cherry pie (again), butterscotch, dense oak, and ahh who am I kidding all my taste buds are dead.
Finish: Long. A little dry, suddenly, with a lot of astringent oak, mouth-drying tannins, some mild charcoal, and a touch of maple sugar. Lingers, but doesn’t evolve.
With Water: Several drops of water adds a nice vegetal note (agave syrup) and causes a brief burst of floral notes. The palate burn is definitely tempered, but there is still a lot of tongue-numbing fire. The water adds a bit of sweetness and fruit on the finish. This certainly benefits from the addition of water, but give it a good nosing first.
Overall: Ok let’s get this out of the way: This bourbon is “craft” (or at least, hand-selected and blended), it’s cask-strength, and it’s in excess of 10 years of age, all of which explain its price-point. It is, however, not worth $90. If it were $50, I’d be singing its praises. If it were $70 I’d be conservatively talking about how rare 10 year-old cask strength bourbon is these days. At $90, I’m saying you can drink cheaper bourbon and be just as happy. It’s fine, I guess, with a number of delectable notes that are offset by heavy alcohol burn and periods of weird shyness.
At the end of the day, this is bourbon for people who think most bourbon is too cheap.
(Update: Check my review for Barrell Seagrass, it’s a whole different thing.)
I got into Barrell 4-5 years ago (bourbon, rye, infinite barrel, New Year release), when it was $53-65 here in KY. Happily, I stocked up on quite a few bottles, because nowadays they’re $77-95 for standard releases. Barrell was the best and only way for me to get high proof, aged Dickel, which I love. Nowadays, Dickel Bottled-in-Bond (13 yr, now 11 yr) scratches that itch, for $38 no less. The shelves used to be packed with Barrell. Now that they’ve become popular, they are, as you say, for people who think bourbon is too cheap. Which is not me.
Your comment about this whisky not being worth $90 reminded me of a comment you made about Ardbeg Corryvrecken–that you’re happy to pay $80-$90 for that particular expression due to it’s quality and uniqueness. That said, what other whiskies would you be happy to pay $90-$100 for? Thanks!
Honestly, not many. Corry has a special place in my heart – I’ve never tasted anything else quite like it. I would pay $90 for a BTAC – Buffalo Trace Antique Collection – bottle (any of them), since those are definitely “worth it”. The cost isn’t the hard part though, those are as hard to get as Pappy. I would pay $90 for any single malt with an age statement of 18 years or older, except Glenfiddich or Glenlivet 18, for which I wouldn’t pay more than $70. Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve costs $150, and it’s probably worth that (or at least, it was last time I tried it). I’d probably pay $90 for Glenmorangie’s annual limited edition, although those are now closer to $110 – $130 which is a bit much in my opinion. I might pay that much for a Compass Box expression if I had a chance to taste it first. That’s about all I can think of. Cheers!
Thanks for your detailed response, and thanks for putting Corry into context: it’s astounding that an NAS whisky can be comparable, at least price-wise, to an 18 year old whisky. I’ve been searching for a celebratory bottle to purchase and, even though it’s outside my “Go Zone” of $50-$70, will pick this up, per your recommendation, as any Pappy/BTAC whiskies are impossible to find, to say nothing of Compass Box expressions, which are not available in my state. Cheers and thanks again!
A couple of days after reading this I went out and purchased something I never mind paying $90 for: the most recent batch of Aberlour A’bunadh. I know it used to cost less but I still enjoy it as much as ever. Earlier this year I paid $90 for batch 8 of the Glendronach cask strength and in my opinion it stands head to head with the best batches of A’bunadh. I used to pay about $80 for Springbank 12 year old cask strength. Post tariff it now costs $120 and I never regret buying it. On the other hand I found Springbank 15 to be a complete waste for the same price because I didn’t find it to be any better than the 10, which is a staple on my shelf. Most of what I purchase is entry level and age stated in the $45-$65 range. All whisky lovers should splurge once in a while if they can. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and hope that you love it because taste is subjective at any price. Cheers