At this point, you’re not likely to find many whiskey fans who would claim that Kentucky’s Barrel Craft Spirits produces anything less than an exceptional product, but we could understand it if you found whiskey fans who were a bit confused by that product lineup. Barrell simply has a lot of different products these days, all with the “Barrell” name slapped across the front, and it’s not always clear at a glance how this translates to MSRPs, which can vary quite substantially. One Barrell bourbon is on the shelf at $90, and another is tipping the scales at $500. They can both boast some well-aged distillate, so what’s going on?
It breaks down in this way. The core range of Barrell Bourbons are numbered releases, and they’re just called “Barrell Bourbon.” These bottles tend to be blends of both older and younger whiskeys from Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, and they’re retailing for around $90. The latest, for instance, was Barrell Bourbon Batch 031, and that was a blend of 6, 7, 10, 15 and 16-year-old barrels.
You may also see Barrell releases in gray labels, however, and if you look close enough you’ll see that they don’t just read as “Barrell Bourbon,” but “Barrel Craft Spirits Bourbon.” These “BCS” or “Gray Label” batches forgo the blending of younger and older distillate to focus exclusively on the older stocks, and their MSRP is subsequently much higher, in the $250 range. Barrell likewise has “Gray Label” versions of their other products such as Barrell Whiskey (Canadian whiskey) or Barrell Seagrass, which can add to the confusion. Now, though, the company has added another new label as their pièce de résistance—Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon, which additionally functions as an experiment in secondary toasted barrel aging. As the company puts it:
Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon is a blend of 16- and 17-year-old straight bourbons. Barrels for this release were selected from four different collections: cherry bomb barrels with a rich mouthfeel, nutty oak-forward barrels, high proof and high complexity barrels, and barrels with pronounced milk chocolate notes. The last group underwent a secondary maturation in toasted virgin American oak casks before being added to this intricate and seductive blend.
This, then, is a blend of very well-aged barrels from Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, in which a portion of those barrels underwent a secondary aging in toasted (and possibly newly charred, this is unclear) casks before the whole thing was bottled at a cask strength of 113.5 (56.75% ABV). The MSRP is a gaudy $500, a level that I would assume is likely to actually depress resellers from seeking this one out, considering that the profit margin of trying to mark this up on the secondary market would likely be difficult. Regardless, I must say I’m looking forward to tasting this particular batch, so let’s get into it.
On the nose, this one immediately announces itself as rich, sweet, oaky and decadent. There’s a wealth of caramelized sugars to be found, landing somewhere between the scent of freshly cooking down caramel on the stovetop, and a nuttier toffee. The candy shop aromatics continue with molasses, cola and hints of ginger and cherry syrup, while toasted oak is a persistent background player. The whole impression is extremely warm and suggests a great depth of richness and roundness.
On the palate, this is as sweet and rich as the nose promises, although it thankfully never reads as saccharine or artificial. Brown sugar, heavy vanilla, toasted cinnamon and candied ginger are major players, along with luxardo cherry and slightly more bitter, brambly dark fruit (blackberry, currant). I’m reminded of cookie butter, what in Europe is known as speculoos, combined with dark fruit preserves and undercurrents of oak and cigar wrapper. Ethanol presence, meanwhile, is fairly gentle from the proof, though it does flare up from time to time. The toasted oakiness lends just enough balancing dryness to keep this from reading as overly sweet. All in all? A decadent delight, with complexity to spare. It’s quite desserty, and probably too sweet for some bourbon experts who want their drams drier, oakier and funkier, but this is the kind of extra-matured bourbon that I can only imagine would perform extremely well in a blind tasting setting with many tasters, because its profile is a crowd-pleaser.
Frankly, it’s one of the most purely delicious bourbons I’ve tasted in 2021, which I think means I’ll have to go and add this after the fact to my already published list of the best whiskeys of 2021. A company like Barrell is making a significant promise when they package any bourbon in a bottle with a $500 MSRP, but this is one case where I can’t imagine anyone who feels comfortable dropping half a grand on a bottle of bourbon would be disappointed in the result.
Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Blend of straight bourbon whiskeys
ABV: 56.75% (113.5 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 bottles, $500 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.