As the American whiskey market continued its maturation over the course of the last six years, there was always one constant guaranteed to grab headlines: Diageo’s Orphan Barrel releases.
A rather audacious program from its first conception, Orphan Barrel’s purpose was to present consumers with products that would be truly unique, in the sense that they could never be replicated again. By bottling up extremely old stocks of bourbon that were essentially just gathering dust in defunct distilleries or discarded collections, various Orphan Barrel releases have offered us a glimpse into the distant past. Whether they’re brand names such as Forged Oak, Barterhouse or Lost Prophet, Orphan Barrel releases always involve a degree of intrigue. But I think most whiskey fans would agree that ultimately, it’s the Rhetoric line around which the concept of Orphan Barrel was truly built.
Rhetoric was the original, flagship Orphan Barrel release, and from the beginning its planned roll-out meant it was always intended to build to an epic conclusion, six years later. Made with the liquid from barrels stored in the old Stizel-Weller warehouses, but actually hailing originally from the Bernheim Distillery, the pedigree of the barrels is still rather mysterious—although we do know the supposed mash bill of 86 percent corn, 8 percent malted barley and only 6 percent rye, which is usually presented around 90 proof. The other thing we know is just how limited the supply has always been—each progressively older Rhetoric release drains it further, never to be seen again.
Which brings us to the latest and last entry in the Rhetoric series, Rhetoric 25-Year-Old. As previously noted, this just-released bourbon is the FINAL time that those old Bernheim barrels containing Rhetoric will be tapped, closing out the Rhetoric chapter in Orphan Barrel’s history. And wouldn’t you know it—Diageo was kind enough to send Paste some small samples of not only Rhetoric 25, but every Rhetoric release to date.
And so, allow me to present: Rhetoric Week! Each day this week, we’ll be posting tasting notes on progressively older samples of Rhetoric, leading up to Friday’s review of Rhetoric 25. We’ll do the lead-up as tasting notes rather than proper “reviews,” given that bottles of Rhetoric 20-24 are no longer available.
But today, we start at the beginning.
Rhetoric 20-Year-Old Bourbon
I haven’t had a chance to sample many of the Rhetoric years in the past, but everything I’ve read about the series suggests that each year’s Rhetoric release has a tendency to be surprisingly different from the one that proceeded it. This is likely due to the sheer degree of individuality that various barrels of Rhetoric have attained during their unusually long aging. Most master distillers will tell you that 20 years old is already very old for most bourbons, to the point that they may be completely overtaken by the unpalatable tannic aspects of the oak, made all the stronger via the use of freshly charred barrels. Whereas 20 years is no big deal in the world of scotch (which are aged in used barrels), the same amount of time is arguably “too much” for bourbon—unless, of course, you get lucky. In a sense, that’s the whole point of the Orphan Barrel releases—they’re trying to find those needles in the haystack. So, our evaluation of each Rhetoric year is basically an attempt to answer that question.
On the nose, Rhetoric 20 immediately comes off as oaky and dry. I get a good amount of leather and cigar box here, with notes of tobacco leaves and spice. On the palate, there’s an initial rush of heat—this stuff is pretty bombastic for 90 proof—and tons of oak. There is certainly some tannic sensation on the tongue, which lends this bourbon more dryness than you would likely expect—it’s not “dessert whiskey” by any means, although there is some mild residual sweetness to help balance things out. I get some floral notes, and spice notes of black pepper and cardamom pods, but all in all, the impression is one of dryness and oak.
A bit more richness would be welcome here, but it’s not a bad start to Rhetoric Week. Check back tomorrow for our second entry, on Rhetoric 21-Year-Old.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.