A Bottle of Bourbon that Doubles as a Master Class in Whiskey

For the past four years, Diageo has released age-statement iterations of Rhetoric bourbon. The first started with 20 years of age, and everything but the time in barrel has remained the same. The result — assuming you have all the bottles — is nothing short of a master class on what age does to whiskey.

While plenty of distilleries have multiple ages within their portfolio, they are often finished and batched differently. In the scotch world, the 18 and the 15 may be rested in different proportions of sherry and bourbon casks. In the bourbon world, a 15 and a 23 from the same brand figure out more like a “batch of 15- to 18-year-old bourbon” and a “batch of 23- to 26-year-old bourbon.”

But Rhetoric has kept their releases intentionally uniform. The point is to understand more about whiskey aging — that older doesn’t necessarily equal better, and that there is a cut off point when the whiskey will be past its peak — which means, technically, that at some point Diageo will intentionally put out an over-oaked or over-aged bourbon in this line.

We thought that had happened last year. Rhetoric 22 was dry and over-oaked. It was still good whiskey but something had fallen off from the previous year. We assumed this year’s would seem as though it had been infused with sawdust.

How wrong we were.

Rhetoric 23 ($120) is a tasty dram — in fact, it’s more drinkable than Rhetoric 22 was, and feels more integrated and balanced. It’s drier on the palate, but the influence of wood is less dominant, either because another year in the barrel has extracted more sugars, or just because oxidization makes everything mellower. That’s the thing about aging — it’s difficult to predict.

With releases scheduled up through 2019 (and 25 years of age), we’re hesitant to say it can get much better than the 23-year-old stock out now. Depending on your palate, 20 and 21 are arguably better bourbons, and 23 might already be too far along if you’re more a fan of younger, more vibrant whiskey.

But without sounding like a marketing ploy, we’d suggest that perhaps you’d consider putting aside preference for a moment and go in search of a tasting of the whole line. You may not find a new favorite, but it will give you more insight into fluctuations. As if you needed an excuse to drink four bourbons at the same time. 

Get them all at Drizly.com (prices vary): 23-Year Rhetoric; 22-Year Rhetoric21-Year Rhetoric20-Year Rhetoric