Classification: Straight Rye
Company: Diageo/Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co.
Distillery: Sourced from an undisclosed distillery(ies) in Indiana
Release Date: May 2023
Age: 14 Years
Mashbill: 95% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
Color: Yellow Gold
MSRP: $200 (2023)
Scarlet Shade is the latest release in the ongoing Orphan Barrel project, which was launched by Diageo in 2013. From the company’s initial press release they stated it was “A new project determined to locate lost and forgotten barrels of whiskey from around the world."
Scarlet Shade is the first ever rye release for the Orphan Barrel brand. The whiskey was distilled in Indiana (presumably MGP though the specific distillery is not disclosed by the company), aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Kentucky, and then bottled in Tennessee. Scarlet Shade was curated by Master Blender Samantha Johnson. Johnson joined parent company Diageo in 2018, and has blended a number of releases including I.W. Harper 15 Year and Bulleit Rye.
A marriage of sweet and spicy scents makes for a delightful aroma overall. Rye spice is at the forefront. Toasted oak lays a base, and offers a hint towards the whiskey’s age. Ripe pear and apple mingle with baking spices providing a pleasant, contrasting dynamic between the individual scents. There’s a hint of dill on the backend, but its presence is fleeting.
The palate is more rich and full-flavored than is typically experienced with a 90 proof whiskey. Like the nose, rye spice surges immediately and forms a base for the remainder of the sip. An array of fruit flavors provides balance, with raspberries and blackberries at the center, along with a hint of orange marmalade. Very light aged oak lingers in the background. It’s moderately complex in terms of the range of flavors. However, it’s the richness of the sip and supporting cast of flavors that add depth, ultimately showcasing the rye’s age and balance to pleasing results.
Rye spice persists and as it transitions from the palate, baking spices reemerge. Stone fruit offers a contrasting sweetness, along with just a hint of caramel. The finish is long and carries with it a trailing rye spice as it fades. Overall it maintains a high level of quality that’s consistent with the rest of the sip, though it doesn’t bring anything new into the equation.
Since the Orphan Barrel line’s initial launch about a decade ago, releases have been slow to emerge but oftentimes end up being unique and carry relatively high age statements. Scarlet Shade is the brand’s first rye release, which is interesting because while most of the releases that preceded it were bourbons, there have been some blends and even multiple scotches. More recently Orphan Barrel released Fable & Folly, which was a blend of the last remaining stocks of Barterhouse, Forged Oak, Rhetoric, along with aged rye and corn whiskeys. While the specifics are not disclosed, it’s possible the aged rye component in Fable & Folly, which carried a 14 year age statement, is the same as the rye used for Scarlet Shade.
Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. is careful not to say exactly where the rye was distilled, but given its age, distillation state, and mashbill it is almost certainly MGP. While MGP is known for its 95% rye mashbill, and variations bottled under different brands abound, they are typically much younger than Scarlet Shade and often bottled at barrel proof. Orphan Barrel takes the more fine-tuned approach with Scarlet Shade, bottling at 90 proof which is expected for the brand. One could assert that some past Orphan Barrel releases have been underproofed and overfiltered, but at the same time that may have been necessary to keep oak notes in check. In the case of Scarlet Shade, the whiskey’s rye foundation does well to maintain its assertiveness throughout, which combined with generally rich flavors overall, takes the “underproofed” argument out of the equation for this release.
Like bourbon, rye whiskey has experienced a surge of popularity in the past decade. But unlike bourbon, rye had been given very little attention before that. As a result, the stocks of aged rye compared to aged bourbon are much less today. This translates to very few high aged ryes in the marketplace, and when they have emerged they have either been limited or met with less-than-expected demand. Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac 18 Year released annually as part of the Antique Collection is arguably the benchmark for high aged ryes. Booker’s Rye (13 years, 1 month, 12 days) and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (13 years) are a few highly notable limited editions. Many higher aged ryes originate from Canada which includes WhistlePig (The Boss Hog and other single barrels, age varies), Crown Royal Noble Collection (16 years), Lock Stock & Barrel (age ranges), and a few others. Redemption has released high aged ryes originating from MGP in the past, such as Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof Rye, which have typically been well received but at the same time not continually available and have not garnered much attention. Bulleit released a 12 year old rye in 2019 which shared the same mashbill and presumably source, though at the time it seems like few really noticed.
The point is, there are not many high aged ryes to choose from, and unless you’ve been paying attention, lucky, or just willing to spend quite a bit on some of these past releases, you may not have much of a baseline. Scarlet Shade enters that domain, and does well to put forth an approachable whiskey that is both very clearly a rye, but also allows its age and richness to come through. At the same time, it plays it safe, maintaining a traditional rye flavor profile that really doesn’t push any boundaries. As a result, its flavor profile is focused less on being unique, and more on being refined.
Being an Orphan Barrel whiskey, it’s expected that Scarlet Shade is released at a premium price point and that is certainly true at $200 per bottle. A close comparison is Cascade Moon’s 13 Year Rye, which was also distilled in Indiana and released in very limited quantities for $250 per bottle, so by that measure, Scarlet Shade is a better price. On the other hand, WhistlePig rye releases, notably privately selected single barrels, can achieve a similar age range and go for around $100, though flavor profile will vary by barrel and these generally provide a very different drinking experience than Scarlet Shade. Bulleit’s 12 Year Rye, referenced above, was released for only $50 back in 2019…yet it seemed few were really paying attention at the time and it just isn’t available now, plain and simple.
Given the lack of direct comparisons and sporadic or limited availability, making a direct comparison to Scarlet Shade today is very difficult. This limitation allows whiskeys like this one to command a higher value, simply because you cannot just go pick up a few competitor whiskeys for less. Even if you did, the flavor profiles still vary quite a bit in the high aged rye space, so that makes comparisons even more difficult. If you like rye, are satisfied with the proof point, and see value in paying more for a marginal increase in quality at a multiple increase in price, Scarlet Shade will not disappoint. But given the fact that we may see more double-digit high-aged ryes distilled by MGP in upcoming years at a price point that is yet to be seen, the need to have Scarlet Shade now may simply be driven by the supply and demand curve. Only time will tell, but for now there are few out there like it.
The first ever rye release for Orphan Barrel, Scarlet Shade is a well-constructed, high-aged sipping rye that carries a premium price tag.
Scarlet Shade is exactly what those familiar with past Orphan Barrel releases would expect for their first rye release. It’s centered, nicely balanced, and refined, but doesn’t push any boundaries when it comes to flavor profile. It is not as complex as Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, not as spicy as WhistlePig Rye, and does not achieve the same level of awesomeness that the legendary tanked batch of Sazerac 18 Year became known for. But I don’t want to downplay it either. Scarlet Shade is a well-crafted whiskey, and offers a rich flavor profile that maintains its rye-forwardness and shows its age to pleasing results.
Scarlet Shade will appeal to rye whiskey fans who enjoy traditional ryes, but feel they’ve exhausted what is generally available to them and who don’t mind paying a premium. Bourbon drinkers who generally don’t gravitate towards rye whiskey, or those who might be just starting to dabble with rye whiskeys will be better served exploring far less costly and more readily available ryes, of which we have detailed a range of our favorite everyday ryes here. Moreover, given the simple timeline of when rye began its path to popularity (about a decade ago), it wouldn’t be surprising to see a surge in double-digit aged ryes distilled by MGP (and released by varying independent brands) in the coming years.