Review: Why Barrell Remains Our Favorite Whiskey Blender

Three new bourbons include their most (and least) accessible expressions ever, plus a bourbon that somehow nods to both Jamaica and Islay

November 14, 2023 5:21 am
Three new bottles from Barrell Craft Spirits
Three new uniquely-blended bourbons from Barrell Craft Spirits
Barrell Craft Spirits

What we’re drinking: Three new whiskeys from Barrell Craft Spirits (BCS)

Where they’re from: Started in 2013, Barrell is an award-winning independent blender of uniquely aged cask-strength whiskey.

Why we’re drinking these: We’ve been huge fans of Barrell for years, even dubbing them the “best, most untraditional bourbon” back in 2020. 

The Story Behind Barrell, The Year's Best, Most Untraditional Bourbon
How a blended whiskey won the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition

And other drinkers have certainly caught on. Barrell recently opened a new state-of-the-art, 31,000-sq.-foot, $15 million blending and bottling facility in Jeffersontown, KY, earlier this fall, and also acquired a historic 18,000-barrel rickhouse nearby, all as the company is celebrating its tenth anniversary. This should allow them to increase their blending capacity by up to 500%.

“We’ve expanded pretty dramatically,” founder Joe Beatrice told us earlier this month. “But we’re probably not going to [increase production] of the limited releases, like the Cask Series. We want people to see them as special.”

However, the increased blending capacity allows BCS to expand and even break its rules. To wit: A new, affordable bourbon release that should be easy to find and isn’t cask strength, called Foundation. It only has an age statement of five years, though it does also contain six-, eight- and nine-year liquid. 

“The dynamics of the whiskey market are always changing,” says Beatrice. “We have plenty of products for all of the whiskey geeks and fans. But we wanted to have a price point ($60), and an entry product that would allow people to try our brand and stay with it if they like it. We recognize that $90 can be a lot for a bottle of whiskey.”

While being accessible in price, it’s still a multi-dimensional offering — even at the lower proof. “It sounds weird that I’m saying this, but not everybody wants to drink cask-strength whiskey all the time,” Beatrice admits. 

But since this is Barrell, we wanted to try two of the new limited releases as well, both cask strength and offering something quite different for the bourbon drinker, including one blend that features a wood (a Brazilian hardwood called Amburana) that’s getting increased use in the whiskey world — and a wood maturation that not everyone likes

Barrell Crafts Spirits founder Joe Beatrice
Barrell Crafts Spirits founder Joe Beatrice
Barrell Craft Spirits

“It is a polarizing flavor,” says Beatrice. “But the industry has sort of done a number on it. It’s endangered. Ambarana is also sort of the flavor of the day for a lot of people. So, there were a lot of Ambarana finishes using spires, sticks, staves, cubes, dust, I mean, like, everything. When it’s not done right, you go right to an imitation vanilla flavor. But we’re using full Ambarana barrels — and the wood was ethically and sustainably harvested.” (As well, it’s only part of the blend, which includes a lot of straight bourbon. “If you opened an Ambarana barrel, it’s like you walked into a mall and they just pulled out the Cinnabon.”)

And there’s also a sequel, of sorts. In 2018 BCS matured a Jamaican rum in peated Islay single malt barrels. Those emptied barrels were then used to finish a blend of straight bourbon whiskeys and create a new expression of the Cask Finish Series called A Tale of Two Islands.

How they taste:

  • Barrell Foundation: A blend of KY, IN, TN and MD bourbon whiskeys bottled at 100-proof with a derived mashbill of 73% corn, 23% rye and 4% malted barley, this one is, well, harmonious. For a bourbon, it has a powerful nose, with sweet, buttery notes of caramel popcorn, honey, vanilla and a little wood spice on the palate. A steal.
  • Barrell Cask Finish Series Amburana: This one is a blend of Indiana and Kentucky bourbons. On the nose and palate, this is going to come across as artisanal Fireball…at first. There are heavy cinnamon notes here. Let it calm down and add a bit of water. You’ll get a more rounded flavor that includes ginger, vanilla, baking spices, pumpkin pie and even, for me, a bit of anise. (Beatrice suggests Cracker Jacks, which was never really a snack staple of mine, so I’ll take him at his word.)
  • Barrell Cask Finish Series: A Tale of Two Islands: A blend of straight bourbons from Indiana (five, six, and nine years) and Maryland (five and six years), this one does a nice job bridging the gap from Jamaica to Scotland. It’s grassy, fruity and with a hint of ashy smoke, but also with plenty of expected bourbon notes like caramel, cherry and butterscotch.

Fun fact: Barrell recently released Bourbon Batch 35 and Rye Batch 04, both part of its ongoing series of blends. Our review is here. Barrell has quite a few limited releases, which inspired us a few years ago to suggest that maybe there was too much whiskey. Beatrice may agree. “We went through a period where I think we were releasing too many of those,” he tells us. “And so we’re actually slowing it down. We’re putting more time between releases. I’d rather just kind of take a step back and do them in a more measured way.”

Where to buy: You can get Foundation ($60) and the two Cask Finish Series releases ($90) through Barrell’s website or through your finer local liquor stores (Barrell is available in 49 states).


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