Barrell Craft Spirits decided to up the ante in 2018 when they launched 3 different versions of spirits on their brand new Gray Label line: a bourbon, a corn whiskey and a rum. The purpose of the Gray Label line was to bottle exceptional and rare spirits and charge a premium for them. The fee for entry was set at $250.
Over the years, some spirits dropped out of the Gray Label lineup while new ones were added in. The 15 Year Bourbon was the only one that was consistently released. To get straight to the point, I personally felt that the quality of the Gray Label bourbon dropped a little bit every year. The proof also seemed to drop too with the 2021 bottling squeaking in barely over 100 proof.
I know the argument exists out there “who cares about the proof if it’s good bourbon?” That’s a fair question. But I’ve always felt that Barrell tastes better if it can be bottled above 112 proof. I have no scientific proof to back that up, but the average score of the dozens of batches I’ve reviewed always seem to point that way.
Gray Label: Too constrained by age for its own good?
In every review of the Gray Label Bourbon, I have pointed out that Barrell was painting themselves into a corner every year by using only 15 year (or older) barrels for their Gray Label Bourbon. This results in having to use barrels that may not be up to par just because they have them. I felt that the blend was becoming a bit flat and boring because of this.
On the Bourbon Pursuit podcast, Joe Beatrice hinted that most of their 15 year MGP barrels really low in proof – between 80 to 90 proof to be exact. Their 15+ yr Dickel barrels were barely into the 100’s. It was up to the Barton component to elevate the batch’s proof. For such a premium priced product, this was becoming an issue.
One proposal I suggested in my reviews was that Barrell should just stop releasing the 15 Year Bourbon altogether – until they could get the proof and quality up. Alternatively, I said that they should start incorporating younger barrels to brighten up the profile even if that meant dropping the age statement. The only bad part about that would be that the price would have to drop too. It seemed as if they were in a lose-lose situation.
Then there was the situation that Barrell kept using Dickel bourbon (Tennessee Whiskey) in the Gray Label blend. The reason they did it was to incorporate flavors that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. But many consumers thought they were doing it to cut costs. Enthusiasts everywhere argued that if they were going to pay $250 for a bottle, it better not have Dickel in it. This all revolved around the telltale multivitamin note that they wanted to avoid.
Change comes to the 2022 release of Barrell Craft Spirits Gray Label Bourbon
Barrell may have been listening because the 2021 release of Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon addressed all of those complaints. For starters, Barrell seemed to use the highest-proofed barrels that they could find. That ensured the final product was above 112 proof. Secondly, they re-barreled all of the Dickel bourbon into newly toasted barrels before adding it to the main blend. While they didn’t come out and explain why they did it that way, the results speak for themselves. All of the multivitamin notes seemed to have been masked.
But why am I talking about Barrell Gold Label? It’s because after Barrell released it, they began to use the lessons learned on their other products. This led to releases like Barrell Vantage. The success of Vantage led to it being used in the 2022 Gray Label Bourbon blend.
The only thing about putting this finished bourbon into the Gray Label Bourbon was that not all of it was 15 years old (it seems like most of it is between 7 and 9 years old). But it solved one of the biggest issues the brand had – the multivitamin note that most people didn’t like. Unfortunately, the proof wasn’t helped much by all of this because the release still barely cleared the 100 proof mark. Yes, this is still at cask strength, but it didn’t pack the same intensity as something higher in proof.
So Barrell was at a crossroads. They shipped out the new batch and… it kind of bombed. If the total number of people who would buy the previous Gray Label releases was decreasing year after year, 2022’s saw the biggest decrease of all with no advertised age statement.
Barrell relents on the price
Up until this time, Barrell never budged on their Gray Label pricing. But word must have reached back to Joe and his team that these bottles weren’t moving. A drastic decision was made sometime in late Spring of 2023 where prices for all Gray Label products were slashed across the board. Stores everywhere dropped their prices to around $160. This also was the case for bottles like Seagrass 16 Year Gray Label and the 24 year Canadian Whiskey.
As both an enthusiast and a reviewer, I have been preaching for years that the components that Barrell had started to use recently (whiskey from Canada, MGP’s 99/1 bourbon recipe and Dickel in particular) were primarily cheap barrels that shouldn’t cost nearly as much as Barrell was asking for it. I pointed out specific brands who were selling the same whiskey for almost half the price. Buyers were also becoming more informed and picked up on this as well. What ended up happening is that Barrell had to reduce prices in order to not give people the illusion that nobody wanted their products.
Now that I’ve given the entire backstory of this bottle, I’m going to finally taste it to see how it fares against previous Gray Label Bourbons. Is this a step in the right direction? Or is it just a stopgap until Barrell can bring back the higher age statements? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Sweet scents like caramel and molasses lure you in for some extra nosing between sips. Scents like Frosted Flakes, chocolate and vanilla are all really nice to find. There’s this sort of strawberry Nesquick powder note too that I’m really digging. From previous experience, I know this is coming from the Dickel, but I’m not complaining. The tannins are light, but include seasoned oak and a bit of new-ish leather.
Palate: Caramel sweetness plays with some Kellogg’s Corn Pops on my tongue (that’s gotta be the Dickel corn-forward note). Baking spices give each sip a nice pop with clove, cinnamon and allspice. The fruit notes are courtesy of various cooked orchard fruits. Somewhat surprisingly, I’m picking up on some vitamin minerality which means that the toasted barrels couldn’t mask over all of the Dickel notes (but they still got a majority). More seasoned oak and leather add that aged note on the end, but since I already found something as young as the Corn Pops, it’s not totally convincing that this blend is that mature.
Finish: Lingering flavors of burnt smores and drying chocolate. There’s a nutty note that I didn’t find before now. The tannins ramp up with leather and cigar wrapper while the fruits kind of drop off leaving toasted orange peel. The finish is more along the lines of what the old 15 year old labels were like.
Overall, I can see how the younger bourbon component coupled with the toasted barrels have begun to push this version of Gray Label in the right direction. Also, there’s a lot to like when a bourbon has this many layers and is this easy to sip. But it’s the proof that holds it back from being truly great. And a great bourbon is what buyers are looking for at this price point.
At $250, this is simply too much money. At $160 (which is what I paid), it’s still a stretch. Realistically, this drinks like a $120 bourbon. If you’re a person who values, umm, value then this bottle is probably not for you. I’m the biggest Barrell fanboy there is, but I won’t go handing out free passes. This is a bottle you can skip.
Barrell has acquiesced and given us three of the four things that were holding the Gray Label Bourbon brand back – covering up the Dickel (for the most part), lowering the price and introducing brighter (albeit younger) barrels into the blend to amp up the flavors. Now they just need to work on upping the proof in order for it to gain its appeal to enthusiasts again.
After a tour of their facilities this past month, I can see that the effort is there to keep improving their products. I have high hopes that the 2023 release will finally show that the tide is turning and that BCS Gray Label Bourbon becomes the product it was always meant to be.
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