If there’s one blender out there in the bourbon space that can always be relied upon to keep pushing the boundaries of experimentation, it’s Barrell Craft Spirits. The original Barrell flagships seem almost quaint at this point—what do you mean, they’re simply well-aged sourced bourbons from three different states or more, blended together at cask strength? Where’s the novelty in that? This is the kind of perspective you’re likely to end up with when Barrell has been so busy in recent years with spin-offs and extensions to its product line—products such as Dovetail, Armida and Seagrass, which have heavily relied on flavor infusions from casks that previously contained other spirits or wines such as pear brandy, madeira, cabernet sauvignon, Jamaican rum, Martinique rhum agricole, or Sicilian amaro.
The newest extension of the Barrell family tree, though, is essentially heading back to the more elemental roots of what provides so much of bourbon’s flavor profile, which is “virgin,” freshly charred or toasted oak. This is the newly released Barrell Vantage, a blended American bourbon that is finished in “three distinct expressions of virgin oak: Mizunara, French and toasted American oak casks.” As the company puts it, “the result is a warm, elegant bourbon that highlights the many dimensions of oak.”
Like so many other Barrell releases, this is a blend of sourced bourbon from Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, and like most it is bottled at cask strength—here that’s 57.22% ABV (114.44 proof). Where it diverges is in those secondary maturations—each component whiskey in Vantage is finished separately in a different type of barrel, “then systematically combined according to a blending process fueled in equal parts by a scientific approach, experience, creativity and experimentation.”
What can one expect out of each type of oak? Well, the American component sounds like a barrel that is merely toasted and not actually charred, a recently popular method that is often said to extract notes of toasted oak, marshmallow and baking spice—though I find that in some cases it also brings out unpleasantly tannic qualities. French oak is also likely familiar to American whiskey geeks at this point; it is known for its intensely aromatic, rich and spicy qualities. The Mizunara or “Japanese oak” is the more exotic element, as it is exceedingly expensive and difficult to create barrels from. In whiskeys, it is often said to contribute perfume-like or “incense” notes that are delicate and exotic.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how these three different oak profiles are playing with one another in Barrell Vantage.
On the nose, Vantage is intriguingly exotic and hard to immediately pin down. It strikes me as nutty first and foremost, combining with substantial ethanol heat to create an impression that suggests roasted peanuts with toffee and chile flakes or mole sauce. Apple and pear fruit poke through the noise, as does some star anise-like spice. The oak come forward with toasted spiciness, though there’s also something more reminiscent of lumberyard, and earthier tones.
On the palate, though, the oak really becomes apparent, and fairly dominant when all is said and done. At first taste, I immediately found this to be nigh on overwhelming, thinking that the dry oakiness of Vantage had perhaps thrown the flavors of the base bourbon blend entirely off kilter. However, subsequent tastes slowly began to change my mind—there’s a panoply of different oak influences happening here, but the rest of the profile does find its own place to coexist once your own palate begins to adjust.
Up front, I’m getting explosive oak spice and an oily texture all over the palate, with tons of cinnamon and ginger, along with earthier notes of cigar box/woodshed, and black pepper/chile. Sweetness creeps forward more as you go, with honey and toffee, especially suggestive of honeycomb candy. Barrell uses the word “warm” several times in their descriptions, and it’s very apt—the big dry spice notes really convey a hearty warmth, making this feel like a winter dram, and giving the cinnamon in particular a quality evocative of snickerdoodle cookies. The tannic elements of the oak, meanwhile, are definitely there in moderate to high intensity, and they dry out the end of each sip, though I think it thankfully stops short of being unpleasantly dry at the end of the day.
The overall effect is unique, though I imagine it may well be divisive, which is nothing new for these Barrell brand extensions. The company is unafraid to take risks when it comes to challenging their drinkers’ preconceived notions, and here it will likely delight those drinkers who really gravitate toward “toasted” bourbon releases in particular. I still feel as if my own opinion of Vantage could evolve significantly as I taste it in the future, but that is indicative of the complexity in Barrell’s blending program, which is by no means a bad thing.
Distillery: Barrell Craft Spirits
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Blend of straight bourbon whiskeys
ABV: 57.22% (114.44 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 bottles, $80 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.