By Richard Thomas
A recent scroll through my Instagram yielded a picture of a bottle of Old Barterhouse bourbon, which had been trotted out by the poster to share at a gathering of fellow enthusiasts. He declared it one of his favorite pours, whenever he can snag a bottle that is. I have a long memory, so that Insta post caused me to pause and reflect on just how startling that opinion really is, or rather would have been nine years ago. Back then, posting such a thing on a bourbon forum or Reddit probably would have gotten you dragged across that corner of the internet, and then back again for good measure.
Back When You Could Buy 20 Year Old Bourbon By The Case
Old Barterhouse 20 Year Old Bourbon was the inaugural release of the Oprhan Barrel Project from Diageo, with the first batch coming out in 2014. The marketing story behind Orphan Barrel releases is that they are drawn from “forgotten” stocks of whiskey. Reading that, the imagination leads one to notions of barrels missed in some long ago inventory count, left sleeping in a dark and dusty corner of a warehouse until some eager beaver notices the discrepancy decades later. One can be forgiven for having a cynical chuckle at this yarn, but what we knew about the original Old Blowhard is that it was distilled at New Bernheim and aged at the defunct, but hallowed Stitzel-Weller.
This bourbon brand emerged during the early stage of the Bourbon Boom, when Pappymania had just become firmly ensconced. Just a few years before, one could still get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old at regular retail price by signing up for a waiting list; the late Josh Ozersky would label W.L. Weller 12 Year Old “Baby Pappy” (and thereby kick off a spiral that has lately placed almost everything Buffalo Trace does out of reach) the next year. The demand for bourbon with Scotch-like age statements was there, but still in its infancy. The 2014 Old Barterhouse had an MSRP of just $75, and a lot of people paid that much in getting it (or less!).
Those early days of the Boom were also a different time because whiskey writing’s negative streak was, relatively speaking, much wider back then. In 2013, one could hear bar owners spin bizarre conspiracy theories about the whiskey business, theories that had a peculiar, odious quality one only finds at CPAC nowadays. My favorite from that brand of crazy was that Angel’s Envy spent millions buying an old, defunct paint factory in downtown Louisville not because they wanted to build a distillery in it, but as a mere publicity stunt. That old paint factory has been a gorgeous distillery since 2016, and many, many people have seen it was no publicity stunt.
You Can’t Grind An Axe Without Throwing Sparks
The Orphan Barrel Project was initially met with some hostility from among enthusiasts, and I believe the source can be traced to noted bourbon author and blogger Chuck Cowdery. He was known to have something of a feud going on with Diageo at the time (for all I know, the feud may still be ongoing), which led him to label the Orphan Barrel Project of “disrespecting American whiskey,” as well as declaring it a “failure.” Rumor at the time had it that Diageo returned the shade by naming Old Blowhard 26 Year Old after Cowdery, but that has remained mere rumor. As to whether the series is a failure, well, it’s still with us, selling rather well, and many of the releases are well-regarded. Orphan Barrel Scarlet Shade is sitting on my kitchen table, waiting for my attention.
Cowdery has produced solid works of history and journalism, but is also well-known for his caustic opinions, and a decade ago those caustic opinions had lengthy reach. An example were his past criticisms of Michter’s. At the time, I regarded these as either unfair or misdirected, and while few were willing to stand up for the company in print, there were plenty bloggers who took Cowdery’s opinions, ran with them, and carried them off into 4chan territory. Much to his credit, Cowdery eventually changed his tune, especially after Michter’s opened their distillery in Shively, Kentucky.
The 2014 release of Old Barterhouse 20 Year Old was treated with a spectacle one would never see today: there were social media reports, backed by photos, of cases of the stuff sitting in Costco marked down to $60 a bottle (about $75 in 2023 dollars). I attribute that to three factors: first, the demand for any bourbon with a high age statement was not what it would become just a few years later; second, the production run for that first release of Old Barterhouse was quite high; and third, a large chunk of the people who would have bought Old Barterhouse were discouraged from doing so by all the croaking, negative chatter from the bloggers they read. Again, it had few defenders, and there weren’t as many enthusiasts, clubs or alternative, reliable sources of information about what was in the bottle to dispel the invective.
Oh, how things have changed, and that is the point of all this. Wine-Searcher’s retailer average places the market value of a bottle of Old Barterhouse at $627. Nowadays, whenever I see a good review of Old Barterhouse or a post like the one on Instagram mentioned in the introduction, it is met with this thought: I wonder how many people took some wretchedly bad advice, motivated by little more than someone else’s grudge or a lust for internet clout, passed on that $60 bottle from Costco, and are kicking themselves over it today while shelling out ten times that? At least a few, of that much I am absolutely certain.