Talking About The Orphan Barrel Project With Diageo’s Whisky Ambassador
By Kurt Maitland
KM: As the son and grandson of two whisky men, what are some of your favorite whisky stories from your father and grandfather?
EM: Some of my favorite stories I can’t repeat for various reasons as they invariably involved the, sometimes ingenious, methods of liberating liquid from various distillery warehouses.
There was back until the 1980’s excise men who monitored the distilleries making sure that every drop of whisky was taxed, they were viewed by the distillery workers with a mixture of emotions ranging from bewilderment to abject loathing. My Grandmother worked for Customs and Excise and met my Grandfather as he was sent to stall her and her boss from entering a warehouse that contained his co-workers enjoying an ‘untaxed’ libation. Anyway the rest, as they say, is history.
There are so many more with a wonderful array of characters that only the whisky industry could produce, most of these are word of mouth only unfortunately and have rarely been documented.
KM: When and how did the Orphan Barrel process formally start for Diageo?
EM: For decades, warehouse workers and distillers have shared stories of old whisk(e)ys forgotten in the corners of rickhouses and warehouses across the world, although these days there’s no such thing as a lost barrel, we do have amazing whiskies that are ‘orphaned’ and have been let to age longer that intended. As such they are left for ‘future projects’ and continue to sit undisturbed in our warehouses.
In an effort to find a home for these orphans we sent our teams into the darkest recesses of their respective warehouses to choose their favorites from the huge catalog of rare spirits Diageo own and release them to an ever growing base of whiskey aficionados. Having found our 1st releases Diageo officially launched the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company this February with the release of Barterhouse Whiskey and Old Blowhard Whiskey, both Kentucky straights distilled at Bernheim and matured at Stitzel-Weller.
KM: What can you tell us about the process of picking what makes for a good “Orphan Barrel” release?
EM: Making whiskey is like compiling a puzzle – each piece joins with the others to create beautiful balance and consistency. As Diageo processes so many barrels of whisk(e)y annually for its existing brands, there are inevitably a few here and there that go unused. These are left to continue aging for future projects taking on a new lease of life as they slowly mature and change in terms of character and color.
Over the years, certain lots are moved to the back of rickhouses where they become the subject of debate and legend among distillery workers who want to see it bottled. We keep an eye on these barrels and hope to release some of them through the Orphan Barrel program once they’re aged to perfection.
KM: Who decides what should be released and when?
EM: We like to think the barrels are actually selected by those lucky enough to safeguard our whiskey barrels around the globe. Those folks pass down the stories of these forgotten barrels accumulating dust in some dark corner. Our team listens closely for these stories as they travel the world and when a tale truly peaks their interest, a new possibility for the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. is discovered. These whisk(e)s are then drawn as samples for a team of our best noses and plates to evaluate, only when we are 100% happy are they then released to the public as very special releases.
KM: Do you foresee any of the Orphan Barrel releases (especially the younger ones) becoming regular yearly releases?
EM: While there is potential for another release of Barterhouse down the road, Old Blowhard is a single release. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
The third release, 20-year-old Rhetoric Whiskey, which will ship next month, is an exciting new endeavor that will feature multiple releases. More details to come in the next few weeks!
KM: Since future releases will be more than just bourbon and considering the scarcity of the barrels involved, could there be a blended whisky Orphan Barrel release (similar to what Number One/Karuizawa does with their Noh series; each release is a blend of a set range of years of the same whiskey)?
EM: At this time, there are no plans to release a blended whisky, but that’s the great thing about this project – it’s flexible, fun and always open to change as we uncover new barrels.
KM: Will special barrel finishing will play a role in any future Orphan Barrel releases, either from the U.S. or from Europe?
EM: As of right now, there are no plans to incorporate special barrel finishing into future Orphan Barrel releases, but see above re: the flexibility of this project.
Barterhouse, Old Blowhard and 20 year-old Rhetoric were all aged in American White Oak barrels, sourced from the Midwest.
KM: Is there a rough idea of how many Orphan Barrel releases Diageo is planning to do a year? So far, it appears as if there will be 5 releases of bourbon but when you get to your Scottish and Irish distilleries you could easily double that number.
EM: We’re always on the lookout for rare whiskies to share with our discerning adults fans. Although we can’t comment on the number of Orphan Barrel releases Diageo is planning and don’t have any specific news to share at this time, we know there are plenty of great whiskies to be found so stay tuned.