A few months ago, I tasted a duo of unique rum blends from Barrell, a company far better known for its blends of well-aged bourbon. Those two rums hailed from the company’s “Private Release” collection, which is an ultra-small scale operations wherein the distillery marries sourced rums from all over in unique finishing casks that previously held everything from sherry or Madeira to pear brandy or rye whiskey.
It was an interesting diversion, but with a company that is significantly better known for whiskey than they are rum, I had to wonder how the same concept would be if Barrell applied it to whiskey. And lo and behold—they do that as well. There’s also a Private Release program at Barrell for whiskey, and it functions in much the same way as the rum wing—the company blends together a range of Kentucky whiskeys of up to 18 years of age, and then marries that blend together in a unique finishing cask. These single-cask expressions are then sold directly to individual retailers, collectors, bars or restaurants. As Barrell puts it:
The Private Release Series lets us exercise our blending expertise while maintaining a single barrel-like scale controlled entirely by hand and by palate. Our goal is always to maximize the best attributes of each component. Every ounce of every ingredient changes the overall character of these blends, as does the barrel that each one is aged in. For that reason, these barrels take months to polish and perfect. While we may be able to replicate the recipe for these releases, the unique nature of each ingredient and the barrel they are married in makes every bottling singularly special. Each release of our Private Release Whiskey is a unique blend of Kentucky Whiskey, the oldest being 18-years-old. Once created, these blends are married in single casks, many of which were previously used for other spirits and/or wines.
Intrigued, I received a couple of samples from Barrell. They’re labeled as batch AH04 and AH18, with the former finished in a Jamaican rum barrel, and the later finished in an Armagnac barrel. Let’s see how the two stack up! These are ultra-small batches of only 150-180 bottles per batch, at an MSRP of $109.
As mentioned above, this is a blend of Kentucky whiskeys, with “the largest component” being 18-year-old whiskey, finished in a Jamaican rum cask and bottled at a barrel proof of 121.82 proof. Immediately, the tiki geek in me can’t resist this particular concept. The marriage of funky Jamaican rum and Kentucky whiskey? Sign me up for that.
On the nose, this one is explosively sweet, rich, fruity and rounded. I’m getting banana cream pie, cherry and chocolate, with some substantial alcohol heat as well. Nosing it repeatedly, you almost do get some of that Jamaican rum funkiness—there’s an estery quality that I can only compare to dunder rum that is very distinctive and works beautifully here.
On the palate, this is likewise quite sweet and very rich, fruit forward and also a spice bomb from start to finish. It’s over-the-top redolent of baking spices, with tons of ginger, clove and cinnamon sugar, into Werther’s original caramel candies. This is candy sweet, and undeniably “dessert” whiskey, but I can’t deny how delicious it is all the same. Ethanol heat is substantial, but not too distracting, as I feared it might be from the nose. With some drops of water, it’s tamped down a little more, bringing out more old oakiness and even more baking spices. It reminds me of the allspice-based pimento dram that is common in tropical cocktails, and of the Christmas cookies one might make with the same spice blend. Decadent as all get out, but I love this.
This one is a similar (or the same?) blend of Kentucky whiskeys, with the “largest component” being 18-year-old whiskey, but the blend was married inside a barrel that previously held Armagnac. If you don’t know what Armagnac is, you’re not alone, as the spirit still isn’t particularly well known in the U.S.—it’s a specific style of French brandy produced in the Armagnac region on column stills, rather than the pot stills typical of cognac.
On the nose, this one is significantly different than the rum barrel sample—More neutral, but very sweet, with a fruity and vinous quality that is most noticeable. One definitely gets the whisper of “wine” here, with a hard-to-place fruitiness. Oddly, there’s very little ethanol presence on the nose at all to me; it’s curiously absent.
On the palate, weirdly the opposite is true—the alcohol comes roaring in where it wasn’t no the nose. There’s an intense, spicy cinnamon here that is very much of the “Big Red” variety, prickling on the tongue and threatening to drown everything else out. I get a fair amount of oak and pepper, but less fruity impressions on the palate—certainly, the Armagnac doesn’t seem to permeate the flavor profile here in the same way that the rum did. With water, the vinous characteristic on the nose is amplified, however, reminding me of oloroso sherry if you removed the marzipan-like nuttiness. On the palate, however, it remains quite hot and I’m having trouble getting past that.
All in all, this is probably indicative of my own taste in spirits—I love Jamaican rum, and don’t drink much brandy. The latter isn’t quite my thing, but the former is very interesting indeed. I’d love to taste more rum barrel-finished whiskeys from Barrell (or other distilleries!) in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.