Bourbon Review: Forged Oak and Lost Prophet

Orphan Barrel Whiskies

The story behind the Orphan Barrel whiskies is that of a number of “lost” whisky casks, mysteriously forgotten in the dark recesses of various rickhouses. These forgotten oaken vessels, full of whiskey sitting quietly in their hidden corners, the casks breathing in, breathing out, maturing away and creating rare, aged whiskies, or “The Stuff of Legends”, as the marketing hype oh-so modestly declares.

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Yeah……right.

 

The romanticized idea of a bunch of forgotten barrels holding rare whisky makes a wonderful story, but it is quite simply a complete fabrication. The reality is that the “Orphan Barrel Project” is just another egregious example in a growing s–t pile of marketing hype extraordinaire – with a back story about as real as the Easter Bunny.

The true origin of these barrels of whiskies is simply the result of a series of mergers and acquisitions, the industry practice of sub-contracting the distillation of whiskey for other sources, and the concern over bottling and marketing whiskies produced by what is now a competitor. You see, it turns out that all of the whiskies in the Orphan Barrel Project were produced for United Distillers (UD) or produced by distilleries owned by UD, which, at the time was the spirits unit of Guinness.

Guinness and Grand Metropolitan merged in 1997 and became Diageo (which is now the world’s largest drinks conglomerate). As the post-Guinness/Grand Metropolitan merger dust settled, some of the UD/Diageo distilleries and brands were sold off, including the Bernheim Distillery, which was sold to Heaven Hill in 1999, and the Buffalo Trace/ George Stagg Distillery, which was sold to Sazerac. One other important fact for this discussion about the Orphan Barrel whiskies is that after Heaven Hill acquired Bernheim, the original distillery was demolished and a new one built, so you also have whiskies produced in both the “Old Bernheim” and the “New Bernheim” distilleries.

To date, the Orphan Barrel Project has released five different whiskies. Barterhouse, a 20 year-old, Rhetoric, a 19 year-old, and Old Blowhard, a 26 year-old, were the first three to reach market. The fourth release is Forged Oak, a 15 year-old, and the fifth release is The Lost Prophet, a 22 year-old. Old Blowhard was distilled at the “Old Bernheim” distillery. Barterhouse, Rhetoric and Forged Oak were all distilled at the “New Bernheim.” The Lost Prophet was distilled at the George Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace).

So the reality is that these barrels of whisky were not “lost” nor were they “forgotten.” Simply put, these whiskies were produced by distilleries no longer owned by Diageo and, in the true spirit of business competition, Diageo was not about to sell these whiskies under the brand name of the original distilleries. At the same time Diageo was not about to waste all of these casks of aging whisky, either……because that costs money and Diageo is unquestionably a for profit organization!

The solution? Create the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company as a vehicle to bottle and sell these “limited release” (and premium priced) whiskies without having to disclose the source, and bringing to market, as the marketing hype proclaims, these “rare, small offerings for the world to try” before they are gone forever!….

Okay, so now that the shroud of mystery has been lifted about the story of the Orphan Barrel whiskies, what do we actually have with these Orphan Barrel whiskies? Today I am reviewing the two latest releases, Forged Oak and The Lost Prophet.

Thanks to Chris Trevino, aka “The Liquorhound,”  (catch his YouTube video reviews here) for sharing these bottles!

 

2015_ForgedOakForged Oak

The Forged Oak was released in 2014. Distilled at the rebuilt “new” Bernheim distillery, it is a 15 year-old, Kentucky Straight bourbon whiskey bottled at 45.25% abv. The mash bill is a low-rye mix of 86% Corn, 8% Barley, and 6% Rye.

 

Color: standard bourbon bronze

Nose (Neat): Starts out with loads of ripe fruits – cherries, berries, strawberries. Sweet vanilla, a touch of molasses. The oak is quite pronounced, bringing a healthy dose of tannic bitterness and soft spices. Tobacco, leather, menthol. (Water): The addition of water seems to kill the fruits and put all the focus on the oak – not in a good way.

Taste: (Neat) Very sweet arrival. A subtle lemon adds a bit of citric tartness, vanilla, ripe berries, and toffee. The oak also picks up on the palate – pepper and, again, a lot of tannic dryness and bitterness. (Water): Now I get some coconut and the vanilla notes become more pronounced. The fruits are greatly diminished. To me, water really doesn’t do this one any favors. The palate becomes thin, tannic and unexciting.

Finish: Starts sweet with vanilla and the berries. Becomes dry and fades somewhat quickly. Ends on oak spice, tannins and soft vanilla.

Overall: The Forged Oak is not terrible, but it is rather disappointing when considered on the whole. There are some nice aspects – the rich, ripe berry and vanilla notes, but for me, with my own preferences, the oak influence overtakes this bourbon. Having a little bitter tannins can be a nice complement to the often very sweet nature of bourbon, but for me they are just too dominant in this bourbon. And given my experience, I highly recommend that you don’t add water….it drowns easily!

 

Rating: 82

Details: 

Distillery: Heaven Hill (New Bernheim distillery)

Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Age: 15 years (Distilled 1999, Bottled 2014)

ABV: 45.25%

Maturation: Not Stated

Price:  $75

Availability: Limited Release: likely no longer available through retail sources

Sample Source: Chris Trevino

 

2015_LostProphetThe Lost Prophet

Released in late 2014, the Lost Prophet is a 22 year-old, Kentucky Straight bourbon whiskey. Distilled in 1991 at the George Stagg (now Buffalo Trace) distillery in Frankfort, KY and bottled at 45.05%, this is a high-rye mash bill consisting of 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye.

 

Color: standard bourbon bronze

Nose: (Neat) an obvious bourbon nose full of sweet corn, wild cherry (a common note I pick up), vanilla, but also some delicate rye spice notes. There is a some oakiness in this one, as well, but here it doesn’t overwhelm and sits very nicely in the mix, keeping the sweetness and fruits in check. As it sits in the glass, I get tobacco leaf, more ripe red fruits and berries, leather, and a soft, warm bready-doughy aroma. The nose is sweet, very fruity, vibrant and alive, despite its 22 years.  (Water) Adding water an initial, subtly musty note shows up, but this settles down with some time, adding another note to the complexity. This remains full of the red fruits, berries, wild cherry, vanilla, tobacco, but also now a bit of brown sugar, and soft oak spices. A great nose! 

Taste: (Neat) Starts out with a very delicate, soft arrival, no real hint at the 90% abv. In some ways it seems almost like a wheated bourbon with this delicate palate – soft, buttery, a bit doughy, with a touch of lemon-vanilla, brown sugar, and the red fruits. Soft rye spice notes grow in the mid-palate, mixing with the berries and fruits. The Palate follows the nose quite closely and, like the nose, this is very lively on the tongue. (Water) This one really doesn’t need any water – but water doesn’t harm it either; it remains fairly consistent with or without water. The fruits, soft spice notes, sweet vanilla, tobacco, perhaps now just a touch of mint.

Finish: Fruits throughout the finish. The sweet vanilla, brown sugar, dominate early, then the tobacco and spice notes bring it to a close. Sweet and delicate, softly tannic at the end. Beautiful, lengthy finish.

Overall: Even though this is a relatively high rye mash bill, the rye influence is understated, adding a nice complexity to the Lost Prophet. And even though this is quite old for a bourbon, the nose and palate wear the age very well. The aromas and flavors are bright, well-balanced, and delicious. This is a tremendously good bourbon – except perhaps for the price point…..but then again, $120 is not a Pappy price and, to me, this actually might be even better than the most recent release of Pappy 23 year-old. Bottom line, if you are a bourbon fan and you have a chance to try this one, I would say without hesitation that you should jump at it! And if you have the cash for a splurge bottle, this one rates serious consideration.

 

Rating: 89

Details: 

Distillery: George Stagg

Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Age: 22 years (Distilled 1991, Bottled 2014)

ABV: 45.05%

Maturation: Not Stated

Price:  $120

Availability: Limited Release: likely no longer available through retail sources

Sample Source: Chris Trevino

 

Comparison and Conclusions: Lost Prophet and Forged Oak

From what I’ve heard and read about the Orphan Barrel whiskies, despite their “rarity” and the premium pricing that these bottles carry, these releases have been somewhat of a mixed bag. Between the two Orphan Barrel releases I reviewed here, at least for me, the Lost Prophet is hands-down the superior whiskey. Yes, it is the more expensive of the two – and at a premium price that is probably too rich for an everyday bourbon – but if you take cost out of the equation, The Lost Prophet offers better balance, brighter flavors, and greater complexity. Despite sitting in a barrel for seven additional year, the aromas and flavors in The Lost Prophet are more vivid, and the oak influence helps, not hinders the whiskey, whereas the Forged Oak pales in comparison with its overly oaked profile. Forged Oak is still a pretty good 15 year-old bourbon, but I don’t think it offers much bang for the rather hefty price of $75 a bottle, and for less money, I prefer Blanton’s, Booker’s, or Elijah Craig over this one.

 

 

Additional information sources: www.ChuckCowderyBlog.com; www.WhiskyAdvocate.com; www.bourbonblog.com; www.orphanbarrel.com

 

6 comments

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  1. My review on Forged Oak can be viewed here… in the process of reviewing the entire Orphan Barrel series…

    https://newbourbondrinker.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/forged-oak-orphan-barrel-series-continued-more-focus-on-marketing-less-on-distillingblending/

    1. Thanks for the link to your review….seems like we had very similar experiences and impressions with this one. Interesting write-up on your conversation with Chip Tate. I look forward to his first releases when they hit the market.

  2. driving cross-country about twice a year has allowed me to stake out certain liquor stores along the way. they have yielded some great results….btac inventories in montana, old forrester birthday bourbon in wyoming, long after it has vanished from other shelves around the country, on recent trips. and a few purchases of orphan barrel rhetoric which i liked despite the ‘controversy’ surrounding the hype/misinformation. this trip, while driving west from nyc to portland, oregon, my south dakota earmarked stores have revealed a shelf with 5 orphan barrel products today: 2 forged oaks, which i properly ignored, 1 barterhouse, also passed on, and 2 lost prophets, one of which i took. not a bad tipple at all, not as much vanilla candy nuance as i thought rhetoric had, but very nice. though it does suffer from the ‘thinness syndrome’ as it could be more rich than it is. never the less, at 114.99 plus tax, something to appreciate in the absence of pappyvailability. but nowhere near as fine a flavor profile as elijah craig 23, my favorite of the high end bourbons.

    1. Looks like you have a few good “hidden” sources! I’ve not yet tried the EJ 23, but I liked the 18 reasonably well and the 2014 Barrel Proof was very good. Finding the Old Forester Birthday Bourbons was a good find! I have the 2013 and 2014 release and I really enjoyed them! If you’re and Old Forester fan, look for the 1870 Original Batch that they just released, runs about $49 here. I tasted this one at the SMWS Extravaganza bought a bottle to have for more “research”!

    • Andy on May 14, 2015 at 6:31 pm
    • Reply

    Nice to read a review that tells it like it is. As to the “legend of the lost barrels,” you didn’t drink the Kool-Aid! I recently bought a bottle of Lost Prophet, just out of curiosity, but haven’t popped the cork yet. However, after reading your review I’m more curious than ever to find out what’s (literally) behind the label!

    1. Hi Andy! Welcome to the site and thanks for your comment. While I can appreciate that marketing has a critical role in helping a brand be successful, it is all the absolute false and sometimes downright misleading information that gets to me. At some point I hope they start to recognize that consumers have enough smarts to make informed decisions without the need for lies! Let me know how you like the Lost Prophet!

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