One of my favorite aspects of being a whiskey reviewer isn’t writing reviews. Oh, believe me, I love writing reviews. I try to compose one at least weekly. But what I enjoy best is helping folks new to the Wonderful World of Whiskey learn everything they can. I think that’s because I had great people guiding me when I was new to the scene.
Many of you have heard the terms Private Barrel or Store Pick. While these words are commonly used amongst experienced whiskey drinkers, they may not mean much to those who are not. I’m about to tell you everything you’ll ever want to know about the Private Barrel or Store Pick.
The concept of a Private Barrel is pretty basic. The term Store Pick is just a synonym for Private Barrel. A retailer, bar or restaurant wants their exclusive barrel of a whiskey, and they approach the distillery or a distributor to work out the deal. It is bottled and labeled in such a way as to make it clear it was something other than an ordinary, standard release. But, before I can offer further details, I have to give you some background, and I’ll start with the difference between Batch and Single Barrel whiskeys.
WHAT IS A BATCH WHISKEY?
Many of the whiskeys on your typical store shelf are bottled in batches. A fun term that distillers enjoy tossing around is a small batch. A small batch suggests the distiller used a smaller number of barrels in a batch, but there’s not a legal definition. As such, a small batch can be two barrels or two hundred barrels. As a rule of thumb, smaller batches can differ from batch to batch. The larger the number of barrels used in a batch, the more consistent the taste will be from bottle to bottle, year after year.
If you buy a bottle of these mainline whiskeys, you can rely on tasting notes from anyone being relatively similar to the ones you’d experience, no matter where you purchase the bottle.
WHAT IS A SINGLE BARREL WHISKEY?
Single barrel whiskeys are a lot of fun, but they’re also a bit aggravating. You’ll find that people talk up how great a single barrel whiskey is, they’ll tell you about the aromas, the flavors, the mouthfeel and the finish, but when you find the “same” bottle and try it, it is like you’re sipping a completely different whiskey. The reason for that is because you are drinking a different whiskey.
No two barrels are exactly alike. They can share the same mash bill, can be aged the same amount of time, can be sitting right next to each other in the same rickhouse, but the liquid sunshine in those barrels are different. That’s because other factors come into play, notably the barrel itself.
If you’re going to buy a bottle of single barrel whiskey based upon someone else’s recommendation, you need to make sure that you’re buying a whiskey from the same barrel. That’s why on my single barrel reviews, I include the barrel number whenever possible.
WHAT IS A PRIVATE BARREL?
A Private Barrel should not be confused with a generic, or store brand. Instead, the Private Barrel goes a few steps beyond the Single Barrel. With a standard single barrel whiskey, the distillery is in control. The distillery controls what barrel is bottled. The distillery chooses how much to proof it down, and thus how many bottles are offered. Then it goes to a distributor and shipped to various stores. These bottles from the same barrel can wind up all over the country.
With a Private Barrel, the barrel purchaser usually gets control. The purchaser selects the barrel, the purchaser can select a proof based upon what the distillery is willing to offer. The purchaser controls who else, if anyone, gets to sell the bottles from that barrel.
The Private Barrel program doesn’t stop there. In many cases, you can take labels that are typically batch whiskeys, such as Buffalo Trace or Elijah Craig, and instead buy a single barrel of it. In this case, you’re choosing from a single barrel of a whiskey that was likely destined to be poured into a batch.
HOW DOES THE PRIVATE BARREL SELECTION WORK?
Each distillery may handle things differently. A purchaser could be invited to the distillery to try from several barrels, or samples from a selection of barrels may be sent from which to choose. In other cases, the purchaser may just be told there’s a barrel for sale and not given an opportunity to try before they buy.
Assuming there’s a choice, the purchaser picks the barrel they like best and places their order. The customized label declaring it a private barrel is worked up. The distillery then dumps the barrel, bottles the whiskey at the agreed upon specifications, labels it, and ships it to the purchaser, usually with the actual barrel purchased.
I’ve been involved in a store pick before and it is one of the better experiences of my life. It was for Fine Spirits Wine & Liquors of Cooper City, Florida, and we were choosing from one of five barrels of Four Roses Bourbon. The distillery sent over samples from each barrel. A group of us, lovingly referred to as the Single Barrel Selection Committee did a double-blind taste test. We were not told anything beforehand except it was all Four Roses. We tasted the samples, one at a time, and rated each of them. We reviewed our ratings together. We then tasted the samples again, in a different order than the first round, and rated each of them. We chose the barrel based upon what the majority recommended. I’m proud to say I chose the winning barrel twice.
SHOULD YOU RUN OUT AND GET A PRIVATE BARREL OF YOUR FAVORITE WHISKEY?
Not necessarily. Just because something is a Private Barrel doesn’t mean it is especially good. Some retailers buy a private barrel because they are offered one and want to get in on the game. Some are told if they don’t take it, someone else will. They may accept the barrel without first vetting it.
Others, such as the store pick selection I was involved in, take great care in making sure they get the right barrel for them to represent their store.
If you are familiar with the retailer, bar or restaurant and their history of Private Barrel selections, you can easily figure out if they do a good job picking barrels. If you’re unfamiliar with them, it can’t hurt to ask if they offer any samples. You’d be surprised how many stores have an open bottle available just to help move their special bottles. If they don’t offer samples, ask for detailed tasting notes.
So whether you rush right out when you hear about an available Private Barrel or simply stumble upon one in the store, you’ll know that you’re getting something special that you can find nowhere else.