Your Guide to Tasting and Buying Bourbon by the BarrelBy Tim Knittel
By now every bourbon enthusiast has seen ‘Single Barrel Bourbon Picks’ prominently displayed at various liquor stores and listed on the menus of select bars and restaurants. And if you’ve ever inquired about one of those picks, you’ve likely been regaled with a story about making the trek to a bourbon distillery, meeting with master distiller, heading into a rickhouse and sipping bourbon directly from the barrel.
Sounds like a bourbon lover’s dream, right? It is! But it doesn’t have to be a fantasy – bourbon barrel picks are available to anyone, provided you know how to get one and have the cash for it. Remember, the average bourbon barrel yields about 200 bottles.
How to Buy a Barrel of Bourbon
First things first: you can’t buy a barrel of bourbon from a bourbon distillery. In the United States, we have this little thing called the ‘three-tier system’ for alcohol distribution. Legally, a distillery can only sell to a distributor, who can only sell to a retailer, who can then sell it to a consumer (that’s you).
So if you want to buy a whole barrel, you’ll need to find a liquor store willing to handle the transaction. The liquor store will actually place the order on your behalf and you’ll take delivery and pay for it through them.
This can actually be a good thing for you because an independent liquor store might be willing to split the barrel with you. This reduces the expense to both you and them, but comes with a caveat: you both have to agree on the barrel you want!
To distribute the expense even further, consider getting a group together to go in on the purchase. Most distilleries allow a group (within limits) to participate in the selection.
Often, people will do both. For example, the Lexington Bourbon Society regularly partners with Wine + Market to make bourbon barrel selections. The Society guarantees to buy half the bottles and Wine + Market puts the rest on their shelves. To keep things fair, the partnership uses a democratic process, with everyone getting a vote in the selection.
The Art and Science of Picking a Bourbon Barrel
Once you’ve found your liquor store partner and gotten your order placed with a distillery, you’ll be given a date to visit them for the selection.
Barrel picks are taken very seriously. Jerry Rogers, the owner of Party Mart in Louisville, Ky., assembled a “Bourbon Board of Directors” with notables in the bourbon industry including Michael Veach, Susan Reigler, and Carla Carlton — all respected bourbon authors and authorities — to assist in his store’s selections.
Participating in a barrel selection is a deeply sensory experience. You’ll be nosing and tasting bourbons that often only have slightly different characteristics. So a fragrance-free environment is a must. And that includes the people in that environment. The rule of thumb is to ‘prepare like a hunter’. Use only unscented body care and laundry products when joining a barrel selection. If it’s summertime, remember that you’ll be in rickhouses that can get quite toasty, so double up on the antiperspirant if you want, but just be sure that it’s fragrance-free.
When you’re presented with your first sip right from the barrel, keep in mind that it’ll be high-proof. That will make it aggressive on your palate. In the industry, there’s an acknowledged bias against the first barrel in a selection as your palates need some warm-up time. Always revisit the first barrel after the last to give it an honest assessment.
Then there’s the question of talking. Some people – especially those folks without a trained whiskey palate – find it helpful to discuss the bourbons as they are being tasted. Others prefer each taster to work in isolation with no discussion until the entire tasting is finished. A good middle ground is to taste each sample silently first, then compare notes and taste again and discuss together.
Due to their popularity, barrel pick programs open and close as distillers have inventory available. It’s worth checking in regularly with your favorite brands to see if they have a program open. Here are some currently open (as of June 29th, 2017):
The Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Ky. offers Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Blanton’s barrel selection programs.
Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Select
With Jim Beam, you can pick a barrel of Jim Beam Single Barrel or Knob Creek.
Single Barrel Experience
Down in Lawrenceburg, Ky., you can pick from two of the Russell’s products: Russell’s Reserve and Kentucky Spirit.
Four Roses requires you partner with a liquor store – but unlike any other distillery, they offer you an assortment of bourbon recipes, not just individual barrels, to choose from.
Four Roses Private Barrel Program
In Versailles, Ky., Woodford Reserve offers two custom bourbon programs. Double Oaked Single Barrel By the Barrel is a more traditional program where you pick an individual barrel. The Distiller’s Select Personal Selection is a custom small-batch program where you get to play Master Distiller for a day and combine barrels to craft your own unique small batch recipe.
Woodford Reserve Whiskey by the Barrel
Way out in Loretto, Ky., Maker’s Mark had a challenge: their barrels were too similar in flavor profile to create a barrel pick program. So they leveraged the research done for Maker’s 46 and produced the Maker’s Mark Private Select program. With this program, you craft a ‘barrel finish’ recipe from five different stave types to create truly unique bourbon just for you.
Makers Mark Private Select
What To Do With a Barrel of Bourbon
Once you’ve made the trek to Kentucky and back, there will be a little waiting while your barrel gets bottled up and shipped to your liquor store. When you pick it up, you’ll usually receive the actual barrel (now sadly empty) that your bourbon had matured in. So now you have around 200 bottles and a big old bourbon barrel.
If you’re not planning on drinking all of those bottles, remember that they make great gifts – they’re completely unique! And where legal, custom bourbons also make great charity donations to raise money at auctions.
The barrel itself can be turned into furniture or made in a very interesting display piece in your home. Just remember that it will dry and collapse quickly after it’s emptied, so if you’re making your own barrel an addition to your home bar, be sure to tack it together so you can admire it for a long time to come.
Ready to head to Kentucky to pick your own barrel of bourbon?