Barrell’s Bourbon Batch 021 ran the table at the big San Francisco competition this spring.  (photos courtesy of the brand)

It would be difficult—and, better put, probably inaccurate—to describe a house style for Barrell Craft Spirits.

There’s no question that the innovative company, founded in 2013, is partial to power—of the three bottlings I have tasted, the lowest proof, known as Bourbon Batch 023, was 107.78. (For the casual observer, I’ll note that a standard Maker’s Mark floats in at 90 proof, a level that’s the same, more or less, for Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve, and many others. Jim Beam is 80 proof). BCS has a stash of casks of various ages and styles, which it blends into limited release batches and bottles at cask strength.

But the similarities among the offerings sort of end there. The Dovetail I tried, crafted and bottled in Kentucky, and finished in rum, port and cabernet barrels, comes in true to hot form at 124.34 proof. It seemed to want one clear cube, melted just a touch, to spring alive on the palate.

Barrell’s Dovetail, finished in rum, port, and cabernet casks

And then, as they say down South, Oh mercy.

Molasses and young leather on the nose and first palate impression, yielding to toast and baking spice, then fruits. There’s an almost tropical thing going on…overripe kiwi? Something like that. A mouth-filling brightness. And yet the bourbon doesn’t lean sweet; overall, it makes a savory impression. This isn’t built for cocktails—it’s meant to be savored as an appreciation for the blender’s art.

Barrell’s output is catnip for whiskey lovers: limited-edition, high-proof, deeply flavored and, above all, legit. At the end of March, its Barrell Bourbon Batch 021 received Double Gold and was named Best Bourbon and Best Small Batch Bourbon, both overall and within the 6 to 10 year category, at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. There’s a proliferation of contests out there, but SFWSC is well-regarded, and bourbon is a crowded field.

Also in San Fran, Barrell’s Rye Batch 003 took a Double Gold. The makers say it is “a blend of rye whiskeys from Indiana, Poland, Tennessee, and Canada, all with distinct personalities and varying ages,” which sounds to me like the spirits equivalent of a crazy tough basket on Chopped—but the results in the glass are delicious. To me this tasted like a classic high-proof rye (it settles in at 116.7 proof), with the pronounced spiciness one wants, but what takes it over the top is an irresistible creaminess, a vanilla extract quality on the nose that makes for a superb Old Fashioned.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 023

Barrell Craft has nearly nationwide distribution. Its newest is the 023 mentioned above, just out; a blend of  10-, 12-, and 15-year old barrels, it is (rightly, I think) considered the slightly sweeter successor to the towering 021. And you’ll have to beat me to it.