The way Diageo presents its 'Orphan Barrel' whiskeys is an insult to American whiskeys and the people who drink them.
The bourbon itself is interesting. Some is from the old Bernheim Distillery, which stopped distilling in about 1988. The rest is from its replacement, which started in 1992. The soon-to-be-released Rhetoric, also from the early days of New Bernheim, has a different taste profile than Barterhouse, according to Diageo. No word yet on Strongbox.
The problem is that while these products have interesting true histories, Diageo isn't emphasizing that. Instead, they made up a front company to sell them, coined some jokey names, and designed some retro-style packaging, all of which is silly and belittling to the ostensibly fine bourbon inside. This is an example of a scotch company treating American whiskey like flavored vodka. Do you think Diageo would do something like this with whiskey from Oban, or Talisker, or Lagavulin? They give even Johnnie Walker more respect.
As interesting as the true stories are, it was like pulling teeth to get Diageo to reveal them. They started out pretending that they didn't know where the 'orphans' were made, an obvious lie since the distillery's name is always stenciled on each barrel head.
It wasn't just bourbon enthusiasts who complained about the secrecy and phoniness. Customers pushed back too and Diageo changed its tune, a little.
One can speculate about why nobody bottled these whiskeys before now. What we know is that the Old Blowhard is some of the last whiskey distilled at Old Bernheim, while Barterhouse and Rhetoric are some of the first whiskey distilled at New Bernheim. We also know that Diageo calls these products 'limited,' which anything finite is, but they won't say how many bottles have been released. For comparison, the 2014 release of Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition is 5,000 bottles. Diageo's 'Orphans' appear to be many times more than that.
With Rhetoric, they have so much they're not even going to bottle it all now. They're going to let some of it keep aging so they can release a 21-year-old next year, and how many more after that? Limited? Not so much, it seems.
When Old Bernheim distilled its last it was like many American distilleries at that time, silent more often than not. Diageo predecessor United Distillers (UD) was buying companies to get brands and in the process it was getting whiskey and distilleries it didn't want. In the late '80s it was making rye-recipe bourbon at Old Bernheim primarily for Old Charter and I. W. Harper; and wheated bourbon at Stitzel-Weller primarily for Old Fitzgerald and W. L. Weller. Then it bought Glenmore in 1991 and made its rye-recipe bourbon at Glenmore's Medley Distillery in Owensboro.
When New Bernheim opened in 1992, they started to make everything there, closed Stitzel-Weller, and sold Medley. The master distiller at New Bernheim was Ed Foote, who was at Stitzel-Weller before that and may have overseen the making of the Old Blowhard at Old Bernheim. Foote is still with us, living in Louisville. Fred Minnick interviewed him recently at an event at the Kentucky Derby Museum. He's retired so Diageo could have recruited him to do some events and talk about the whiskey he made.
Diageo sold the Bernheim distillery -- and the Charter, Weller, Rebel Yell, and Fitzgerald brands -- in 1999. With each sale of brands, the buyer got some aging whiskey. Why these barrels stayed behind is unknown.
At some point after 1999, the barrels Diageo still owned were moved to Stitzel-Weller, which Diageo uses for maturation and blending. It's interesting that they aged for part of their existence in the masonry warehouses at Bernheim (which current owner, Heaven Hill, refuses to use for its bourbon) and for the rest at Stitzel-Weller, which are traditional steel-clad rackhouses and very well regarded. Since whiskey typically ages more slowly in masonry warehouses, that may be why these whiskeys are drinkable at such advanced ages.
You are, of course, learning all this here, not from Diageo.
Should you buy or avoid these products? That's up to you. If you have the opportunity to try them, by all means do. If you like them and think the price is fair, then buy them. The concerns expressed here are with Diageo, not with the whiskey.
CORRECTION: It wasn't anyone from Diageo, but writer Fred Minnick did mention Ed Foote at the Orphan Barrels launch event in Louisville on March 12.