Diageo raids warehouses for 'Orphan Barrel' bourbons

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2014 

Spirits behemoth Diageo, parent of huge global brands Johnny Walker, Guinness, Crown Royal, Smirnoff, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan and Baileys, is doing a little something with bourbon.

Diageo, which also owns popular Bulleit Bourbon and Rye brands, is releasing an "Orphan Barrel" series, beginning with two bourbons found hidden amongst the company's voluminous Kentucky warehouses.

Like the whiskey equivalent of the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with lost gems gathering dust in huge warehouses?

"There's no such things as 'lost barrels,'" Ewan Morgan, Master of Whisky, corrected, "just barrels we don't know what we're going to do with yet."

Last year, "we were talking to the folks looking at warehouses in Kentucky, in Canada, in Scotland, asking if they have any additional inventory unallocated to a project," Morgan said.

What they turned up at the old Stitzel-Weller rickhouses in Kentucky, he said, were a few dozen barrels of great whiskey that have been bottled as distinct releases. The first two — Barterhouse, a 20-year-old bourbon, and Old Blowhard, a 26-year-old bourbon — hit the market this month in limited quantities.

"We're expecting that to deplete very quickly," he said. While there might be a second release of the Barterhouse, this is it for the Old Blowhard, Morgan added.

Since the Orphan Barrel project was announced last month, "whiskey geeks" have been trying to figure out what the whiskey might be.

Here's what Morgan told the Herald-Leader:

Both have the same mash bill — 86 percent corn, 8 percent barley and 6 percent rye — but they came from different distilleries, although they were both Bernheim distilleries. (How's that for a future bourbon trivia question?)

"Old Blowhard is from old Bernheim, and it's a 1987 distillate, and Barterhouse is from new Bernheim ... It's 1993 distillate," Morgan said. "And they were stored on site at Bernheim in masonry warehouses for a couple of years, then transferred to Stitzel-Weller, where we plucked them out of there."

They were shipped to Tullahoma, Tenn., for bottling at Diageo's smallest plant, which normally does about 250 barrels of George Dickel a day. So all the Orphan Barrel releases have to be hand-filled and bottled, Morgan said.

And both were taken down to about 90 proof: Barterhouse was originally 135.9 proof, while Old Blowhard was 148.7 proof, he said.

How do they taste?

"At first I was a huge fan of the Barterhouse, but now I love the Old Blowhard," Morgan said.

Barterhouse is softer, with floral notes and a hint of biscuit and buttercream in the nose, while Old Blowhard has a smoky, salty nose, with a heavy tannic mouthfeel and an orange peel finish. Both are surprisingly smooth, given their time in the barrel but the age definitely shows in the woodier, complex Old Blowhard.

The suggested retail price for Barterhouse is $75, while for Old Barterhouse it's $150.

"For a 26-year-old for 150 bucks, that's a pretty good deal," Morgan said.

The Orphan Barrel releases will continue with Rhetoric, a bourbon with a lighter flavor profile, shipping in mid-May, and future whiskies coming from other Diageo stores as long as they find something interesting, Morgan said.

Diageo wants to expand its presence in bourbon to take advantage of the boom in North American whiskey. To that end, the company said it will create another new label, "Blade & Bow," which was described in a Diageo investor's presentation in November as "aged and beautifully finished Kentucky bourbon entrenched in our historic Stitzel-Weller distillery site."

Morgan was vague on Blade & Bow: That might or might not be the bourbon's final name, he said. And he was absolutely mum on where the liquid might come from, although Diageo's marketing definitely conjours Stitzel-Weller.

"The Blade & Bow brand integrates images from this distillery and its storied past to create a new-to-world ultra-premium bourbon, deliciously crafted with finely aged and precious bourbon stock from our Kentucky rick house," said Peter McDonough, chief marketing and innovation officer, Diageo North America, in November.

Given all the interest in Stitzel-Weller in Louisville — Diageo also recently announced plans to invest $2 million in a visitors center there that should be partially open by Derby Day in May — is Diageo going to reactivate the distillery? (Diageo, which is a member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, maintains a license to distill in Kentucky but is not known to actively use it.)

"At the moment, we have nothing to share," Morgan said. "But as soon as do, we'll let everyone know."

The Stitzel-Weller distillery, closed since 1991, has taken on a kind of mythic status among fans, who speak of bourbons made there with the hushed tones reserved for relics of the saints. Pappy Van Winkle, the most sought after bourbon on the planet, originated there.

Diageo, which has no affiliation with Pappy Van Winkle, wouldn't mind trying to capture a bit of that magic in a new bottle. They know they own the marketing holy grail, if they can figure out how to unlock its potential.

"We have brands that have been away for a time that we might want to bring back," Morgan said coyly. "We're extremely aware of the interest people have in Stitzel-Weller. The amount of emails we get on a daily basis is incredible. People have this passion and interest for that. ...We all love it as well."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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