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Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon Review

Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon Review

Diageo is one of the world’s largest producers of whiskies. Chances are if you’re reading this review, you only care about the brands they own in the United States, but the amount of Scotch producers is even more impressive. However, with great size comes a lot of compromise. Their money is made from producing whiskey that appeals to the masses rather than catering to the enthusiast.

If you disagree with that sentiment, then just look at the products that their brands put out. Orphan Barrel has access to barrels with impressive age – but they usually fall flat because of the low proofs they’re bottled at. The same can be said about their two I.W. Harper products. And George Dickel seems to exist as a way to ride on the coat tails of Jack Daniel’s success in the “Tennessee Whiskey” department. And then there’s Bulleit…

Can a bourbon designed for mass market appeal be improved?

Bulleit has an interesting origin story that I won’t expand on too much. What was once a bourbon made at the Ancient Age Distillery and bottled in the same style of glass as Elmer T. Lee, has vanished. It’s not even “Secret Four Roses” bourbon anymore. It’s essentially a hodgepodge of contract-distilled bourbon from various distilleries in Kentucky. All of that may change in the future now that they’ve built their own distillery, but this bottle I’m reviewing today is still made up of sourced barrels.

Bulleit has 10 different recipes that are contract-distilled. Those distilleries produce them using the grain ratios and yeast that Diageo specifies. You would recognize these recipes if you saw them; they’re basically Four Roses recipes but the ratios look like MGP’s. When the recipes are combined into the final Bulleit product, the mash bill averages out to 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% malted barley.

Once the distillate is made, it’s barreled and aged at Diageo’s warehouses at the former Stitzel-Weller campus. This is changing as Bulleit builds and fills their own warehouses.

For all the more time and work that goes into creating this bourbon, it’s strange that Bulleit has always been marketed as a bourbon for bartenders. Bartenders need a cheap, sturdy base to build their drinks on. Bulleit saw this opening in the market and exploited it very early on. I don’t have evidence for this next statement, but I believe they are the largest brand in terms of volume sold to on-premise locations (bars, restaurants, etc).

Bulleit doesn’t claim to make a boring, smooth product. They point to their high-rye mash bill as the superior choice for more flavor. However, those who have tried standard Bulleit agree that it’s inoffensive at best. But that probably appeals to more people.

Diageo’s product creators wanted to challenge the notion that Bulleit was bland an inoffensive. So they joined in the group of producers around the mid-2010’s that were releasing their own barrel strength versions (Heaven Hill – ECBP, Buffalo Trace – Stagg Jr and Maker’s Mark – Cask Strength). The question they intended to answer was “can an inoffensive, 90-proof bourbon become better at barrel strength?” Here’s their answer.

Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon – Batch 7

This bottle is the 2022 release of Bulleit’s Barrel Strength Bourbon. It is the 7th batch they’ve put out and it comes in at 120.2 proof. That’s roughly in the middle of what they typically bottle them at. The highest Batches have been 125.4 proof and the lowest have been 116.6 proof. While each batch is assumed to be “different,” nothing has ever been published telling us what differences are. I assume that all 10 recipes get blended together, but I’m sure the exact ratios change.

If everything I just said is true, Diageo could be marketing this as a “Budget Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.” The only thing they’d need to do is define their 10 different recipes with a name (like OESQ, LBSV, etc) and then publish the ratios they used of each. This is a huge marketing oversight.

Because so little thought is put into making this bottle stand out on the shelf, most consumers (and almost all of my friends) continue to pass up buying it. And while I know a large part of that has to do with the lackluster reviews it gets, I think Diageo allows this to happen by their lack of marketing or backstory they give it. It’s a shame, really.

I’m going to dive into this bottle anyway just to see if there are any redeeming qualities about it and to recommend if you should buy it or not. I say that because even though this batch went on sale late in 2022, I still see it on shelves around Indianapolis occasionally. A big thanks to my friend Evan for making this review happen. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The sweet smell of sugar cookies is followed by soft oak notes. The sharp spice of cinnamon stick and a hint of clove can also be found. Fruit notes are somewhat lacking with stone fruits like cherry and apricot preserves being the most noticeable ones. I even detect potpourri, which is kind of at the crossroads of floral and baked goods. This is a perfectly serviceable nose, but not much stands out.

Palate: Each sip is equal parts hot and spicy. There are moments of sweet caramel, but for the most part the heat is coming from a bit of unrestrained ethanol while the spice is coming from cinnamon and black pepper. Fruit notes consist of citrus (orange), cherry and sweet apples. A heavy rye character influences each sip with herbal flavors and some fresh-cut grass. There’s also an odd earthy/minerality I can find underneath these flavors. Finally, I do detect a faint nutty flavor, but it’s not similar to Heaven Hill/Jim Beam profiles. It’s interesting, though.

Finish: The finish turns drier as the session goes on. I am finding lingering notes of dry oak, dry leather and some Nesquik powder. It’s not entirely devoid of sweetness, though. I can taste some residual honey notes (a flavor I remember getting with my standard bottle of Bulleit Bourbon) as well as a little bit of caramel. The rye notes have mostly disappeared as well leaving behind only a faint grassy note in the end.

Score: 7.6/10

Bulleit’s Barrel Strength offering is a competent bourbon that seems totally outgunned against similar ~$60 “barrel strength” competitors. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof comes to mind first, but some enthusiasts will argue that it’s allocated and that it shouldn’t be considered.

I would say that 1792 Full Proof (which isn’t barrel proof, but close enough) is probably most similar in terms of “competition” to this label. 1792 FP (non-store pick) offers roughly the same experience at a slightly lower price. Bulleit’s only advantage is having more rye influence. That might not be enough to persuade budget shoppers.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to ding this bottle on any one thing. I think it comes off as slightly flat which makes it drink below its proof. Most barrel proof drinkers want something to punch them in the mouth with every sip. If that describes you, then this ain’t it. I seems like it was created for enthusiasts new to barrel strength bourbon.

On paper, Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon should deliver some great flavor. With that many recipes purportedly blended into one bottle, how could you not? But most of those flavors just don’t come through in the end, which leaves me wanting more.

Like I mentioned above, if Diageo wants this bottle to sell better or see more of a cult following behind it, it could pull back the curtain just a bit and let us see the inner workings on the recipes they are blending and the composition of each batch. Until they do something like that to make the bottle more of interesting, this will continue to be a hard sell to more advanced enthusiasts.

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