Orphan Barrel Is About to Drop Its First Rye Whiskey, and We Got the First Taste

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whisky Co. is launching its latest release today, and it’s the first rye whiskey to ever be a part of this high-end brand. We got the chance to talk to master blender Samantha Johnson about it and found out some more about what went into this new 14-year-old rye whiskey.

Johnson is, by her own admission, relatively new to the whiskey industry. She joined Diageo as a quality technician in 2018 and was promoted to master blender in 2020. She previously worked on blending two whiskeys of note, I.W. Harper 15 Year Old and Bulleit Rye. “I work really closely with master distillers, because the quality of the liquid going into the barrels will affect how it is coming out,” she told Robb Report. “In the whiskey industry, [blenders are] called to be creative. [Blending] is really where you get those complex flavors, and with rye you hone in on that bold spiciness and play with the lingering fruits in the background. I think blending is the art form, whereas maybe distillation is the science.”

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The new Orphan Barrel release is called Scarlet Shade, a 14-year-old rye whiskey named after the cardinal—which makes sense considering this whiskey was distilled in Indiana from a 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley mashbill. MGP is obviously where this whiskey came from, but Johnson would only say that it’s “distilled in Indiana by the finest distillers.” It was not matured there, however; the whiskey came to Kentucky as new make spirit to spend its entire 14 years aging there. “[Scarlet Shade] made its journey to Louisville for aging, and that’s where the real magic happened to get those flavors,” said Johnson. “[The blend is made from] numerous casks, lots, and ages. It was aged for a full 14 years in our Stitzel-Weller location, so she was able to experience those humid summers and cool winters and really absorb that Stitzel-Weller heritage.”

Of course, a whiskey can’t really absorb history or heritage or feelings, but the location where it is matured does have an impact upon flavor. Scarlet Shade is a good rye whiskey, with strong oak, honey, and vanilla notes on the palate and just a splash of heat at 90 proof, followed by the classic spice and dried fruit flavors you’d expect from a rye like this. “Rye whiskeys are near and dear to my heart,” said Johnson. “When we came across these casks, I got excited. We worked through numerous blends until we got to the final. I think it’s a notch above the rest—and how many 14-year-old rye whiskeys are on your shelf at home?”

That depends, of course, on how serious a whiskey fan you are. Other Diageo rye whiskeys sourced from MGP, like Bulleit and Dickel, are much younger at somewhere around five years old (give or take a year). And this new whiskey echoes the Cascade Moon 13-year-old rye whiskey that came out in 2022, another MGP rye that spent its time maturing somewhere else (in this case, four years in Indiana and the rest of the time in Tennessee). There is also Bulleit 12 Year Old Rye Whiskey (there are still bottles out there) and the 10-year-old barrel-proof rye from Redemption Whiskey to consider. But Johnson says that this new Orphan Barrel release stands out. “It’s pricy but it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s going to be a staple in any collector’s portfolio. I think there will always be room to grow for Orphan Barrel. As blenders, that will be our challenge.”

Scarlet Shade is available starting today (SRP $200). Check the Orphan Barrel website to find out where to purchase a bottle, and it will be available via ReserveBar in the coming days.

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