Heads & Tails: Barrels and Blending Edition

In Heads & Tails by Steve CoomesLeave a Comment


Running a small distillery is tough, and this VinePair article shows it’s not getting any easier. Not only are barrel prices soaring, their availability to small distilleries is shrinking.

FEW Spirits, founder Paul Hletko said, “All our coopers are calling us up, telling us to get our orders in now. A major barrel crisis is coming."

According to the story, part of the problem is a sharp increase in freight and shipping costs. And like so many companies, cooperages are struggling to get materials and workers to assemble them.

BOURBON & BANTER'S VIEW >> Hold onto your purses and wallets, people because prices have nowhere to go but up. Perhaps it’s time to tap those bottles we all bunkered in during the worst of the pandemic.


Familiar with Old Forester’s 1910 Bourbon? If you like it, you may be interested in Old Forester’s new 117 Series release that builds on that whiskey by jacking up its secondary barrel flavors.

If you’re not familiar with it, 1910 Bourbon is aged by Old Fo’s standard process but, before bottling, it gets a second rest inside a heavily charred barrel to give it more body, boldness and robust character. The brand rarely releases age statements on its liquids, so we don’t know how old the heat-cycled original liquid is (do heat cyclers count in dog years?) before it entered the second, heavily charred barrel.

And that’s why I find this release interesting. Though Old Forester also doesn’t state the age of the original bourbon in the 117 release, it does say it spends 18 months in the heavily charred second barrel. OK, that sounds cool—highly impactful to the bourbon at least—but that’s 18 months compared to what? In his review, Paste reviewer Jim Vorel called the 93-proof bourbon (same proof as the 1910 standard) “deeply transformed by entering into a virgin, newly charred barrel for an even longer period of time.”

BOURBON & BANTER'S VIEW >> Since Bourbon & Banter hasn’t received a press sample of this new liquid, it remains to be seen how the standard Prohibition Series 1910 bourbon aligns with the 117. For now, at least Vorel’s review is insightful.

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Oy, have we got a marketing story here! This one reaches all the way back to J. Frederick Hillerich, a German woodworker who immigrated to Louisville in 1842. Hillerich’s core business was barrel making, but if you know anything about his name or baseball in general, you’ll recognize it as half the brand behind the Hillerich & Bradsby bat company.

But to the business of Bourbon & Billets. The company has created an experience in which one is led to use as many as “six award-winning bourbons and tasting materials” to create a custom blend. At the end of the $35 exercise, the amateur blending can buy a full bottle for $45.

What are these six award-winning bourbons? They’re Bourbon & Billet’s blends, apparently, though only three bourbons and one rye are featured on this page. (Never had any of them. If you have, please comment on them at the bottom of the page.)

BOURBON & BANTER'S VIEW >> Gimmicky as this is, it’ll be popular, and kudos to this company for standardizing the whiskey blending experience. In reality, though, blending is difficult. Just ask any distillery-level blender or taster. Not only does it take skill and experience to conduct a formal blending exercise, more time is required near the end to allow the individual liquids to meld and marry. It truly ain’t over until it’s over, and that happens over days and weeks.

Most spirits writers who’ve been led through a blending exercise will admit their results are rarely impressive. (The distillery pros know this, by the way, and surely our clumsy efforts make them laugh after we’re gone!) So chances are low that this brief Bourbon & Billet’s exercise will yield a bottle of bourbon that’s better than OK. The chances that people will, for nostalgia’s sake, never open it are high. And if they do, chances are even higher that they’ll go on full cognitive dissonance defense and swear it tastes great.


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About the Author

Steve Coomes

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Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter. Read Steve's full profile.