It all makes sense now. When I got into chasing down bourbon a little over a decade ago, the limited releases were annual and still fairly easy to obtain. My local Hy-Vee grocery store always had Elmer T. Lee and every Weller on the shelf (which at the time were a mere three expressions). Even more recently, our Whole Foods did private barrels of Blanton’s that sat for weeks at a time. Back then, it was still fun to pop into a random liquor store in Mukwonago, Wisconsin or Union, Illinois and walk out with a Lost Prophet or an Old Rip at retail.
As the mushroom cloud of the bourbon boom has continued spreading, I’ve watched the OG’s of the bourbon world step back or disappear. I didn’t understand then why those who came before me would give it all up when we needed their wisdom more than ever. But as the community has been splashed by wave after wave of new bourbon hunters in recent years, I have a far greater appreciation for those who have simply just had enough. It reminds me of the old fishermen who recall the glory days of Montana rivers before they became overrun by aspiring anglers.
For those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember Pappy events with empty chairs, it’s pretty easy to get cynical, to suggest that bourbon has become a joke, to mock those posing with $30 bottles in their crotches and expecting a flood of praise. The fact is, I’m just not interested in chasing people off my lawn, and if they choose to devote hours of their lives every week to scoring bottles that will be largely in abundance in just a few short years, is that really worth my energy?
While the crypto-like surges in bottle values do generate an unexpected and frustrating hesitation to open some bottles I planned on drinking, my passion for bourbon wasn’t ignited by monetary considerations. Anyone who has visited my home will affirm that there are very few bottles I wouldn’t open and share. My relationships fostered through bourbon and bourbon-related charities have a much greater secondary value to me than anything with a cork in it. Though the pleasure I used to take in hunting for truly worthwhile bourbon bottles on small-town store shelves may be gone, the incredible experiences I share with my friends in the community still excite me.
“Whiskey drinkers want two things: Something they’ve never had and something they can’t get.” – DAVID PERKINS
Those experiences include, of course, private barrel picks, despite many forces conspiring to devalue their uniqueness. As a businessman, it would be disingenuous for me to call out another business for capitalizing on consumers’ rabid and relentless demand for their products. As High West founder David Perkins once told me, “Whiskey drinkers want two things: Something they’ve never had and something they can’t get.” Private barrel selections check both boxes, particularly when they sell out immediately or are hyped up by a trusted reviewer.
Unfortunately, too often we fail to consider the randomness and lack of discernment that goes into so many of these offerings. Private barrel picks used to be a far more selective and meaningful process. Once you learn that some grocery store chains select their barrels only by smelling samples, or that liquor stores have admitted relaxing quality standards because they’re going to sell out regardless, it’s really difficult to get excited about taking a flyer on a bottle. Rather than hurl derision toward stores or groups with their own priorities, I prefer spotlighting the emergence of an exciting new era in bourbon hunting. We are back to where it all began.
The explosion in the popularity of private barrel programs has fostered an unprecedented number of single barrel releases-- often with wide variation among them. The big game worth hunting today are the stores and groups with the integrity to withhold their name from subpar barrels of whiskey. Every store owner is challenged with the knowledge that in today’s climate, the barrel they reject will most certainly be bottled and quickly sold by someone else. Again, who am I to fault a business for selling liquor when it makes its money selling liquor? Who am I to fault the growing number of consumers for scarfing up those random picks they so infrequently see? The majority of newer bourbon drinkers don’t much care whether a barrel is storied or off-profile or anything else. They only care that they’ve found one they can buy. And that is precisely why so many stores put such little effort into the barrels they select.
And why should they? Many flippers don’t even bother naming the store or group anymore, because “private pick” seems to be enough information to snag an eager buyer. This disturbing trend is a tacit acknowledgment by the whiskey community that the picking team doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, every pick is a little different but they’re just as good as any other, right? After all, haven’t the barrels already been tasted and qualified by the distillery before being admitted into the barrel program? Distillers insist all their barrels are good in different ways, which is akin to suggesting all the kids who made the baseball team are good in different ways. Coaches still play favorites, don’t they?
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – OSCAR WILDE
I’ve participated in too many private picks to count, and I cannot recall a single occasion when I didn’t have strong opinions or preferences about at least one barrel. Any group or store that takes pride in their selection process is insulted to find their bottle lumped into the generic category of “private pick.” For some reason, unknown groups and stores are being afforded the same lofty premium as those with a well-earned reputation. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde who said, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Here’s the point: if someone is already willing to pay up for a random private pick, it costs nothing more for them to be more discerning in which pick they buy. They just have to get more information. That is precisely what we hunt for now.
Of course, it’s easy for me to advise liquor stores, because I’m not responsible for their overhead and employee benefit plans. I wasn’t the one working feverishly to push a distributor’s less-desirable offerings over the past year, jockeying for position in the derby over the one or two coveted private barrels in the entire state. So I ignore all that and I tell them reputation is everything to whiskey enthusiasts, and you want your name associated with killer picks. You want people in other states to know who you are. Your name should be associated with greatness.
"The question is, do you care enough to find out what?"
There was once a time when private picks were considered special because they were selected by a notable store or group as such. Unfortunately, many picks today aren’t much different from the standard shelf versions (when those bottles actually made it to the shelves). The excitement of bourbon hunting has reemerged as the quest for stores and groups with dependable integrity. They not only select great barrels, but they refuse to begin with average options. Any private selection sticker on the bottle may be good enough for most people in this crowded market, but the name on that sticker still carries a lot of meaning.
The question is, do you care enough to find out what?