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Single Barrel Select Program Gives You A Chance to Taste and Choose Your Own Barrel of Bourbon
Warren Griffin and 10 friends ended up picking their own barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon at the distillery because Beau Beckman needed a haircut.
Beckman is the Director of Single Barrel Select at Sazerac Company. Single Barrel Select is the portal to private barrels from Sazerac’s world-class distilleries around the globe. While Griffin was cutting Beckman’s hair one day, of course the talk turned to bourbon. Later, Griffin started thinking.
“I’ve been a friend of Beau’s for quite some time,” Griffin said. “I actually started cutting his hair when he was a young lad. It was something I aways wanted to do — to get a group together and do a single barrel.”
Later, Griffin said, “I was sitting in the barbershop I own and was talking to (another friend) Scott (Scinta). I just threw it out there: we need to get a group together and go do a single barrel pick. Scott said, ‘Okay, you get half, I’ll get half, and we’ll get this thing together.’ That’s how it started, just fodder in the barbershop.”
And so, the Bourbon Outlaws barrel picking group from Louisville, Kentucky was born last summer. Since Scinta is a graphic artist, the group soon had a logo, t-shirts, and gaiter masks. First, the group partnered with Evergreen Liquors in Louisville to gain a coveted barrel picking slot. But, thanks to the pandemic, they were all dressed up with no place to go for many months.
Early in November, the group finally got to visit the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The day included touring and tasting to ultimately choose one of four barrels as their own. Beckman, obviously a man who appreciates a good haircut, even led the group on their barrel picking adventure.
“Go with your gut. Your first instinct is usually the best.”
After an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery, the Bourbon Outlaws ended up in the tasting room of historic Warehouse H. Albert Blanton built this metal building in 1934. It’s also where Elmer T. Lee got the idea in the 1980s to pull Blanton’s single barrels to sell. Beckman called it “the first time bourbon was commercially sold by the barrel.” Today, Warehouse H is the home of 20,000 barrels of aging bourbon, mostly Blanton’s.
Four barrels of 8-year old, 90-proof Buffalo Trace, labeled A, B, C, and D, had been rolled into the tasting room. Beckman set up samples and tasting notes for the group to pair off and begin their first round of blind-sipping and voting. (Note: the group observed strict pandemic restrictions during the tour, but could remove their masks in the tasting room since they had traveled together.)
Those four barrels were chosen by a tasting panel of experts at the distillery. Samples from 40-50 barrels were put before the panel. These four best fit the Buffalo Trace taste profile.
The tasting and nosing notes included sections to rank each barrel, considering Nose, Aroma, and Taste (Spice, Sweet, Fruit, Floral, Wood/Nut), and Mouthfeel (Body, Finish, Complexity).
In prepping the tasters, Beckman admitted that 10 experts could taste the same barrels and end up with 10 different rankings. “I say, go with your gut. Your first instinct is usually the best.”
Beckman told the group it was okay if they couldn’t distinguish the specific flavors or smells listed on the tasting notes.
“Instead of saying, ‘vanilla,’ say it’s ‘approachable and easy to drink.’ Or instead of saying, ‘dry,’ say, ‘there’s a certain texture to it’ like chocolate milk, oil, and viscous,” Beckman said. “That’s what I want, something that is approachable, easy to drink, and with good texture to it, instead of naming specific tastes.”
As I walked around the tasters, I picked up snippets of conversation in between a lot of laughs.
“I agree with that.”
“What do you think about C?”
“I think it’s got a bit more spice, but I like the way it finishes.”
“What’s that taste like to you?”
“I really like A.”
“I’ve already got my favorite.”
After reaching consensus on the top two (A and D), Beckman sent the group to wander Warehouse H while he set up new samples for them to determine the ultimate winner. He graciously asked me if I wanted to use the copper whiskey thief to retrieve more bourbon from the barrels. As a first timer, I spilled a small bit on the wooden floor and profusely apologized. Beckman said that’s how people are now in our current bourbon boom. When the barrel program first started, nobody cared when some whiskey found its way onto the floor. Now every drop is precious to the consumer.
The final round proved Barrel D to be the overwhelming favorite. Beckman told the group that with all other variables being the same, the biggest determination of final taste was the barrel itself. The winner and two other barrels were side-by-side in the rick-house. “You can tell by the barrel numbers they were right next to each other (69, 70, 71) but C only got 3 votes,” Beckman said.
While every barrel yields a different amount, Beckman said the group could expect around 200 bottles to arrive at Evergreen Liquors in Louisville in about eight weeks with their customized Bourbon Outlaws label. Then the members of the group can purchase them.
I asked Griffin how many bottles he thought the group would buy. “We will take it all,” he said. “There’s 10 of us, we’ll all divide those bottles up together.”
The final act of the day was for everyone in the group to take Sharpie in hand and autograph the barrel and then pose for photos with their new treasure. The empty barrel is included at no charge as part of the single barrel program.
Beckman told the group their barrel would be delivered to their liquor retailer or they could participate in the “Boomerang” program were their barrel would go to Mexico and be filled with Corazon Tequila and age for another year. Then they could travel to Mexico and participate in another tasting session and purchase tequila from their barrel. For now, the group seemed content to pick up their empty barrel when it’s ready.
After the final selection was made, I talked to Anne Monell, the lone women in the group. Monell came with her husband for her first barrel pick experience.
“This was fantastic,” Monell said. “It was so much fun: When you get to see how it’s made, when you learn the history, when you learn what it takes to become bourbon.”
How sophisticated is her palate? “I can’t tell, ‘Oh there’s notes of this and that,’” Monell said. “I just kind of know what I like. But so much of it is the experience and getting to know these fine folks. It’s really the joy of spending time with each other. Being a native Kentuckian, I really enjoy learning the history of bourbon.”
I asked if, down the road, she thought she might own a few of these bottles. Monell replied, with a big laugh, “Uh, yeah! And we already own a lot of these bottles that are distilled here.”
Next up for the Bourbon Outlaws: a single barrel pick of High Rye Bourbon at Prohibition Craft Spirits in Louisville.
The Conversation Continues
After the group headed for home, I got a chance to talk with Beckman. We ducked into the 140-year old brick and limestone Warehouse C directly across from the visitors’ center. As we stood in the shadows between the rows of aging bourbon and breathed in the aroma of the Angel’s Share, Beckman answered a few more questions:
WNM: You mentioned that customers only purchase what comes out of the barrels?
Beckman: “When we started selling barrels, if you had a low-yielding barrel, say in 2011 a barrel only yielded 150 bottles, the customer was usually excited because they got to pick their own barrel, have that adventure, but didn’t have to pay that much. Now, what happens, if you have a customer who picks a barrel with a low yield, we get an earful about how it’s not fair that their barrel didn’t yield that much. It’s in our best interest to have every barrel be a high yield barrel.”
WNM: How have bourbon consumers changed since the single barrel program began?
Beckman: “In 2011, people knew a little about bourbon if they knew Jack Daniels wasn’t bourbon. Now the level of education about bourbon is absolutely insane."
“I was sitting on a plane and had on a Buffalo Trace shirt. The person (next to me) said, ‘Buffalo Trace? My wedding ring is made out of a Buffalo Trace barrel.’”
WNM: Where does the Single Barrel Select program go from here?
Beckman: “It’s going to continue to increase as our supply gets larger, but people are experimenting with other barrel-aged spirits, as well. Every year we offer an opportunity for anyone to go in and order a barrel. Now, there’s a whole lot more people looking for barrels than we have barrels available. But at least you have a chance.”
“We used to sell barrels of Pappy Van Winkle, way back in the day. We didn’t have enough to sell any more, so we had to pull it from the barrel program. Pretty much every brand we’ve put in the barrel program has become tight.”
“The other thing I’ll say is don’t be afraid to try new things. Right now tequila is available. What’s going to happen is in a couple of years it will get really tight. Get ahead of it. Don’t be afraid to venture into new things and try new spirits.”
As that gap gets wider with certain brands, we have to rethink about putting them in the barrel program. But most of them, your Weller, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Blanton’s, are currently have been in the barrel program and we want to bring them back other brands that used to be in, like Elmer T. Lee and Rock Hill farms once we have enough volume. Each year more barrels, more brands coming on line is the goal.
WNM: Is the Single Barrel Select Program a money-maker or it is it more to build brand loyalty?
Beckman: “The barrels of Buffalo Trace today, it would have been cheaper and easier to dump them into a batch of Buffalo Trace and sell it. From the beginning our whole thing has been get people to Buffalo Trace Distillery and show it off. The barrel program fits great with that.”
“There’s no charge to do any of this. Only money transaction is when you buy the bottles from the retailers.”
WNM: How does this program affect your relationship with retailers?
Beckman: “You want to see your product displayed in a retail store. This program naturally incentivizes retailers to display it, with the barrel. When they have customers walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m new to bourbon, what would you recommend?’ (The retailer can say) ‘I was at the distillery, I handpicked this myself, and this is all that goes into it.”
WNM: You spend a lot of time dealing with people who don’t ultimately get to participate in your program?
Beckman: “I’ll call as many as I can and explain this is how it works. One email I got today. His last email was from last year’s order window and the subject line was: ‘You lost a customer today.’ He was mad and we talked. A year later (today) he just replied to me, ‘When’s the next order window?’”
Getting a barrel is hard, and it’s even harder to come to the distillery to pick it under covid restrictions.
WNM: Any closing thoughts?
Beckman: “It’s not single barrels of bourbon that made this program big. It is the experience. You saw today, customers got to come in, learn about how we make bourbon…meet the people who are involved in making it, and then they got to play a role in the production. They got to say this is the barrel I want, this is the whiskey that’s right for me.”
The window to order a barrel of bourbon opens at www.singlebarrelselect.com on 12/16/20 at 12 p.m. EST
Limit one barrel per person.
Prices vary from approximately $5,000 to $14,000,
Bottles will arrive at your liquor store 10-12 weeks after your selection.
Most barrels will yield between 160-240 bottles
Single Barrel Select By the Numbers
How to (try) to Pick Your Own Single Barrel
Now that the calendar has turned to December, many people’s thoughts turn to that most special time of the year…the time when you can apply for a single barrel of bourbon or other spirits of your very own.
But despite increased production and annual restocking, the bitter truth is you face an uphill battle. “Sadly, with bourbon, the demand has outstripped supply by a good margin,” Beau Beckman, Director of Single Barrel Select, said. “So, unfortunately we don’t have barrels readily available to buy at any given moment.”
Hence the once-a-year window to apply for you own barrel.
On your own
Go to singlebarrelselect.com and create an account.
The window to submit your application for a single barrel will open online on December 16 at 12:00 p.m. EST.
Get online well before the announced time and keep hitting the refresh button.
Think you don’t need to move fast? Beckman talked about how things have dramatically changed during the recent bourbon boom: “We rolled out the website in 2015. The barrels we set aside for consumers to order through the website took about eight months to sell. In 2016, it took about three months. In 2017 it took a day. 2018, one minute. 2019 one minute. 2020 instantly. It’s just getting absurd.”
2. Through a liquor retailer
Beckman’s advice: “The next best bet is going to a retailer who has barrel picks on the shelf. Go to them and say, ‘Hey, I would love to be involved in one of your barrel picks.’ That’s what Warren did.”
“The retailer groups have changed over the years,” Beckman continued. "The retailers have started catching on, saying, ‘Wow, this is a great experience and we can bring some customers with us.’”
3. Through a restaurant or bar
If you have a relationship with a restaurant or bar owner who is doing their own barrel picks, you might wangle an invitation to a tasting experience with them. But it’s another uphill battle.
“The one group that hasn’t changed is bars and restaurants,” Beckman said. “You’re going to get some mixologists and chefs in. They’re going to be very dialed-in to taste profiles and tasting. Very focused and serious."