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Barrel Pickin'

June 2020

I love picking bourbon that people can get lost in!  My wife and I own a little Honky Tonk in the southern mountains of New Mexico and the liquor store that adjoins it.  People here drink bottled beer and enjoy live country music every night of the year except Christmas.  Ruidoso, NM is home to the All American Futurity, The World's Richest Quarter Horse Race and to the Mescalero Apache Reservation.  The tribe boasts North America's southernmost ski resort, zip lines, championship golf course and a beautiful hotel / casino on a lake. And, I would be remiss if I didn't mention all of this sits in Lincoln county, Billy the Kid’s country. 


When we bought the Win Place & Show in 2018 I made it my mission to learn everything I could about bourbon, because I already liked to drink it, but needed to understand the history and nuances better so I could educate others and turn them on to the experience we all know as bourbon.  Different people will have different views on how to select a barrel, much of which depends on why you want a barrel. I've seen fraternity brothers who celebrate reunions pick barrels. I've seen military units pick barrels, families join together to pick barrels & businesses pick barrels for their customers. There are as many reasons as there are great bourbons and due to different liquor laws in each state there are different ways to go about securing one of these gems, some more difficult than others.


The first thing I did after choosing to purchase this long revered business was to visit Louisville and become a Bourbon Steward through the Stave & Thief Society.  That background and the contacts I made have really helped get us started.  That first year, we jumped right in and picked a Barrel of Buffalo Trace.  It was a 9 year old, smooth, slow sipping, heavy on the tongue at 94 proof with the characteristic BT finish.  Halfway into the first glass you could really start to pick up the flavors past the great caramel and vanilla reminiscent in many bourbons.  It is commonly believed the barrel contributes some range near 75% to the final essence of your bourbon and, of course those charred oak barrels emit different levels of the caramelized flavor from the char and the vanilla influence of the oak.  So, for me, the business owner, who also loves good bourbon, I have to balance my competing priorities.  First & foremost, my selections have to enhance our reputation, of course I have to like it and it has to make good business sense.  


As discussed, our bar, that has been around since 1956, enjoys a stellar reputation with our die-hard locals and our adventurous tourists.  Most people were used to things the way they've always been and we all know, change is not anyone's favorite thing to do, but we are proud of the way we've been able to introduce bourbon into the mix and are pleased with the response. As we started carrying different brands we began learning about the huge culture associated with "America's spirit" and the intensity of those who follow it.  Our acquisitions culminate in an auction the first Saturday in each December when we have some fun, give away some great prizes and live auction our special selections to give everyone a chance to own something special.  


With regard to my personal enjoyment, I discover new things every day.  Some of our bourbon club members bring me their finds and we share while we solve the world's problems.  Imagine if Trump and Pelosi sat down over a Single Barrel of a great store select brand.  All of a sudden, peace and harmony in D.C.!  Not sure which bourbon would bring those two together, but it'd sure be worth a try!


 I tend to have a bit of a sweet tooth and the mouthfeel is paramount to me.  My sweet spot is in the mid 90's on proof, but we could spend hours on the debates touting the beauty of barrel-proof selections.  I don't pretend to know what's best for everyone or even how to drink it.  You buy it, you drink it how you like it, even if it's not neat! It has been said that different people pick up different notes in the same bottle due to their olfactory memories. It's interesting to think back in life and remember how you felt when you smelled fresh bread, raw leather, a smoldering pipe or the fresh smell of a meadow after rain. If you trigger one of these memories with a good nosing of your bourbon or that ever enjoyable 4th sip, you are going to love that bottle.  


In addition to the sensory stimulation bourbon hits, there is a magic in the comradery that builds over a mutually enjoyed bottle.  We talk about dreams, ancestors, "what if" scenarios and can sometimes actually let the stresses of life disappear into the soil. 


The final factor that allows me to keep going back to the Bluegrass state is marketability.  If I can't sell it, I can't buy more!  Price point, recognition and broad appeal to name a few, are key factors. I don't want to lose the distinctly unique characteristics that come from a barrel selection versus grabbing the same brand off the shelf, but if only two of my customers buy my selection, it's going to take a while to sell that barrel. 


Another very important factor for me is the leverage my purchases get me when companies allocate their special expressions.  I have a big relationship with Sazerac due in no small part to the wide appeal this line enjoys.  We receive regular allocations of some and special selections of others.  Our strategic purchases in 2019 landed us with William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy, Eagle Rare 17 year, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year, George T. Stagg, Pappy Van Winkle 15 year, Pappy Van Winkle 20 year and 23 year, among others.


I hope readers of this article will pick up a little something from my perspective as a bar owner / liquor store owner / bourbon enthusiast and be able to grow your sphere of influence and enjoyment of sharing the history, fellowship and flavor of America's Native Spirit.  Happy hunting and come see us sometime in the Land of Enchantment!


Mike Cheney


Mike Cheney