No Distillery, No Problem: Why You Should Buy Whiskey Without a Corporate Legend
Barrell Whiskey Batch 001 and Barrell Bourbon Batch 004
Brad Japhe for the Village Voice
So there's this dirty, not-so-little secret in the whiskey industry involving production and bottling: A large majority of so-called craft spirits aged in the barrel aren't actually distilled by the folks whose name you see on the label. That means many celebrated small-batch brands are little more than pretty bottlers. This fact has been well documented, yet it continues to shock many a drinker.
Now, does this make these products inferior? Absolutely not. In fact, with Barrell Bourbon, a strong case can be made for just the opposite. And unlike others, which sell a misleading story on the label to cloak the origins of what lies beneath, Barrell is straightforward with the consumer. It's not selling you a story, just a damn fine whiskey, and its newest release just hit shelves earlier this month.
Every whiskey drinker has been sold a myth at some point. It's easy to fall prey when a brand can technically state "made by" or "produced by" on the label so long as that brand was responsible for putting it into the bottle. My own bamboozling came at the hands of a certain "Colorado" bourbon attributing its greatness to the pure Rocky Mountain snowmelt used to make it. Turns out this whiskey is likely distilled and aged far away from anything resembling more than a rolling hill. Regardless, I still love the stuff. I'd just be happier to know precisely where it came from. And most drinkers, also thirsting for knowledge, are capable of handling the truth.
Barrell's company founder, Joe Beatrice, lives in New York, but distilled his Batch 001 Whiskey in Indiana. Although he's not allowed to divulge the precise distillery from which it's sourced, the new release proudly asserts its Indianan heritage on the back label. "We're as transparent as we can be, contractually, about our whiskey," he says.
Beatrice can also tell you that this 122.5-proof, cask-strength expression is a proprietary blend of seven- and eight-year spirit, aged in Kentucky rickhouses. What I can tell you is that there's a bright, almost coconut-like sweetness to this whiskey, slightly suggestive of rum. This is likely a function of the grain being catapulted to the forefront as the oak notes have been muted. There's less wood flavor here, because the barrels had already been used to age a previous batch of bourbon — that's also the one element of production preventing this particular whiskey from being considered a bourbon itself. But that hardly leaves it with an inferiority complex. It shines golden, both in the bottle and on the tongue, departing with freshly baked cornbread in the finish.
"For people who savor fine spirits, it's all about the discovery of great new things," says Beatrice. Although he didn't distill it, the blend and proofing all bear his distinct signature on the finished product. "We are bringing unique and unreplicated batches of whiskey to the market that would never be tasted as is at cask strength."
Independent bottling has long been considered an upstanding tradition in Scotland. These third parties procure barrels of scotch, oftentimes from prominent distilleries, and release them as their own. Sometimes their packaging will reflect the location where the scotch was sourced; other times it's withheld as trade secret. But what these bottlers never do is attempt to misrepresent themselves as the distillers. Far from being shunned in the U.K., these rarer releases can command higher retail value than their single-malt counterparts. They appeal to the connoisseur because they are unique expressions, as opposed to the big-name distilleries, which strive for consistency in flavor from one batch to the next.
"We're proud to carry on that tradition," Beatrice says. "Independent bottlers in Scotland have produced some of the world's finest whisky. I can't speak to why some American bottlers choose to disguise the fact that they're not a distillery, or that they supplement their production with sourced whiskey."
Aficionados have taken note: Batch 001 whiskey, priced at around $55, just took home double gold at the prestigious San Francisco Spirits Festival. It will likely sell out by the end of spring, the second of roughly four annual releases. Joe Beatrice never distilled a drop of any of it, yet he knows great whiskey as well as anyone. And that's precisely what he's moving from barrel to bottle — minus the hogwash.
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