Do you really, really love whiskey? Do you find it annoying having to keep driving down to the liquor store to stock up on your favorite label? Wish you could have a lifetime supply on hand for you and your friends? Then it’s time to stop buying whiskey by the bottle, and start buying it by the barrel.
It’s not widely publicized but many distilleries are happy to sell you your very own barrel. And invite you to visit the distillery to personally taste and select the perfect one for you. (Since you’ll end up with about 120-130 bottles of the stuff, you’d better be sure it’s the perfect one for you…)
While the vast majority of barrel buyers are bar and restaurant owners and retailers who will be reselling the bottles at a premium, anyone can buy a barrel if they are willing to pony up the purchase price — typically anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 and higher, depending on the particular whiskey, the blend, the aging, etc. Not a bad deal… that is, if you need ten dozen bottles of whiskey. And a slightly used whiskey barrel.
Recently, I was invited by Cile Moreno, Executive VP of Preferred Brands, to take part in a barrel selection at Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and test my palate among a group of seasoned tasters. Besides several other spirit writers along for the experience was Jeremy Flannery from The Post Card Inn on St. Petersburg Beach in Florida, and Bret Goodman from Jerri’s Tobacco Shop and Fine Wines in Denver, CO. They, and the tasters they brought to help them select, were there to choose a specific bourbon, perfectly suited to their individual customers’ tastes.
So if you’ve got 120 friends you need a gift for next holiday season, here’s what to expect when you buy your own barrel of bourbon:
1. Roll out the barrels. No matter how exact the distilling process is, there are variables (like the amount of char in the barrel, and the barrel’s position on the aging racks), that will affect the flavor of the final product. To make sure you get exactly the bourbon you want, 8 carefully selected barrels are rolled in for you to taste from.
2. You’ll be tasting, not drinking. 8 small tasting glasses, covered with small glass disks, are placed on a numbered place mat. A sheet for tasting notes with corresponding numbers is placed next to it. These, and your tongue, are the tools you’ll use to pick your barrel.
3. Bring in the Thief. Once the bung is removed from the bunghole (hear that? That was the sound of thousands of Beavis and Butthead geeks going “heh heh” in unison), you need to get the bourbon into the glasses. And to do that they use a long, hollow, straw-like device called a thief to dip into the barrel, draw in the precious liquid, and deposit some into each glass, being careful to make sure each sample is placed on each number in order.
4. Let the sampling begin. Once all 8 glasses are filled, it’s time to taste. Sip each one in order and take notes. Some are more rich and chocolatey, with a lot of caramel. Some are crisper and lighter, with more wood. There are spit buckets on the tasting table to use should you not want to swallow the bourbon you are sampling. (These were left conspicuously unused at our table.) In between sips, you can cleanse you palate with water and bread or chips.
5. Narrow it down. You may not find the right one right away. So narrow it down to a few you want to go back to. I put stars next to the 3 or 4 that really stood out for me.
6. Add water to those selections. Once you have the few you want to revisit, the folks at Four Roses advised us to add a few drops of water to the glass to open up the bourbon a bit. Then the re-tasting begins.
7. Make your final selection. It’s time to decide. Which of these 8 is the one you want to put your name on? Let them know, and it’s yours. Fortunately in our tasting, Jeremy and Brett decided on two different barrels. Otherwise I’m guessing they’d have had to Indian leg wrestle for it. My two favorites? Each one was selected.
8. Sign your barrel. Your barrel is now yours. And you, and whoever else you’d like, will sign it to make sure there’s no mistaking it when it goes to bottling.
9. Get your bottles. You bottles will be delivered with a special label added that lets everyone know this is from your very own, hand selected, private barrel. And this particular booze isn’t available anywhere else.
10. And get your barrel. Since bourbon barrels can’t be reused for bourbon (here’s why), you can keep the barrel too. And turn it into a coffee table for the man cave.
Interested? Contact your favorite distillery directly to find out their particular barrel buying procedure.