Where’s the Truth in Whiskey Marketing?

Spirits marketing runs the gamut from blatant lies to harmless, but fanciful stories. At the height of bourbon mania, Diageo's Orphan Barrel Bourbons claim origins in tales of barrels lost and rediscovered. Lauren Sloss digs to discover how much of this narrative is true and what it means for die-hard whiskey drinkers.

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The story of Orphan Barrel Bourbon starts with the romantic notion of discovery. A secret cache of barrels, tucked away in some hidden nook of a rickhouse, left to gather dust until stumbled upon—their discoverers realizing they’d struck gold. The whiskey is then bottled, marketed as “limited release” to great fanfare and becomes another must-have for bourbon enthusiasts and collectors alike.

Well, kind of.

I first encountered Orphan Barrel’s 20-year Barterhouse Kentucky Bourbon ($75) as a monthly offering from my local Bourbon of the Month club. I was struck by the artful label and the colorful story that accompanied it. But a quick Google search quickly revealed that Diageo—a massive, London-based multinational spirits company owns Orphan Barrel. What’s more, my “limited release” bottle was numbered in the 20,000s.

“It’s an amazing marketing tactic,” says Nicolas Palazzi, owner of rare spirits distributor PM Spirts. “It’s about seizing on the rise of drinkers and collectors who don’t know all that much about bourbon, but know that they want the best out there.” Or, more specifically, collectors who will spend top dollar on limited, “rare” whiskies, but won’t necessarily make a point to learn about a bourbon’s origin.

But what about the die-hard geeks, I wondered? Where exactly do Barterhouse, as well as the other two bourbons currently out under the label—Rhetoric (20 years) and Old Blowhard (26 years)—land for them? And what inspired Diageo to bottle market these “lost” barrels in the first place?

“The ‘orphan barrels,’ as we’re referring to them now, aren’t a new concept,” says Bill Thomas, owner of the Jack Rose Saloon in Washington, D.C. and a collector of rare, hard-to-find bottles.

The bourbon market began declining in the 1970s, leading to the closure of a number of distilleries in the ‘80s. These distilleries were purchased by existing, larger spirits brands—a trend that continued into the 1990s. One of these big brands was United Distillers, who had made a practice of acquiring defunct brands over a number of decades, and using that aging stock in blends with the brands they were currently marketing.

However, when bourbon sales began to perform better in the ‘90s, they began thinking about other ways to market the barrels they’d obtained. This led to the Rare Bourbons Collection, a series of limited releases, including 15-year-old Joseph Finch and 16-year-old Henry Clay (two bourbons still actively sought by collectors). This came to an end when United Distillers merged with Grand Metropolitan (a British property conglomerate), forming Diageo.

So, Diageo isn’t just riffing on an old concept, they’re revamping a marketing tactic that they themselves have tried before. This time, the barrels are being sourced from the Bernheim Distillery (Old Blowhard is sourced from the “Old” Bernheim Distillery, Barterhouse and Rhetoric are from the “New” Bernheim Distillery) and housed at defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery (which Diageo owns).

The practice of sourcing whiskey, acquiring whiskey from one distillery and bottling it at another location under a different name, isn’t inherently a problem (and is a common practice of top distilleries including High West, Willett and Jefferson’s). But lying about origins in an attempt to capture a continually growing obsession with “craft” everything is what rubs the whiskey crowd the wrong way.

This, of course, isn’t an advertised part of the Orphan Barrel narrative. These barrels were not “lost” and suddenly discovered, but the yarn that Diageo is spinning to accompany these releases is specifically meant to target that new group of bourbon enthusiasts who are looking for the cachet that comes with the limited-edition promise.

Steve Ury, author of the whiskey blog Sku’s Recent Eats, notes that the motivation of whiskey buyers has changed greatly over the past decade. ”People are buying whiskey in the hopes that it will gain value. Everything is ‘limited edition,’ targeting that specific market.”

How limited can it be when every other release is branded as such, and bottles are available in the tens of thousands?

“It’s not surprising the companies are trying to capitalize on this explosion in the collectors’ market,” Ury says. “But it’s gotten silly—we’ve reached a point where stores are doing lotteries for a ‘limited release’ that comes out every year. They come out every year! This is not some ancient relic.”

Since there are so many of these bottles to begin with, stashing bourbon away in the hope of selling it for big bucks becomes much less likely—especially considering that older certainly doesn’t mean better.

“Historically, bourbons were believed to be best, at the most, between six to eight years old,” says Chuck Cowdery, longtime whiskey writer. “I’ve tasted some in the 15, 16-year-old range that were very good. But some of the older ones are just undrinkable. They taste like what I smell like when I come back from a ten-day campout.”

Older bourbons tend to be aggressively oaky, which, depending on your taste, can be a good or bad thing. But it’s worth noting that none of the Orphan Barrel bourbons are cask strength—meaning they likely didn’t taste all that good when they came out of the barrel.

Ultimately, though, Cowdery thinks that the Orphan Barrel’s biggest “crime” is that of “overly fanciful” marketing. “It’s not precisely true that Diageo ‘discovered’ these barrels, because they owned them in the first place,” he notes. “And, the limited claim is somewhat misleading; even if they do have a finite amount of the stuff, that amount is quite large.”

But Diageo’s “deception” is small potatoes compared to more blatant industry lies—specifically, a recent lawsuit brought against Templeton Rye. Templeton claimed that their whiskey was distilled in small-batches in Iowa when, in fact, it came from a massive, industrial-grade distillery in Indiana owned by food ingredients producer MGP. The suit claims that consumers were misled by these claims, and paid a premium based on a story that was ultimately untrue.

The practice of sourcing whiskey, acquiring whiskey from one distillery and bottling it at another location under a different name, isn’t inherently a problem (and is a common practice of top distilleries including High West, Willett and Jefferson’s). But lying about origins in an attempt to capture a continually growing obsession with “craft” everything is what rubs the whiskey crowd the wrong way.

“They’re making it hard for the people who are trying to do it right,” Cowdery says. “Take a guy like Nick,” he says, referring to Palazzi of PM Spirits. “He works his butt off to find really limited whiskey from really small producers and he has to compete with people who will put anything in a bottle.”

Despite the romance behind the Orphan Barrel story, Diageo isn’t quite crossing the “anything in a bottle line” for Cowdery, or others passionate about transparency in the whiskey industry. They may not love the marketing behind it, but it’s not actively offensive.

“Diageo isn’t trying to fool anybody with Orphan Barrel,” Palazzi says. “It’s a great marketing campaign that’s come at the exact right time, when people can’t get enough bourbon.”

What gets the hardcore whiskey enthusiasts excited is—ultimately—transparency and the ability to dig into a bottle’s origins. And thanks to the internet, this is easier than ever. Orphan Barrel’s story is obvious enough to avoid flat-out deception, but thin enough to prevent bottles from reaching icon status within the world of die-hard enthusiasts. That is reserved for the whiskies that strike hard—with both history and taste.

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