Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series of well-aged bourbons, rescued from the ancient aging racks at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery outside Louisville, KY, are “prestige whiskeys” by any definition. The mere fact that the Stitzel-Weller juice is finite, and can’t be reproduced exactly the same again, is a major draw—there will be Stitzel-Weller Orphan Barrel releases for a few years to come, but eventually they’ll have to come to an end. And if it’s tough to get, you’d better believe it’s going to be expensive. The question with every Orphan Barrel release, then, is whether the contents of the bottle justify the price.
Rhetoric might be considered the flagship of the Orphan Barrel releases, given its progressive aging nature. First released as a 20-year-old bourbon, each release of Rhetoric has spent one more year in oak, up to the current 24 years, and at least one more future release at 25 years old. Beyond that, it’s not known for sure if the series will continue, but after tasting the 24-year-old, I can only assume that Diageo would want to keep it going as long as possible. Because frankly, as it stands, this is some pretty delicious bourbon.
Rhetoric 24 is an old-school mash bill that is heavy on corn, with only small amounts of barley and rye for flavor and balance. Clocking in at 45.5% ABV (91 proof), in this case it’s the 24 years in the wood that have clearly done the heavy lifting.
On the nose, Rhetoric 24 hits with the big, wet oak that you would expect, chased by molasses cookie richness. This gives the impression of a whiskey that is quite rich, with red berry and flamed orange fruit notes, brown sugar, anise and cinnamon. The color is a deep, deep amber-brown, as would also be expected after so much time in the barrel.
On the palate is where this whiskey shines. Thick, viscous and explosive, it summons a moderate amount of heat that is appropriate to the ABV, and explodes on the palate with a long-lasting rush of baking spices that linger for minutes at a time. There’s plenty of toasty wood here, but it’s not so dominated by oak as seasoned bourbon drinkers would likely fear, as is sometimes a criticism of this series. There’s certainly nothing astringent about the wood character—rather, it’s sweet and toasty, with tons of vanilla/brown sugar and spice notes of cinnamon, cardamom and sweet licorice. Dare I say, the heat level is actually dialed in rather perfectly for neat drinking, at least to my own taste. As it sits in the glass and aerates, I get more fruit notes on the palate, and a very pleasant apricot/stone fruit note in particular.
Suffice to say, I really, really enjoyed this—one of the best bourbons I’ve tasted in recent memory, regardless of price tag.
So, does it justify a $130 MSRP? I very rarely say this, but sure—I think it actually can, given the rarity and unique aspect to its origins. With that said, good luck actually finding a bottle of Rhetoric 24 at the list price, as many vendors seem to have jacked it up to $200 or more, confident in bourbon geeks dropping dime to obtain a “collectible.”
As for this bottle, though, as Ferris Bueller once observed, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
Distillery: Stitzel-Weller (Diageo)
ABV: 45.5% (91 proof)
Availability: Limited release, 750 ml bottles, $130 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.