One of my favorite whiskey concepts to arrive in 2021 was the launch of Barrell Craft Spirits’ Stellum line of bourbon and rye whiskey. It was an easy lineup expansion to like—the whiskey world is overflowing with $100-plus MSRP bottles right now, and it can feel like every new release, especially cask strength ones, is geared to the luxe collector crowd. Stellum, on the other hand, was Barrell’s way of making their core product lineup, which carries roughly $90 MSRPs, more accessible. Like the typical numbered batch of Barrell Bourbon, Stellum is made by blending whiskeys of various age from Indiana (MGP), Tennessee (most likely Dickel) and Kentucky (unknown), and like Barrell they’re bottled at cask strength, typically around 115 proof. At an MSRP of $55, though, Stellum Bourbon and Stellum Rye can compete in a significantly more affordable segment of the whiskey market.
Nor do they have to sacrifice quality—we enjoyed both at Paste in our initial tasting, and eventually included Stellum Bourbon on our Honorable Mentions for the best whiskeys of 2021, while naming Stellum Rye as the best value in rye whiskey for the year. Together, these two bottles filled in a significant gap in Barrell’s lineup, offering a high-value alternative to their namesake product.
When you get into “Stellum limited release” territory, though, things begin to get a bit more confusing, and that’s what we have in this one-time release of what is being called Stellum Black or Stellum Black Label. Described by the distillery as “a limited-release premium expression of the inaugural bourbon and rye offerings,” it’s made by “layering older reserve barrels into the original blends,” effectively increasing the average age, although the bottles still don’t bare a specific age statement. The MSRPs, though, increase to $100 for Stellum Black Label Bourbon and Stellum Black Label Rye, which would seemingly erase the original purpose of the series—to be a better value than the standard, age-stated, $90 MSRP Barrell batches. Because it’s a limited release, though, the company says it doesn’t see these Stellum Black bottles as “competing” with Barrell. I do feel it muddies the waters to some degree, but at least in the case of Stellum Black Label Rye, it is offering something rarely seen from Barrell, which is extra-aged rye whiskey.
Regardless, these bottles are currently being sold in limited quantities in select states and online via the company’s store, and are also presented at cask strength. For the bourbon, that works out to 54.61% ABV (109.22 proof), and for the rye it’s 57.13% ABV (114.26 proof).
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how some extra maturity has treated these whiskeys.
On the nose, Stellum Black Label throws off lots of caramel corn and peanut brittle, along with toasted cloves, molasses and significant amounts of charred, bitter oak. The nose seems to suggest dryness rather than indulgence or richness in my opinion, at least on first inspection, with many dark elements and significant oak and char.
On the palate, I’m getting very dark caramelized sugars here. Molasses cookie gives way to pecan pralines and lots of burnt, charred oak. It’s not as fruity as some Barrell bourbons I’ve sampled in the past, though there is a dark berry fruitiness (blackberry, currant) that is very dark and pithy, along with flashes of ginger, charred cinnamon and very high cacao content chocolate. There’s a bit more sweetness here on the palate than there was on the nose, but also significant tannin that dries out the dram through the finish, although not excessively. Ethanol is nicely restrained on the palate, when all is said and done.
All in all, this is a very “dark” dram with no shortage of oak-driven flavors, with a profile that reminds me a bit of something like Knob Creek 12 Year. There are some attractive elements here, but I ultimately ended up more drawn overall to the Stellum Black Label Rye, which captured my attention in a more vivid way.
Perhaps unexpectedly, one first notes that the liquid in this bottle is a shade or two darker than the Black Label Bourbon—this rye has presumably interacted with its barrels quite a bit. It weighs in at a pretty burly 114 proof, making for what would no doubt be a very punchy cocktail base.
On the nose, the rye is immediately notable—if you gave these two drams to any seasoned whiskey drinker, they’d have no difficulty picking out which of the two is the rye whiskey. The nose is full of dried herbs, resin, caraway, pumpernickel toast and brown sugar, with a little twist of smoked cherry. Earthy, wild and complex, with just a touch of decadence, it’s one of the more appealing rye whiskey noses I’ve smelled in a while.
On the palate, things only get better. Sweet and spicy, Stellum Black Label Rye combines deep toffee with fresher herbals, big rye spice, mint and sweet anise. Flashes of sweet smoke and fruit play nicely with cola spice, mocha and dark sugars in a way that is quite impressive—the barrels have contributed big char and suave wood notes, but it’s simultaneously retained the big and unmistakable presence of the rye grain. At the same time, it has a similarly gentle ethanol presence as the bourbon, which makes me very eager to try this one out in a few classic cocktails—though it’s a wonderful neat drinker as well. Complex and burly, in a good way, and for me the clear standout of these Stellum Black Label bottles.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.