If you’re a seasoned whiskey drinker, or an emerging bourbon geek, then you’ve no doubt noticed the following three things in the world of new American whiskey releases over the last few years.
— Sourced blends of bourbon from multiple states.
— An ever-increasing number of high proof or cask-strength releases.
— Rapidly climbing price tags.
Together, those three factors tell much of the tale when it comes to hot new bourbon brands of the last decade, and often all three are true at once. Many of these brands are the work of non-distiller producers, also simply referred to as NDPs—companies that source whiskey from all over and rely on their master blenders to create appealing blends that are meant to create premium products at home on the top shelf of your local package store or whiskey bar. Some have managed to put together sourced blends that are more affordable, but the drive toward barrel proof releases has often meant that these NDP bourbons will cost you a pretty penny.
That’s true of most releases from Barrell Craft Spirits, the makers of Barrell Bourbon, Barrell Rye and various additional whiskey/rum brands. Your typical Barrell Bourbon release tends to bear an average age statement somewhere north of 10 years, with whiskey from all over the U.S. (frequently TN, KY, and IN), and is presented at cask strength for around $85 or $90. Special releases, on the other hand, like the BCS Bourbon series, can run north of $250. There’s no denying that the series is likely seen as out of reach for the more casual or thrifty consumer.
Stellum Bourbon, however, may change that perception. This is a new brand wholly owned by Barrell, but bearing its own, separate branding and aesthetic. Like a typical Barrell Bourbon release, its component whiskeys hail from Indiana (MGP), Tennessee (almost certainly Dickel) and Kentucky (a mystery), but Barrell notes that this series is meant to primarily highlight MGP’s whiskey, with accents from the others. Stellum Bourbon (blue label) and Stellum Rye (green label) are both non-age-stated, with the company saying that Stellum Bourbon features a wide blend of barrels from 4-16 years old, although most of it is 5-6-year-old MGP, from three different MGP bourbon mash bills. Importantly, both brands are still presented at cask strength, with a considerably more accessible MSRP of $55, produced by the same team that produces Barrell Bourbon.
So what do we have here? Well, Stellum seems to be a way for Barrell to do a couple things at once. It gives them a new national brand that will presumably be produced in larger quantities, at an attractive price point that is more competitive with affordable cask-strength bourbons from other major distilleries. It will likely be a permanent recipe, rather than Barrell Bourbon releases that vary in their blend (and flavor profile) with each batch. This will effectively make Stellum Bourbon something of a flagship whiskey for Barrell Craft Spirits as a whole, because it’s the one brand they won’t be changing with each release.
It’s hard not to like the concept, because who doesn’t want more affordable, cask-strength releases on the market? At $55, this can compete from a value standpoint with cask-strength releases from KY powerhouses like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Brown-Forman, while hopefully retaining some of the complexity and balance that Barrell is known for.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting Stellum Bourbon. I’ll have a separate review of Stellum Rye coming up soon.
On the nose, there’s a few different distinct things happening here at once. My immediate, first impression is nutty—lots of butter pecan and hints of peanut butter, into lots of caramelized sugars that favor toffee. However, this is also quite spicy on the nose, with sweet spice notes of cinnamon, allspice and cola spice, as well as a bright red fruity note that evokes the tartness of cranberry. Importantly, it avoids being overtly hot on the nose for the ABV, which is an obvious concern with a blend that is younger than the typical Barrell Bourbon batch. All in all, this smells both sweet and spicy, with flashes of fruity and nutty highlights.
On the palate, the fruitiness comes out to play a bit more—I’m getting fresh green apples that are slightly tart, along with tart cherry. Overall, the acidity seems to be a bit on the higher side than most, but it works well with the fruit flavors here. The sweet spice is present in a big way here as well, combining cola spices with more of a peppery/chile spiciness. At the same time, there’s also considerable sweetness, evoking vanilla pudding/wafers. As on the nose, it strikes me as a lively balance between sweetness (this is fairly sweet bourbon), spice and fruit, and it remains pretty easy to drink neat for the proof as well.
All in all, I’d say that Barrell has pulled it off nicely—Stellum Bourbon packs a lot of flavor into this bottle, and it falls at a cask-strength price point that will win it many new converts who aren’t ready to drop closer to $90 on a bottle of bourbon. Will the rye be as impressive? Check back soon for that review.
Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Blend of straight bourbons
ABV: 57.49% ABV (114.98 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $55 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.