Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Orphan Barrel Project Shows Diageo Disrespects American Whiskey

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.

They didn't.

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.

Diageo retained ownership of I. W. Harper Bourbon, but hasn't sold that brand inside the United States for several decades. It sold Charter to Sazerac and can't even use 'Bernheim' because Heaven Hill has rights to that. So Diageo genuinely cannot use any of the original names as brand names (which doesn't prevent them from telling the stories), but was 'Old Blowhard' really the best they could do?

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.


h4rr4r said...

I don't think we are the target market for this product. Those methods of marketing would appeal to us, not the market they are going after.

Paul Michael said...

Well I for one am going to save my money and pass on these bottles.
Thanks for letting us in on the provenance of the barrels. Personally, I rarely see any reason to drink bourbon any older than 12 years- and never at the prices I've seen these "orphans" going for.
Regarding the names and bottle presentation: As an American whiskey drinker, I don't feel particularly insulted by Diageo. I don't think they are necessarily belittling American whiskey. To me its just another sign of the times for spirits marketing in general. After all, there's a Scotch called Pig's Nose, and Bruichladdich Scotch comes up with whimsical names and funky bottles for its product. And I don't have to tell you all the tacky names and presentations for brands or wine and beer out there. I'm not too keen on this kind of marketing, but apparently it works for some folks: and I bet they're a good bit younger than you and me.

Josh Feldman said...

The cheesy branding of the Orphan Barrel Project is a missed opportunity. These are interesting relics of the Bourbon history. I understand that Diageo sold off the brands that these whiskies were originally distilled for. But they could still have respected the history on the labels, rather than just go for silly pseudo-old fashioned fluff and hide all the relevant details in silence.

Diageo behaves as if it doesn't consider Bourbon a whiskey category worthy of respect or honor. This behavior is evidenced in decades of actions that started with their divestment of all the many Bourbon brands and distilleries they possessed on day 1 of their corporate existence and extends through how they treat the Bourbon & American whiskey properties that remain with them - from the idea of setting up Pappy Van Winkle's office as the Bulleit Experience Visitor Center to calling the last barrels of venerable Old Bernheim distillery "Old Blowhard". There is real history there and Diageo takes a carnival funhouse approach. It is disrespectful and I, for one, thank you, Chuck Cowdery, for saying so.

Anonymous said...

I've had the Barterhouse, its super thin tasting but the nose is great. You really get to experience a 20 year bourbon in the nose, just not in the taste or mouthfeel. This makes more sense now understanding that it was stored in the slower aging masonry house during its first years in existence.

Of course, I'm just speaking about the whiskey in the bottle. I'm happy with my purchase but probably won't be buying a second bottle for myself. Might grab one as a gift since this is VERY accessible bourbon if you want to try something hyper aged but don't have the palate to appreciate a 20 year Pappy or something.

AaronWF said...

I agree that it's a missed opportunity and I'm certainly no cheerleader for Diageo, but isn't this presentation very much in line with how producers have hocked bourbon for decades, if not centuries? In the world of American whiskey, the only exception to made up stories and fake distillery names is the requirement that DSPs be placed on bottled in bond whiskey.

Diageo may be taking a step backwards rather than forwards with this approach, but it certainly strikes me as an attempt to fit right in with the American whiskey landscape.

Anonymous said...

I have said it before and I will say it again... I refuse to let the games and marketing of spirit companies (diageo this time) turn me off good bourbon/whiskies. Old Bernheim produced some of the worlds finest bourbons, its story is a powerful one and I feel sorry for anyone has has never owned or sipped on Old Bernheim bourbon. Amazing juice that is just about all gone... Daigeo is the only one, now, who can give us some of that juice (Unless BT saved some and did not use it all up on George T Stagg).

Bobby said...

Agree or not with Diageo's marketing of the Orphan Barrel series, it seems to be working for them. In the few fine liquor stores around me that don't jack up the prices too much, these whiskies aren't sitting on shelves long at all.

Anonymous said...

Sheep Dip? (o.k., that's not a bourbon)...WhistlePig?...Old Blowhard? Not exactly names that'd make you smack your lips and go "yum, that sounds TASTY!!" if you didn't already know whisky. -And who at Diageo came up with "Old Blowhard"? Were they thinking of poor ol' Pappy himself, perhaps? KIDDING!!

Jason Q. said...

I'm a bit torn on this. Yeah, I tend to agree with what Chuck wrote here. But Barterhouse at least is pretty damned good. And frankly, given the unobtainium-ness of most 15+ year bourbons, I have to give Diageo at least a little credit for putting this stuff out - regardless of the BS marketing they employed to go along with.

Anonymous said...

Diageo hath committed lèse-majesté! Bourbon the Magnificent, (as is so hailed within the borders of our divine Empire) is accorded the same Imperial cult legal protections as our mighty Emperor, Brown-Forman!

Verily Diageo shalt be penalized: 21 million gold ducats, 60 lashes and 70 strokes, seizure of its Connecticut lands, and one and 1/2 year of penal servitude to Emperor Brown-Forman.

Hail Brown-Forman!

Respectable enough for you, Chuck?

Oscar said...

I think it was someone on SB.com that said it first and I love his line.
Old Blowhard sounds like something that should be on the back bar in the saloon in the movie "Blazing Saddles".

merd said...

WTF?! My Blowhard label is blue and only 26 years old with "Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey" above the whale. The pic posted here is 27 with "American Whiskey". Are there different releases out? All the sudden I'm feeling boondoggled. Oh well... I'm still enjoying the juice.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The labels pictured are early prototypes. Some things changed along the way.

Chuck Cowdery said...

How limited is limited? Bottle number 84,868 of Barterhouse has been spotted in the wild.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Finally, the Orphan Barrels aren't even orphans. They've been living with their mother since they were born.

Anonymous said...

Haha!!! Some people think pretty highly of themselves in here!

Anonymous said...

but they can't use the old name? i don't get the snobbery here. sounds like they came up with a concept, bottled fine stuff, and named it some silly names, why the hostility?

sounds like it is orphaned....not really part of the original brand or sold in past.