If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that I spend a consider amount of time at Spirit World, and I’ve written about a number of awesome events I’ve attended there, including last year’s “Super Tasting” of nine rare whiskies. Almost exactly a year after that event, I had a very special opportunity – I was invited to co-host this year’s Super Tasting!
I accepted the offer as soon as it was extended – I would have been attending as a participant anyway, but the opportunity to help plan and organize the event, and geek out even more, was just too good to pass up. The preparations began a couple of weeks ago, when I met with my fellow co-host, Spirit World’s head bartender and cocktail master, Alzuri, to go through the “arduous” task of tasting all of the whiskies for the event.
In a deviation from last year, this year’s tasting focused solely on American whiskies, with particular emphasis on rare, limited, or otherwise sought-after bottles. In particular, we featured several bottles from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel line. Although some of these releases have been divisive, they certainly are interesting and hard to get a hold of, so it was great to have the opportunity to try them, compare them, and get other people sharing their opinions.
As we underwent the “arduous” task of tasting our way through each of the whiskies, we noticed some interesting things. One was that, despite the fact that several of the whiskies share the same mashbill (a few of the Orphan Barrels, as well as the I.W. Harper 15), they each had a unique character of their own. It made for a fun comparison, and gave us some good talking points for the main event.
One thing about preparing for an event like this that posed a challenge for me involved my tasting notes. Normally, like many whisk(e)y bloggers, I tend to geek out a bit and try to pick everything apart (if you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve noticed this). My usual tasting notes are a jumble of flavors, aromas, and quirky experiences I had while enjoying a dram. I hope that, by writing them up people will at least be intrigued and, if they try the same dram, they can compare notes with me – after all, we each smell and taste different things, and it’s fun to see what unique characteristics different people pick out.
However, when preparing to lead a tasting, I tried to steer away from overly detailed notes, since I didn’t want to give the impression that people “should” smell or taste certain things. Instead, I focused on the basics, and tried to make note of points that would generate interest and discussion. That means my own notes weren’t as detailed as usual, and that’s reflected below. Hopefully I can give you enough of a sense of the experience!
Anyway, after the initial “practice session,” I couldn’t wait for the main event. Finally, the Big Day rolled around and I headed off to Spirit World to co-host my first-ever event like this.
As always, Spirit World’s private tasting room was an excellent, intimate venue for a memorable event. Once the tasting kicked off, this room was packed with whisk(e)y fans of all ages and experience levels. It was great to see everyone from ultra-knowledgeable super fans to enthusiastic novices turn up for an event like this, and it seemed like everyone had a great time.
Okay, if you’ve made it this far, it’s probably because you’re eager to hear about the whiskies that we had on offer that night. So, without further ado, here we go:
1. Orphan Barrel Forged Oak – This one struck me as the lightest of the bunch, both in terms of the aroma and taste. In fact, I didn’t get much off of it at all at first. However, when left to sit in the glass for a while, it got more interesting. On the nose, I got some notes of damp earth and something a little musty and composty, making this more vegetal than I typically get in a bourbon. On the palate, that vegetal note remained, along with some simple fruity notes. It wraps up in a dry finish that doesn’t coat the tongue much.
2. I.W. Harper – Like Forged Oak, this whiskey was also distilled at the Bernheim Distillery, and uses the same mashbill. It’s also the same age, which made for a natural comparison. It has some of the same vegetal notes, but with a bit more of a tangy body. This was coupled with some mild spices and a little saltiness. It also tastes quite punchy, like there is substantially more alcohol presentthan the 43% it actually clocks in at. Personally, I found this a bit more complex and engaging than the Forged oak. But, as I said, the comparison was fun
3. Orphan Barrel Gifted Horse – The newest Orphan Barrel release is also one of the most unusual. Instead of being drawn from rare old casks of (usually) Bernheim whiskey, this is a blend of 17 bourbon from Heaven Hill, vatted with four year old MGP bourbon and four year old MGP corn whiskey. Since the other whiskies we were tasting were split bewteen Diageo and Heaven Hill, this one was an interesting transit, in that it quite literally merged the two.
More interesting, though, was the whiskey itself. The combination of corn whisky and young and old bourbon produces a blend that is both richly flavored and fresh, with notes of citrus on the nose blending with a bit of vanilla and butterscotch. On the palate, I got some more citrus, spices (especially black pepper and ginger), and plenty of creamed corn. This was a unique experience, with each sip revealing something new. I was a big fan of this whiskey, and wouldn’t hesitate to call it my favorite Orphan Barrel release yet.
4. Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey – I’ve been eager to try another Parker’s Heritage release ever since I tasted “Promise of Hope” at the Library Pub. This one in particular has had my attention since it was first announced, as it’s been quite divisive among American whiskey fans. As an American (non-single) malt whiskey, it’s a pretty unusual beast, with a blend of 65% malted barley and 35% corn. A lot of people have apparently been put off by it, not knowing how to characterize it – it doesn’t taste anything like a bourbon, and it doesn’t taste anything like an American single malt. I’ve been dying to try it for myself.
This whiskey may defy classification, but it’s darn good. In fact, it was easily among my favorite of the drams we sampled. The nose is complex and rich, but the aromas themselves were hard to place. I had an easier time picking out flavors on the palate, where a fudgy (Kari at Spirit World said “Tootsie Rolls,” and that fit perfectly), with some banana and apple. The corn emerges as a sticky-sweet pudding note, and all of this delicious sweetness masks the potent 57% abv punch. I really wish it was easier to get a hold of this whiskey, because wow, do I want a bottle!
5. Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey – We followed up with another unique Parker’s Heritage dram. This one was last year’s 100% wheat whiskey. Like the Malt Whiskey, it was among the best whiskies we tried, with a nose packed with hot cream of wheat cereal, some damp hay, and a substantial hint of maple syrup. The palate is massively rich, with creamy cereal notes, toffee, cinnamon, and maple. It’s like my favorite childhood winter breakfasts rolled into one adult-friendly drink! Fair warning though – unlike the malt whiskey, this one doesn’t hide its alcohol, and at over 127 proof, it hits hard! We cautioned people not to sniff to closely or quickly, or noses would be going home crying.
6. Orphan Barrel Barterhouse – After a brief break to recover from the awesomeness of Parker’s Heritage, we returned to the land of Diageo to try the very first Orphan Barrel release. This one smells a bit like sawdust to me (a smell I’ve always liked), mixed with coconut and caramel. It’s a gentle and approachable nose, like many of the orphan barrel releases. On the palate, the dominate flavor for me reminded me of these plastic bubbles my mom used to get for me when I was little (anyone else remember those…?), mixed with some pepper and light fruits. This one shares a mashbill with Rhetoric, Harper, and Forged Oak, but you’d never know it – the whiskies taste completely different.
7. Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet – This was my favorite of the Orphan Barrel line until I tried Gifted Horse. Lost Prophet deviates from most of the Orphan Barrel releases, in that it was distilled at Buffalo Trace, rather than Bernheim. In fact, this whiskey has a mashbill quite similar to (if not the same as) Buffalo Trace’s rye-heavy mashbill #2 (the recipe used for Blantons, Elmer T. Lee, and several others). On the nose, this one had plenty of toffee, vanilla, and orange, with a strong praline note dominating. There was also a bit of a cherry cough syrup note on the nose. It tastes just like it smells, with buttery nuts, a little salted caramel, and some cinnamon and vanilla. The finish fell away quickly on my dram, but that might be because the bottle level was pretty low and the whiskey had probably oxidized quite a bit.
8. Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 21 Year Old – This is the second release in Diageo’s new Rhetoric experiment. The plan is to release successively older Rhetorics each year. Last year’s inaugural release was a 20 year old Bernheim whiskey, and this one is supposedly the same whiskey, just aged a year longer. We compared the two (for, y’know, science), and I found that the 21 was deeper flavored and more engaging, with some lemon, a hint of cherry, some honey, and a bit of fudge on the nose. The flavors are all dark and rich, with figs, toasted almonds, and caramelized sugars.
9. Elijah Craig 18 Year Old – It was nearly a three-way tie for my favorite whiskey, with this one neck and neck with its Heaven Hill siblings. Elijah Craig 18 is just a finely crafted bourbon. It doesn’t necessarily have unique flavors or aromas, but everything there is perfectly proportioned and astonishingly well integrated. The nose is classic bourbon, with vanilla, cinnamon, black pepper, and lemon, as well as some toasted oak. On the palate, this one really shines – it immediately coats the tongue and delivers citrus, toffee, ginger, and lemon, with each flavor lingering more or less forever in one of the longest finishes I’ve ever gotten from a bourbon. Eventually, it dries out with some tannic oak and a bit of wood smoke. Wow. This is so good that I almost forgive it for killing Elijah Craig 12 (almost…).
Anyway, this event was an absolute blast, and I’m already looking forward to hosting another tasting (hopefully soon!). In the meantime, there are many more drams to be had!
I’m off to California tomorrow, but when I get back, look for that long-promised Compass Box post. It should be fun!
Questions of the Day: What are your thoughts on the Orphan Barrel line? What’s the best tasting you’ve been to?