Review: Bhakta 50 Armagnac Barrel 3
You may know Raj Bhakta best as the founder of WhistlePig. But you might have missed the news that Bhakta left WhistlePig last year and struck out in search of new ventures — and sure enough, he found a few of them.
The first you’ll be seeing is called simply Bhakta 50, the product of Bhakta’s unearthing of some insanely old Armagnac barrels that were lingering in France for, you know, more than a century. This is old brandy. The youngest of the barrels that Bhakta purchased was produced in 1970. The oldest was distilled in 1868. That’s when Queen Victoria was on the throne and the year that Ulysses S. Grant was elected president.
Bhakta 50 is being released as a numbered series drawn from 38 400-liter barrels, each of which is a blend of these uncovered casks. Bhakta 50 Barrels #1 and #2 have come and gone; today we’re looking at Barrel #3, which is a blend of 8 Armagnac vintages.
The really unique twist here is that Bhakta 50 is finished in Islay whisky casks (though only for 2 weeks), which is perhaps the ballsiest decision I’ve ever heard of. You want to take 152 year old brandy and expose it to peat? (This rationale is vaguely but unsatisfactorily explained in the 51-page book that is included with each bottle.) As Bhakta notes, “there’s nothing like it on the market.” I don’t think there ever will be again. Bhakta says it’s “perhaps the rarest drink known to mankind,” which isn’t entirely untrue.
In Barrel #3, known as “Pendragon,” you’ll find 8 vintages in the blend: 1868, 1897, 1939, 1946, 1952, 1963, 1964, and 1970. (All of the 38 releases will contain both the 1868 and the 1970 casks; what’s in between will vary from barrel to barrel.) But in other words, every Bhakta 50 bottling can carry a 50 year old age statement since nothing is younger than 1970.
Anyway, that’s enough back story. Let’s give this thing a try, with fully open arms.
On the nose, classic French brandy notes hit first: raisin and incense, chocolate and vanilla, plum pudding. I went into this actively trying to find the peat influence, but the nose doesn’t show it — especially after it’s developed in the glass for a moment and any sense of wood has faded. Instead, the berry-rich fruit character becomes increasingly prominent, filtered just so through an umami edge.
The palate spins the formula in a different direction. Here, the smoky peat notes become quite evident, and I have to say after spending an evening with this brandy, it just does not feel like it works to Bhakta 50’s favor. Old brandy can be full of flavor but it’s naturally quite delicate — even the more muscular Armagnac style — and even a hint of smoke, to my palate, just feels out of place. I don’t smell it, but I taste it — a lot — and it dulls the fruit, replacing that sweetness with that familiar, lightly ashy character that clings to the roof of your mouth. The smoke fades in time to reveal more notes of spiced plums and figs, almost Christmaslike at times, though the finish is slightly obscure and a little foggy. Maybe it’s best to imagine that smokiness as the lingering, gunpowder punch of the just-ended Civil War. It works for me.
Anyway, I would be remiss without noting that, at $299 a bottle, Bhakta 50 is definitely one of the cheapest ways to get into 50 year old brandy — not to mention anything with a toehold in the 1800s. For that reason alone, I’d snap this up immediately if I saw it on a shelf. Just imagine the talking points you can put together, folks.
A- / $299 / bhaktabrandy.com