Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co. tasting. Photo by Steve Coomes
Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co. tasting. Photo by Steve Coomes

Leaving whiskey unused in a barrel isn’t like you or I forgetting about a case of booze on a cobweb-covered shelf in the cellar. That’s bought and paid for. It could sit there forever and no one would care.

Unbottled booze in a distiller’s warehouse is still taxable by Uncle Sam, whose minions can demand to see it and ask about the bottler’s future plans for it.

It’s also evaporating, losing about 4 percent of its volume every year, which does nothing for profits.

Distill. Age. Bottle. Sell. That’s the system for making whiskey and making money. Stop midway in the process and all you have is taxable product without a plan for a profit.

Unless you come up with a plan like the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co.

Created by London-based spirits giant Diageo, Orphan Barrel is really a program to comb through old inventory at Diageo warehouses and distilleries around the globe, bottle what remains in those barrels, and brand them as the old, rare whiskies they are.

Orphan Barrel tasting courtesy of Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co.
Orphan Barrel tasting courtesy of Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co.

The first two “discoveries” came from the former Stitzel-Weller warehouses in Louisville at 17th and Breckenridge. Whiskey was made on the property at the Bernheim Distillery until 1987, when it was closed, but production returned after United Distillers bought the facility in 1992, rebuilt the distillery, and fired it up in 1993.

Orphan Barrel’s first two releases are bourbons made in those years: Old Blowhard (1987, $150) and Barterhouse (1993, $75).

In mid-March, Orphan Barrel hosted a rollout party for those bottlings at the Seelbach Hotel. About 100 restaurant and bar owners, bar managers, spirits enthusiasts and media were invited to taste the gleanings of those Stitzel-Weller housed barrels.

This was no ordinary bottle cracking. It was an event complete with a custom-made stage and guest seating. The “set” had traveled to and from other launches in Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York City before arriving here.

Yes, all this for old booze. And I was glad to be there.

That Louisville made the launch party list is a nod to its bourbon heritage, said Andrea Wilson, director of whiskey supply strategy for Diageo.

“Since our first two whiskies came from here, it’s certainly fitting,” Wilson said.

It’s also fitting for the high number of bourbon-drinking customers who appreciate bold flavors and bourbon history.

Blowhard and Barterhouse bottles courtesy of Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co.
Old Blowhard and Barterhouse bottles courtesy of Orphan Barrel Whiskey Co.

At a cost of $75 to $150 per bottle, most of us might be “history” before we part with the money to purchase such rarities. But Wilson believes hardcore whiskey fans will succumb to the urge to splurge.

“The target customer for both of these is anybody who’d seek a really unique whiskey experience,” Wilson said. “They’re not just for collectors. They’re for people who appreciate great bourbon and who might want to taste a piece of history.”

Wilson said Diageo warehouse employees around the world get most of the credit for choosing which barrels are used in the Orphan program. They know where they’ve been stored and how those spirits have aged.

“These are people who have worked for 30 years caring for these spirits; they’re passionate about them,” she said. “They want to be true to the liquid inside those barrels. They want it to become something that comes to life when we drink it, not something that gets blended away and loses that character.”

Wilson couldn’t say how many bottles of each were made or what portion of those will go to retail shops versus bars and restaurants. (A lady is allowed to have her secrets, I suppose, especially one bound by a multinational corporate strategy.) What she did allow was finding either may take some calling around to better stores and bars to see who has it.

So what did they taste like?

Two weeks after the fact, I can still recall much of the experience.

Born of the classic Bernheim mashbill (86 percent corn, 6 percent rye and 8 percent barley) bourbon drinkers already know these aren’t going to be softies. (No wheat here, Maker’s Mark fans.)

At 90 proof and even at 20 years old, Barterhouse wasn’t woody, it was creamy (Wilson pointed to buttercream, which was spot-on) with touches of vanilla, ripe fruit, toast and a back note of pepper. It’s a delicious straight sipper.

But just like its name, Old Blowhard is a beast. Wilson said it well: “Part of its personality is to sort-of stand and up punch you in the face.” In that respect, it dominated—no, owned—my mouth like an old Cabernet Sauvignon that demanded the attention of every taste bud and olfactory receptor.

If you’re the bourbon drinker who wants only fruit notes or caramel, you’ll not find them here. It is leathery (as I sniffed it, I thought of horse riding tack), which fans of Scotch or even some Wild Turkey products, will like.

Picking out any caramel or vanilla was next to impossible for me. Amid all the black pepper flavor there might have been a bit of cinnamon, but I couldn’t tell.

To be fair to Old Blowhard, we tasted three other whiskies (including one that was 143 proof!) first, so my palate may not have been as clean as necessary to pick out its subtler nuances. Sadly, at $150 a bottle (surely $25-$35 a shot in bars), and given the limited run of the brand, I’ll probably not get the chance to revisit it.

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.