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Orphan Bourbons, Find a Home

on June 5 | in Issue 7, Wine & Spirits | by | with No Comments

You didn’t know what you were going to find, but there was excitement

In the face of all of the distilleries popping up around the country making everything from absinthe to bourbon, there is a great story to be told about a distillery that is older than most of the people starting those new ones. (A lot older.) Have you ever bought a house where you bought everything in it? You didn’t know what you were going to find, but there was excitement (and a lot of work) ahead of you as you cleaned out the house. I’ve done this—it’s actually how I acquired a 1914 Jacques Straub “Cocktails” bartending guide (look it up if you don’t know what it is—talk about classic cocktails! His Old Fashioned doesn’t include rye or bourbon; it calls for “a liquer”).

Diageo has done this too, except they bought old distilleries and instead of coming across an old bartending guide, they came across barrels—full ones…and they are old, like 20-26 years old, filled with glorious, delicious bourbon!  That’s right, and they found three different bourbons they are releasing under the Orphan Barrel program: Old Blowhard, Barterhouse, and Rhetoric.  Think Pappy is the only bourbon out there that will have as big cult following? Think again, because chances are you haven’t tried Rhetoric yet…but, I’m getting ahead of myself.


Where did Diageo find these little gems of deliciousness? They bought the old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, KY (where else, right?) but the barrels were found at the Stitzel-Weller distillery.

Fact: The barrels were found in a masonry rack warehouse (or rick house) and stored 9 to 12 stories high with central steam heat. Also, did you know that liquids age faster in metal warehouses than those stored in brick warehouses? Who knew? However, with the steam heat, it accelerates the aging of the liquid.

The real issue is this: How does it taste? We’re talking 20- to 26-year-old bourbons here, and the last two bourbons I talked about were aged eight years, at best.  We’re not in Kansas anymore, kids…we’ve moved to the big time.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, kids…we’ve moved to the big time.

Barterhouse and Rhetoric are 20-year-old bourbons and Old Blowhard is a 26 year.  The really cool thing about Rhetoric is they are keeping barrels back to release 21 year, 22 year, etc. until they get to 25 year bourbon.  (Knock, knock, do you hear that, Pappy?)

orphan bourbon 2Barterhouse, the first 20-year-old bourbon to be released, is made up of 86 percent corn, 8 percent barley, and 6 percent rye; after maturing, it weighs in at 135.9 proof (okay, GT Stagg, you have company now).  Alas, unlike Stagg, they didn’t bottle Barterhouse at that proof; they did bottle it at 90.7 proof or 45.1 percent ABV.

This ain’t no cocktail mixing bourbon and you’re not going to put in one big cube (although you could—this is best enjoyed neat, with a drop or two of distilled water). I know I sound like a broken record, but ingredients count—use distilled water.  If you’re doing a three finger pour, one to three drops should do you. Test it out: Try it without water, try it with one drop, two drops…you get the idea.

With Barterhouse, you will get a warm spice and a bit of sweetness in the nose (yes, it’s like potpourri for the whiskey lover) and the taste is smooth and a bit like toasted grains—and at 90.7 proof, you get a little bite on the end, which is just fine with me.  A rather enjoyable sipping bourbon.

Barterhouse’s big brother, Old Blowhard, contains the same mash build, but it is a bit higher proof with a bigger bite at the end, which could be attributed to spending more time in wood which means more time with the tannins.

orphan bourbon 3Rhetoric (heavy, happy sigh) is a personal favorite of mine.  You will get caramel and baked apples on the nose and the texture is very smooth.  The taste delivers more of a spice and wood flavor than the caramel and apple—although that does come through, it’s just not as much as the latter.

I spent some time with one of Denver’s foremost bartenders, Kevin Burke, bar manager at one of my favorite restaurants, Colt & Gray.  Kevin’s bartending skills are well known but I wanted to talk with him about sipping bourbons because he’s quite knowledgeable about them.  And between Colt & Gray and their speakeasy downstairs, Ste. Ellie, they carry over 60 bourbons, whiskeys, and ryes.

Kevin’s knowledge of the bourbon “scene” is very extensive, which I have also found with the other bartender’s I have interviewed.  These guys take their craft seriously and are students of their trade.  Kevin is no different—you can tell by talking with him, bourbon isn’t the only spirit where his knowledge runs deep.  It is, however, bourbon that brought us to him, and if you want a bourbon cocktail, it would be a wise choice to order one from him (especially because his Twitter handle is @UnBoulevardier).  (This cocktail follows me around like a good luck charm!)

orphan bourban5We had a great conversation about many different bourbons, Pappy included, and we tasted 20- and 23-year-old Pappy alongside the Barterhouse and Old Blowhard.  Kevin’s assessment of Barterhouse is it is delicate in texture with caramel and vanilla flavor profile.  Old Blowhard is a lot more herbaceous and offers more grip on your tongue.  We put a few drops of water after tasting them neat, and it definitely opens the two whiskeys up a bit. And time in the glass definitely opened up Old Blowhard a lot.

Tasted beside the Pappy, I noticed they are quite different: Pappy seems to have more of a dirt and grass nose and taste where the others were heavier on the vanilla, caramel, and spice.  I will attribute this to that Barterhouse and Old Blowhard are 86 percent corn, where Pappy is a little heavier on the rye (but still maintains at least 51 percent corn—it has to by law to be considered bourbon.)

If you want to try it, there are a number of establishments that carry it. Call your favorite one and see if they have it.  If you want to buy a bottle, Barterhouse will be around $75, Old Blowhard will take about $150 out of your wallet and Rhetoric, my personal favorite, is around $99.  All of these are available in very limited supply, so I wouldn’t wait if you want to buy some. I know some stores have already sold out and they aren’t getting any more (because there isn’t any more, except for Rhetoric, which hasn’t been released at the time of this article and you’ll get five more years of it but I’m guessing it won’t be $99/bottle either after this year).

orphan bourbon 4As for Rhetoric, start looking around the end of June. It’s hard to say who will carry it at this point, as it too will be heavily allocated.  It’s worth the hunt, trust me.  You can check back here as well and I will comment on this article and let you know where you can find it.

Or head down to Colt & Gray and enjoy a glass of Barterhouse with Kevin. They have a generous 2 ounce pour policy, where most pour 1–1½ ounces.  Kevin’s philosophy is if you’re going to enjoy a whiskey, have enough to enjoy.  Colt & Gray is located at 1553 Platte Street in Denver.

We’re mixing it a bit next month—our featured bar will be in San Francisco.


Photo credits: Alan Hill Photo (Denver Photographer)

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