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I had a small “bottle share” last month with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Watching them arrive and pull bottles out of their totes gives me joy probably equal to those “unboxing videos” that are so popular with kids on social media. You’re probably lying to yourself if you don’t get at least a little bit excited to see what each other has brought.
That evening, one of the guys pulled out this bottle of Barrel King Knighted. I had never heard of them before, but he told me that I had to try it. It was a surprise hit for him in 2023 and he wanted to know if I felt the same way.
Who is Barrel King?
I’m new to the brand Barrel King, but not new to their business model. They are a non-distiller producer (NDP) that sources bourbon and rye whiskey, sometimes finishes it in a secondary barrel (more on that in a minute) and sells it through a club-style subscription membership. If you’re local, you can visit their location in Bourbon, Missouri (yes, that’s the actual name of the town) and pick them up if you don’t want to wait on them to be shipped.
The bourbon subscription model isn’t new, but not many producers use this method yet mainly due to shipping laws and the fact it adds on a lot more labor to do right. The way that these clubs typically work is that you purchase a “tier” that will give you more or less access based on how much you pay. For Barrel King, there only appears to be one membership tier (Gold) but seniority determines what order you can pick your free monthly bottle. Well, it’s not exactly free – the monthly subscription costs $125. There are other various products and experiences they sell too, such as a “Battle of the Blends” kit to make your own blend. The one thing I noticed while poking around on their website is that they appear to be much more focused on the experience of bourbon for the customer rather than just the sale.
What’s in the bottle?
Barrel King products usually start off as 6-year-old MGP bourbon or rye whiskey. While they do create and bottle single barrels or small blends of straight whiskey, it’s their barrel-finished whiskey that is the most talked about. But the barrel finishes aren’t your typical Sherry, Port or toasted barrel finishes – they get finished in bourbon barrels from other distilleries. The two primary (only?) ones seem to be Buffalo Trace (Stagg Jr/Weller, they say) and Willett. I have also found instances where they did a “Mexican Vanilla” barrel finish and where they admit to sometimes adding (toasted) oak spirals into the barrel during the finishing process.
The goal is to change the overall profile into something that tastes completely different. I have seen this work with other barrel finishes before where a bourbon that’s been finished in a rye whiskey barrel takes on the profile of a rye whiskey. I’m wondering if the idea behind finishing relatively common MGP whiskey in the used barrels of two extremely allocated and hyped-up brands was that it would produce a whiskey that tasted close enough to them. And if it did, it could open up a market where enthusiasts could taste something very close without the headache and expense of chasing those allocated bottles down.
Reviews on Barrel King products are rare (and seem to only be on YouTube for some reason), but have been overwhelmingly positive. And while I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, sometimes I get a little skeptical of a brand when there is nothing negative out there about them. This is why I skip restaurants with a perfect 5.0 star Google rating and focus on the 4.3-4.5 star ones.
But I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the reason why there are so few reviews is because a.) They got their start in 2020, so they’re relatively new and b.) there are only a tiny nucleus of people who know about and support Barrel King at the moment due to their membership model and limited distribution.
Barrel King Knighted Community Blend for Mash & Journey
This pick is called the “Community Blend” and the process happened something like this. 13 people were selected to do a pick at Barrel King. You can see their names on the bottom of the final tater sticker (see below). Out of those 13, they were split into 3 groups. The 3 groups were given access to 4 different barrels of MGP bourbon (between 6 and 8 years old) and told to find the best ratio of barrels to blend together.
The groups then submitted their final blends to Jason and Scott who then picked their favorite. It turned out the favorite blend only consisted of 3 of the 4 barrels. The final process saw the winning blend dumped into a Willett barrel for finishing followed by it moving into a Stagg Jr. barrel followed by another Stagg Jr. barrel. The bottle in this review is the final product and the final proof ended up at 116 proof.
So how is this bottle? Let’s dive in. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Color: I don’t normally comment on color, but this one stood out to me for being undeniably “orange.” It’s odd because the label tells us it was non-chill filtered (I doubt there was much more than screen filtering). What happened to this liquid as it went between the barrels to almost completely strip the brown out of the color spectrum?
Nose: A perfectly sweet nose with lots of caramel. Other MGP bourbon notes begin to emerge such as citrus (orange peel), vanilla and seasoned oak. Spices include cinnamon (just like Willett is known for) and ground pepper. One of the more unusual notes seems to be this white grape juice note. It’s not something I normally find (unless there was a Cognac barrel finish), but it’s fun when I do.
Palate: Whatever white grape juice I was smelling on the nose disappears on the tongue. Cherries are the dominant fruit now (Stagg Jr barrels probably at play) followed by lots of citrus orange. A lot of rye-forward notes appear like licorice, cinnamon and peppercorns. The mouthfeel is oily and the tannins shift to oak and barrel char. The taste is both familiar and new which probably is due to the barrel finishes mixing things up quite a bit.
Finish: A very mellow and satisfying finish with very little proof burn – surprising for being a little on the young side and bottled at 116 proof! The fruit blossoms even more this late in the game (unusual, but nice) with citrus and cherry becoming dominant notes. Light amounts of oak hangs around with its buddies “the baking spices.” I’m talking about cinnamon, nutmeg, anise and vanilla (ok, I don’t consider vanilla to be a spice, but you know what I mean).
If I had this bourbon blind, I would’ve sworn it was finished in either Cognac barrels, Orange Curacao barrels or both. There is just so much orange on the nose and palate while the white grape juice scent was equally baffling. Overall, this was a bourbon that wanted to show you all of its flavors. Nothing seemed hidden or “light in essence;” everything was noticeable in a very straightforward way. To me, the odd part was how little the final product reminded me of an MGP bourbon. And maybe that’s the point of a project like this. It’s alluring to buyers who don’t want “just another bottle of MGP” taking up space in their bar.
But the finishing process seemed to strip the rich, brawny character of MGP bourbon away. What was left was like a synthesized version of bourbon flavors that are very good but didn’t have the body I’ve come to expect behind it. I don’t know how else to describe it other than saying it’s like comparing a steak that was baked in an oven versus a steak that was seared over charcoal. They’re both the same thing on the inside but one has the taste and texture you’ve come to expect from years of eating the grilled version.
Barrel King’s supporters include some of the biggest names in WhiskeyTube. I’ve watched the videos and the hype is real. They practically fall all over themselves to describe how good the bottles are. So maybe I’m in the wrong for the score I gave them?
Sure, my experience involves exactly one bottle whereas other reviewers have half a dozen within arm’s reach. Maybe it’s because they’re wrangled into a membership they can’t figure out how to cancel. Maybe they’re the type to stick with a brand once they’ve found something they like. But for me, I am not a person who wants to dedicate my limited money on one brand when I see all of the new bottles constantly coming out. I want to feel like the journey is never complete rather than assuming I found my “forever whiskey.”
If you can relate to me, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t abandon the search for your own bottle of Barrel King. I just hope it speaks to you more than it did to me.
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