Barrell’s always been good at names. Dovetail, their breakout evergreen release, is intended to evoke the dovetail joint, a nod to the precision that goes into its blending process. Seagrass, arguably its most successful blend, calls to mind the oceanside with its rye finished in rum, Madeira, and apricot brandy barrels. Vantage? A nod to, and the culmination of, a decade-plus of blending experience.
Then we have the recently launched Cask Finish Series. Said to be “a celebration of the incredible range of flavors created when thoughtful finishing meets expert blending,” a celebration I’d assumed had already occurred within the context of Barrell’s largely blended and finished lineup. The launch is a bit of an oddball coming from a brand with a rigorous commitment to minimalism, or at least succinct categorization, the bottles landing square in the middle of a flurry of seasonal product announcements.
So… why? These seem like whiskeys that would typically end up as part of Barrell’s sprawling Private Release line. Marketed as a yearly release, is this Barrell’s play to stay visible in a business increasingly defined by limited time offerings? Is there even room for another Barrell SKU atop 2023’s maximally congested shelves? And, does it even matter, if the liquid is good? Well…
Barrell Cask Finish Series Tale of Two Islands – I’ll let Barrell explain exactly what this is:
In 2018, the Barrell Craft Spirits team produced the legendary Tale of Two Islands Rum: a Jamaican Rum matured in peated Islay single malt barrels. Those empty casks have been used to finish a blend of straight bourbons. The sweetness of the rum and the smokiness of the Islay casks mingle together with the underlying bourbon that continues the Tale of Two Islands.
This context is important for what it omits. Throughout the pour the bourbon plays a third fiddle to the finishing process. The nose is lightly grilled coconut and pineapple that come off as astringent or perfumed when inhaled deeply. More rum than bourbon, then. On the palate it’s a party in the front, business in the back, with spicy tropical fruits and single origin craft chocolate giving way to a mushy, indistinct peatiness on the finish.
It’s simultaneously lingering-yet-unsatisfying. The drop(s) of water Barrell recommends to open up the pour just allow it to give way to yet more mushiness. This isn’t to say it’s a bad pour, but rather it’s just unbalanced. I constantly found myself asking what this was supposed to summon. All of the elements of something good, even something already within Barrell’s arsenal, are there. They’re just disparate. A tale of two, completely separate islands, one way over there. No, farther than that. You’ll have to trust me. 118 proof. B- / $85
Barrell Cask Finish Series Amburana – Simultaneously whiskey’s Marmite and one of the most popular finishes on the market, you’d assume this is what it says on the tin: bourbon finished in amburana, or “Brazilian oak” casks. And, sure enough, on the nose it has a lot in common with other offerings on the market. It smells like a holiday pour, all liberally buttered cinnamon toast and pumpkin spice. A real treat if you’re, like me, a fan of the finish.
However, on the palate is where it gets interesting. Because this isn’t just amburana finished whiskey. This is actually a five-bourbon blend where the team dumped two 53-gallon amburana barrels and blended it down with unfinished whiskeys. This is paramount to the way the bourbon’s allowed to shine through such a dominant finish. It’s not simply present, but vibrant, the interplay of the wood and the older Indiana bourbons transforming rote cinnamon and caramels into chai, gingerbread, and vanilla into spice cake.
It’s still desserty, still spicy, but it’s also still bourbon. Barrell has done a phenomenal job, an absolute tightrope walk along fishing line, in creating an amburana-finished bourbon that’s not only delicious, but balanced. 116 proof. A- / $85
With all that in mind: does it matter? The marketing, the glut, the absolute disregard for Barrell’s naming conventions? One release feels like an experiment, a “Why the hell not?” gone awry. The other, praxis as victory lap, wherein Barrell reiterates why they’re still the best at what they do. “A Tale of Two Ethos,” then? Whatever they’ve decided to call the line, as long as they continue to drop releases like Amburana within it, it’s something to keep a wide eye on.