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.