It’s always nice, as a spirits writer, when you’re trying to make a point about a particular brand in the course of a review and then you end up with another sample immediately afterward that helps in illustrating what you were trying to say. Case in point: Yesterday I reviewed a single barrel expression of Blue Run’s Emerald Rye Whiskey, and was attempting to grapple with the idea of a $200 price point on a non-age-stated limited release, distilled at the still relatively youthful Castle & Key Distillery. That’s a tough ask for a spirit that we still theoretically know little about in the whiskey community, which I could see making consumers wary of dropping serious coin. But that same $200 when it’s directed at a 14-year-old bottle of rye whiskey from MGP of Indiana? You’re going to find more takers there immediately, even when we’re talking about a 90 proof rather than cask strength expression, because MGP is a significantly more known and understood commodity. That’s what Orphan Barrel Scarlet Shade is banking on, and it’s not a bad bet on their part.
This is of course an entry in Diageo’s long-running Orphan Barrel series of sourced, unique, one-off bottlings. As a brand, Orphan Barrel helped to establish the modern, sky-high price points for limited edition one-offs in the American whiskey world, though whiskey geek interest in the brand has perhaps predictably leveled off in recent years thanks to an influx of competition, much of it of the cask strength variety. Still, Orphan Barrel does still put out some occasionally intriguing releases, none of them cheap, whether we’re talking about American whiskey or scotch whisky. This one? Well, Orphan Barrel Scarlet Shade is the brand’s first-ever rye whiskey release, which will surely be an aspect that appeals to a certain niche.
As for what’s in this bottle, it’s “Indiana rye,” which we can assume means the classic 95/5 rye recipe from MGP of Indiana, but aged in Kentucky. It carries an advanced age statement of 14 years, and that, coupled with the fact that it wasn’t aged in Indiana, can’t help but bring to mind Dickel’s 13-year-old MGP rye release in the Cascade Moon series from a few years ago, a whiskey that I absolutely loved despite its gaudy $300 price tag. If Scarlet Shade turns out like that Cascade Moon expression, I would be very happy indeed.
In terms of historical context, though, one has to wonder if there’s a lifeline here from Scarlet Shade to the former Bulleit 12 Year Rye (also from Diageo) that was initially released in 2019. That brand was received with relatively little fanfare, and it’s sort of amazing to note now that it was retailing for only $50–what clearer indication could you want of how much pricing has changed in the last few years? With the Bulleit 12 Year having since disappeared, it’s possible that Scarlet Shade contains some of that same liquid, turned into a premiumized, slightly older bottle that now commands a $200 price point. It’s certainly possible–and very on brand for the whiskey market as it exists right now–but after tasting this one, I find myself liking Scarlet Shade significantly more than I ever enjoyed that Bulleit release. Which is fortunate, because at this price point it has to impress.
About Scarlet Shade from Orphan Barrel
Coming across a 14-year-old Rye is rare, giving our master blenders pause when presented with such a uniquely bold liquid. A born traveler, this whiskey was distilled in Indiana and then journeyed across state lines into Kentucky, aged to perfection at the infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
A full-bodied aroma of sweet vanilla butter cream and lightly toasted oak is accented with banana bread and just a hint of berries. Upon taste, a collection of baking spices and rye toast complement a medley of orchard fruits, and finishes with sweet notes of orange marmalade and a light warmth which fades into lingering dark chocolate.
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