The Orphan Barrel line is Diageo’s attempt at finding a use for the warehouses full of leftover barrels of bourbon at the mothballed Stitzel Weller Distillery in the early 2010’s. For all the more the name “Stitzel Weller” may set enthusiasts’ hearts on fire, the Orphan Barrel line would not actually contain any of that legendary bourbon in it. Instead, they seemed to either sell off their remaining barrels to other Non-Distiller Producers (like Jefferson’s, who bought around 400 in the early 2010s) or used it in their Blade and Bow series of bottles.
For the most part, Orphan Barrel had developed a reputation for extremely old and low-proofed releases of bourbon and whiskey. While the releases weren’t considered to be elite, they weren’t bad either. If they were released today and priced what they were 8 years ago, the price would seem downright reasonable. There was one downside of the Orphan Barrel line, though. Each release was going to taste different from the last. So if you had a favorite label, the new ones could be wildly different.
Orphan Barrel The Gifted Horse
The blenders of Orphan Barrel faced a conundrum in late 2015. They had a large lot of Bernheim-distilled barrels that were around 17 years old that they weren’t sure what to do with. Could they bottle them as is? Sure. But they wanted to make something different from the previous two releases; Barterhouse 20 Year Old Bourbon and Forged Oak 15 Year Old Bourbon (and they all used the same mash bill). The idea of blending this bourbon with something else was pitched and must have been approved by whoever was in charge. What’s strange is that the “something else” Orphan Barrel blenders decided on was 4 year old MGP bourbon (21% rye mash bill) and 4 year old MGP corn whiskey (perhaps 81/15/4). Maybe they had access to these barrels but they were originally destined for Seagram’s or Crown Whiskey?
To make things even more interesting, they decided to bottle the blend at 115 proof. This is the highest proof any Orphan Barrel has ever been released at. For some reason, the bottle was also different from other releases in the fact that it had a larger neck and cork than the others. Why that is has never been explained to my knowledge.
When The Gifted Horse was released, the marketing schtick that the company reps went with was that the whiskey inside was the result of an accidental blend at the distillery (the side label even repeats that claim). That story was quickly snuffed out by bourbon enthusiasts to be absurd on many levels. From the get-go, it was obvious that Orphan Barrel did not have any MGP barrels just lying around in their warehouses from the past. Diageo was doing business with MGP at the time by buying rye whiskey for their Bulleit and Dickel lines, but it was the MGP bourbon and corn whiskey element that would have been sourced for a very specific reason – like to stretch a blend or use in the amalgamation that is Seagram’s and Crown Royal (both of which Diageo owned). After further grilling from the media, Diageo eventually corrected their story and released the exact ratio of each component; something that a “true mistake” would have lacked information on.
Consumers were still willing to give it a try though and the pioneering taters of 2016 quickly bought up as many as they could in an effort to flip them later on. At $50 per bottle (the lowest priced any Orphan Barrel product has ever been) and some eye-catching artwork for the front label, it flew off the shelves cases at a time. Then the news came out how terrible it was (or at least, not up to OB standards) and the market immediately cooled for them. Orphan Barrel would eventually release better products, but this was a major blow against Orphan Barrel’s reputation. No longer would consumers give them the benefit of doubt that quality was priority #1.
So here I am, 6 years later, reviewing this bottle for the first time. It’s not like there aren’t countless reviews out there about it, but my review is a bit different this time. This is because the tasting notes that I’m using are from a sample bottle I received of it from a friend who wanted me to taste it “blind.” Only when it was revealed to me what I had just drank did I decide to do the deep dive on what it was. Now that I know the underwhelming history of the bottle, what did I think of it with no outside influence? Let’s take a look I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The first scent I found was a very pleasant nutty caramel (Payday candy bar maybe?). It’s accompanied by plenty of vanilla buttercream frosting. There’s also a bit of chocolate that greets my nostrils followed by a decent amount of fruit scents (think cherries and peaches). There’s also a peculiar bubblegum scent that normally goes off when a product has a decent amount of rye in it. At this point in the process, I’m thinking that what I could be smelling would either be a Barton or Buffalo Trace product.
Palate: It’s easy to tell that the mouthfeel on this one is quite light. I am getting flavors that have me thinking this has more rye character than I was thinking it did based on just the nose; I’m talking about the peppermint, eucalyptus, clove and anise notes I’m finding. The fruits are still there (cherries, oranges and plums) but there’s a ton of bitter oak and chocolate (baker’s kind). The light fruit flavors and bitter oak make me really question what kind of whiskey could simultaneously have such old and youthful notes at the same time.
Finish: The finish gets fruitier as the sips continue. Cinnamon candies and dark red fruits of all kinds linger around. There is some pipe tobacco (some of it dry) that seem at odds with the burst of youthful, herbal flavors. I’m somewhat at odds if this is a strange rye whiskey or a youthful, grassy craft bourbon blended with something older.
When the blind reveal was given to me, I was shocked by what it was. I finally saw the reason behind why this whiskey tasted so disjointed; because it did have old and young whiskey blended together. In fact, if you had told me this was a blend of three different whiskies, I would’ve sworn one of them was a rye whiskey instead of the corn whiskey that it was revealed to be. Sadly, most of the impact of the Bernheim bourbon barrels was lost in blend. And since we’re likely never going to see barrels of that pedigree being released again in the future, it makes me sad that they had to be sacrificed to a blend like this.
What’s done is done for this blend. It’s not like we can ever split them apart and salvage the components that we would have wanted to save. But for all the more The Gifted Horse confounded me, it’s not nearly as terrible of a product as those who came before me have made it out to be. It’s got a nice layer of fruit flavors (undoubtedly from the MGP bourbon) and had a lot of impact from the rye content. So what was my final guess I gave before the reveal? I guessed it was a 1792 Full Proof store pick. I could pick up on the fact that there was some extra heat (1792 FP is only bottled 10 proof points higher than The Gifted Horse) and the rye content made sense to me for a Kentucky bourbon that had a high-rye mash bill. I figured the bitter oak may have been a result of poor aging rather than it being 17 year old liquid. So while I was not in the same ballpark in the end, I feel as if my guess made sense when put into that context.
These days, it’s uncommon to see bottles of The Gifted Horse pop up on the secondary market. The whiskey is so exposed that it seems as if nobody wants to buy it and the people that have it don’t want to waste their time selling it. The last transactions I was seeing were topping out at $130 per bottle (or 3 1792 Full Proofs). For a novelty whiskey that tastes like this, that’s still a stretch. The Orphan Barrel line doesn’t hold much value anyway so take my advice and skip this release if you’re going to pay over retail for it.
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