Barrel picks are becoming an increasingly popular pastime for distillers across the country. In an era where whiskey saturation is at an all-time high, outposts are scrambling to offer a product they can proudly call their own. Typically, these are private experiences where you can select an entire bourbon or whiskey barrel to be bottled. Selectors make a weekend out of it—touring the distillery, enjoying the local food and drink, before getting down to business in the tasting room.
That’s what I’m doing on a windy winter morning in Louisville, KY, by the banks of the Ohio River. I’m here to pick a cask from theKentucky Peerless Distilling Co. The warehouse offers nothing to insulate me—nor its liquid inventory—from those harsh external conditions. I wedge myself tightly between rows of bourbon barrels stacked seven stories high to the rafters. I hold my ear to the staves, hoping the whiskey on the other side can hear my invocation for warmth. The silence is deafening.
Thankfully, I’ll be tasting some of the very bourbon I’m whispering to, so warmth by way of whiskey is nigh. Joining me are three whiskey writing colleagues. Leading this motley crew is Amanda Blue, president and COO of Tasting Alliance. Since 2000, the family-run business has put on the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Now she has her eyes set on something bigger.
“Tasting Alliance is evolving from a competition company into a brand in its own right,” she tells Men’s Journal. “In 2023, we’ll release our first single barrel series, and will host large-scale consumer events in Vegas and beyond, as we look to cement our status as the ultimate resource for curation and education in the beverage alcohol space.”
Ambitious, to say the least. But I’m just here for the bourbon. So, when Blue reached out and asked me if I would help select reserve barrels from a handful of celebrated producers, I didn’t hesitate to book my flight. As a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel, I’m always eager for any excuse to revisit my beloved Bluegrass State.
How single barrel bourbons are selected
And this particular process doesn’t really entail much more than sipping one-of-a-kind whiskies—freshly drawn from the cask—and deciding which you like best.
At Peerless, our group is presented samples from four separate casks, preparing careful notes after sipping each. Afterwards we all jot down our preferred offering on a piece of paper and hold the results up simultaneously. Every one of us has arrived at the same conclusion. Well, that was easy.
“You’re looking for consensus more than anything else,” confirms Kaveh Zamanian, founder of Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville, KY—our second stop of the day. But it can often be elusive when you’re dealing with a dozen or so tasters, each with varying palates. So Zamanian likes to remind his guests why they’re there: to find something distinct. “It’s got to stand apart from the core range—otherwise what’s the point?” he says. “Beyond that, complexity and balance are the two elements that I’m always looking for.”
Rabbit Hole launched its single barrel program back in 2021. Out of 70,000 casks currently slumbering in its Kentucky warehouses, they’ve identified no more than 250 as prime candidates for participation. “We have our own dedicated sensory panel,” he explains. “Our job is to taste different barrels to see which ones are ready to be in that program. If they are, they’re tagged and set aside. I like to look for a range of flavors.”
My job, in turn, is to find a unique arrangement of those flavors which will appeal to the broadest audience possible. It doesn’t necessarily correspond with what I would want for myself. At Rabbit Hole, for example, there’s a particularly punchy bourbon, leading with pecan pie, that I’d keep on heavy rotation at home. The one I end up selecting, however, boasts a more even approach, comfortably fusing caramelized corn with savory rye spice.
I can appreciate the interactive appeal of the process: having a literal hand in crafting your own whiskey. Many distilleries dial up the sensation by allowing participants to label their creations. For Tasting Alliance, each expression will wear a different shade of blue. “It’s an homage to my dad, who is a legend in the industry,” Blue says of her father, Tasting Alliance founder Anthony Dias Blue.
How much barrel picks will cost ya
The tribute doesn’t exactly come cheap. A single barrel of bourbon can range between $4,000 and $15,000. With no more than 200 bottles coming out of each, that’s a minimum of $20 per unit, wholesale, even in the most affordable of scenarios. So, for connoisseurs, it’s often more about prestige and bragging rights than it is about economy of scale.
Laws Whiskey House in Denver, CO—another distillery in the Tasting Alliance debut series—currently allocates 100 barrels each year for its single barrel releases. And there’s a lengthy waiting list to secure one. Founder Al Laws fast-tracks devoted fans of the brand to the front of the line.
“It’s especially interesting for folks who have supported us for so long and who really appreciate tasting the experiments we’ve done over the years,” he says of his single barrel customers. “The really cool part is that we invite them in, bring down the barrels and let them go through a few hours of blind tasting. We’re not just taking random barrels down though. We make sure that each barrel is pre-screened and already has something unique about it.”
In addition to Peerless, Rabbit Hole, and Laws, the Tasting Alliance releases will include a barrel pick from Frey Ranch out of Fallon, NV. They’ll be available later this year as part of an exclusive partnership with ReserveBar. Though you don’t have to wait nearly that long to select your own barrel from a whiskey warehouse of your choosing. After all, nothing beats back the chill of winter quite like the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when building your own bourbon.
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