Barrell Craft Spirits: The Magic of the BlendBy Jake Emen
Walk into the laboratory at Barrell Craft Spirits and you’ll see an array of sample bottles before you. It’s a setting for precise scientific measurements, but it’s also a playhouse. And the mad scientist behind it all is Founder Joe Beatrice who, along with Tripp Stimson, director of operations, has turned the independent blender and bottler into one of the most innovative and in demand craft producers in the country, all without distilling a drop of spirit.
Selecting and Blending
At Barrell Craft Spirits, it’s all about the blend. There is meticulous work put into sourcing the spirits before they’re married together in unique and unabashed combinations. Moreover, the company often finishes the maturation of these spirits in a wild and diverse selection of barrels. Barrell Craft Spirits currently works with about 65 suppliers from around the world. The company keeps several hundred barrels at a time in its facility in Louisville. Meanwhile, other barrels totaling several thousand are stashed elsewhere at their places of production or other sites. “We have so many different things to play with,” Beatrice says. “And with a blend, if it’s done, it’s done. If it’s not, we have more work to do. I’m going for the final flavor.”
Director of Operations Tripp Stimson (l) and Founder Joe Beatrice (r) with some of the brand’s many aging barrels /Photo Credit: Barrell Craft Spirits
In other words, even a well laid plan can be tossed if the results aren’t up to snuff. Even after endless tweaking and tasting, sometimes one final surprising switch or adjustment makes all the difference.
“There’s always one component or one barrel or one something which makes the difference in the blend,” Beatrice says. Discussing a forthcoming release, produced in a 3,000 gallon batch, he says that it was a final 5-gallon move accounted for that “aha!” moment. Consider just how minuscule a component that is; representing less than two tenths of one percent of the batch (.166%).
Crucial for getting this done is a pair of 6,000 gallon tanks custom built by Vendome, which are sensitive to three decimal points. Add in a few drops of spirit among several thousand gallons, and the tanks will register the change. Further, agitators inside can turn over and marry the spirit in 20 minutes. This is a staggeringly quick period, fueling that capability for ongoing experimentation, calibration and taste-testing. “This is what we spend most of our time doing, and what people don’t see,” Beatrice says.
Founder Joe Beatrice poses with the brand’s pair of 6,000 gallon Vendome tanks /Photo Credit: Barrell Craft Spirits
It might not be a thankless job, but it is an endless one, due to the nature of how Barrell Craft Spirits releases its products. There isn’t a perfect spirit that the crew is looking to replicate on a consistent basis. Instead, each release essentially begins with a clean slate. “Every single batch that we do is a new product, that’s what we do, and that’s what differentiates us,” Beatrice says.
This means spirits fans need to know that when they see a Barrell Craft Spirits product on a shelf they can be assured of its quality. This despite not knowing its taste. At this point in the brand’s evolution, with a seven year track record, Beatrice believes he’s built up that faith and loyalty. “I wanted to have a level of trust with the customer so that they know they’re going to get a super high quality product in the bottle every time, even though it’s different,” he says.
The quality of the product, and the backing of customers, allows Beatrice and Stimson to have what can only be described as an enormous amount of fun. Consider the new Armida, a bourbon finished in an assortment of casks including Jamaican rum, pear brandy and Sicilian Amaro. Or a Tokaji barrel finish, with the sweet Hungarian wine, delivering notes of watermelon Jolly Ranchers. There’s even a mind-blowing cask strength Kentucky whiskey finished in apricot brandy barrels—a private selection from Bourbon Pursuit.
A lineup of releases /Photo Credit: Barrell Craft Spirits
Then there’s the American Vatted Malt, with over half a dozen American single malts included. Meanwhile, Dovetail is the brand’s highly touted series finished in rum and port barrels, in addition to Dunn cabernet wine casks. Joining all the whiskey releases, Barrell Craft Spirit also blends and bottles rum. Try Tale of Two Islands, made from Jamaican pot still rum that’s finished in Islay whisky casks.
All of that, and we haven’t even gotten to the Infinite Barrel Project. This collection is the ultimate in mad scientist whiskey experiments, incorporating whiskeys not only from across the country, but also from around the world. Even a core offering, the Barrell Bourbon Batch series is, again, an ever-changing and evolving creation. “It could take us a year to blend a new Batch,” Beatrice says. There’s no resting on your laurels here.
While Beatrice says that “we start out with what we might want to do,” for a particular batch, at the end of the process, there’s always that unexpected final touch or tweak which elevates the entire release. The end result is not simply a precisely measured and analyzed collection of several thousand gallons of spirit. It’s a work of art whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, ready to surprise and delight the aficionados who seek it out.
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