I recently had the opportunity to participate in a small group tasting for the selection of a private barrel of bourbon. I’ll step back a bit and explain how this all came about before I get into the details of the tasting, since it’s an interesting story.
I was working at my regular job, waiting tables, one night toward the end of last January when a solo diner requested a pour of Buffalo Trace bourbon. I informed him that while we didn’t have Buffalo Trace, we did have Eagle Rare bourbon. I mentioned that they were both produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, and that they were both made from the same distillate of Trace’s low rye mash bill recipe, and both bottled at 90 proof. I then went on to explain that the difference between the two came down to age (with Buffalo Trace being around 6 years old and Eagle Rare carrying a 10 year age statement) and warehouse location (they come mostly from the same warehouses, but Buffalo Trace barrels are stored on the middle floors and Eagle Rare barrels are stored on the lower floors).
He seemed slightly taken aback that some random waiter possessed such bourbon knowledge and complimented the accuracy of my information. When I’m at work, I try not to spout off about my whiskey blog at the drop of a hat; it just strikes me as being unprofessional. Instead I’ll usually let the whiskey discussions progress pretty far before I mention the blog. On this occasion I responded by noting that I had visited Buffalo Trace less than a year prior and had taken their distillery tour. Much to my surprise, the gentleman informed me that he worked for them; it turned out that he was the northern New England Field Sales Manager for Sazerac.
Vermont is a liquor control state and a very small market, but a bar in my town had recently purchased a private barrel of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so I was aware of the possibility. I had also seen a private barrel bottling of Eagle Rare at a liquor store in Massachusetts, so I assumed that was probably an option as well.
We had a series of brief conversations revolving around various whiskey topics throughout the course of his dinner. I’m not sure which one of us brought up the private barrel program, but we discussed it at length and the fact that it might be a viable option where I work, since my employers own three restaurants across which the cost of roughly 240 bottle of bourbon could be spread. Of course, I eventually mentioned the blog and we exchanged business cards before he departed.
Not long after that night, I sent an email pitching the idea of a private barrel purchase to the two owners and the bar manager of our largest restaurant. At the same time I made a strong push for us to go with Eagle Rare, if they decided to move forward. I thought it was important for us to go with private barrel of a different bourbon brand than the one that was already at another establishment in town, and we already sell a high volume of Eagle Rare with our current cocktail program.
The reaction to that email was very positive, but from that point I handed off responsibility for the matter to Chris, the bar manager, since it was more in line with his job duties. Just a few weeks later it was confirmed that a barrel of Eagle Rare had been designated for us, and one week after that we committed to moving forward with the purchase.
Many distilleries have private barrel programs and most of them work on the same basic principle; anyone can buy a barrel, but it must be bottled before it is delivered and the buyer must purchase the entire bottled contents of the barrel at the same time. There’s no volume discount either; the bottles go through the regular distribution and retail channels and are priced at the standard markup. These barrels are occasionally bought by private individuals, but this is typically the realm of large liquor stores or bars and restaurants that sell high volumes of spirits.
It’s likely that each distillery operates their private barrel program a little differently, but here’s how it goes at Buffalo Trace. The potential buyer will request a barrel of a particular brand of whiskey; Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, etc. The distillery will then approve the purchase (I’m assuming they have a limit on the number of private barrels that they sell each year, so there would probably be a waiting list if demand got high enough) and a barrel is designated for the buyer. This doesn’t mean that a particular barrel has been selected at this point, just that a one-barrel quantity has been allocated from inventory for the purchase that will happen eventually.
When barrels are entered into the warehouses at Buffalo Trace (and likely most other modern distilleries), their eventual fate has already been determined. In other words, when a certain distillate is put into a certain specification barrel and placed in a particular warehouse location, the company intends to bottle that whisky as a specific brand when it’s ready. So a distinct number of barrels are laid down each year with the intention of their contents becoming Eagle Rare ten years later. Of course, these barrels are all tasted at some point before bottling to make sure that they fit what the Eagle Rare flavor profile is supposed to be. As for those that don’t make the cut, they’ll still be used; maybe some special ones are held back to age further and become Eagle Rare 17 year, maybe some not-so-special ones get blended off into something cheap, like Benchmark bourbon.
When a private barrel request comes through, the people that do the barrel tasting at the distillery will pick three different barrels for the purchaser to choose from. Then, a 200 ml sample bottle is drawn from each of the three barrels and these are sent out with a sales rep who will conduct a tasting with the person (or group of people) who will decide which of the three barrels to make their own.
Fast forward to May of this year and we were informed that our samples had arrived. A few weeks later we assembled a small group of people who would collectively select our barrel, and we all got together for a tasting of the samples. This was hosted by a sales rep from the distributor that essentially acts as a middleman between the distiller and our state liquor commission (through which all spirits purchased in-state must go).
This was a pretty informal affair; essentially a round-table discussion where general impressions were bantered back and forth along with the occasional specific aroma or flavor note. Most people at work consider me to be somewhat of an authority when it comes to whiskey, so I was in a position to have the most influence on the group decision, but I wanted to be sure that everyone’s input was valued and that we all had a fairly equal say.
Our samples consisted of three barrel numbers; 033, 332 and 409. I was surprised to see more variation across the three than I had expected. I actually wondered if they had picked some barrels that were outside of the typical Eagle Rare flavor profile, but I was assured through follow-up emails that that was not the case. In retrospect though, it would make sense for them to send the biggest range possible from barrels that do qualify to become Eagle Rare; it wouldn’t be very interesting for buyers to pick from three barrels that are almost identical.
Barrel 033 was sort of the anomaly of the group, its character was much further from the other two than those two were from each other. 033 had very subtle aromas and was quite delicate in the mouth, but there was a distinct mint note that stood out both in a floral way on the nose and in a more herbal way the palate. While some of us found this interesting, we eliminated 033 early on as we all found it to be a little too mild mannered.
Barrel 332 was also a bit restrained on the nose, but I did find some very interesting aromas (including old books) after spending some time with it. What really struck me was how incredibly well balanced it was on the palate.
Barrel 409 had the most assertive nose of the group. It was also big and bold on the palate with a lot of caramel and nutty character.
As a group, we went back and forth between these two for quite some time. To me, 409 was the whiskey that was able to grab one’s attention right of the bat, but 332 was more elegant and well composed overall. While I think either of these would have served us well, the majority eventually gravitated toward 332, and that was what we finally went with. All in all, my first barrel picking session was a fun and insightful experience.
Our barrel is scheduled for bottling right around now. Hopefully the transit time from the distiller to the distributor to the state warehouse to the retail store and finally to the restaurants won’t take too long. Once we have the bottles in hand, I’ll follow up with proper tasting notes as well as some information about the barrel codes that were on our sample bottles and a few other relevant points.