“If you’re in the whiskey business in Louisville, Kentucky and you’re not doing barrel picks, you’re missing a big part of the fun,” says Matthew Landan, owner of Haymarket Whiskey Bar.
Indeed, distilleries such as Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek and Elijah Craig have found a way to highlight single-barrel whiskies that ordinarily wouldn’t reach consumers through private barrel selections made by bars and bartenders across the country. Private barrel selections happen within almost every spirits category, but for whiskey-focused bars, these programs provide the opportunity to carry a special product that’s exclusive to them and to differentiate their spirits offerings.
To begin the process, buyers visit distillery rickhouses to sample a range of earmarked single-barrels, then they select their favorite, and after it’s poured into approximately 20 cases, it’s marked with a custom sticker declaring that whiskey unique to a certain bar, and it’s shipped off. But this doesn’t come cheap; private barrel selections start around $3,000 and can run as high as $15,000, depending on a variety of factors, including cask strength and operation size.
Landan first discovered private barrel selections after joining the Bourbon Society of Louisville. As soon as he was financially able, he secured Haymarket’s first barrel. “It was something of our very own,” he says, “an individualizer and an identifier.” Landan recalls his first selection at Four Roses with then master distiller Jim Rutledge. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever been a part of,” he says. “It made bourbon more authentic for me and reaffirmed a bourgeoning passion that went beyond the economics.”
Not far from Haymarket in Louisville, The Silver Dollar purchased its first private barrel in 2012, a year after opening. People go to Kentucky bars looking for whiskey, so Silver Dollar owner Larry Rice wanted to offer options that could only be found in his bar. Rice often looks for barrels that are so unique they would never be bottled under a brand’s typical expression. During a recent selection at Knob Creek, he intended to purchase a single barrel and instead left with two. “One of them was what what I think every Knob Creek bottle wants to taste like, and the other was so off-profile we didn’t want to leave it behind because it was ridiculously good whiskey, but not what you would expect from the brand,” he says. Demand has grown so much over the past five years that The Silver Dollar has doubled-down on its private-barrel efforts. This year alone the bar plans to buy 13, “and that’s not a little bit,” laughs Rice.
At Hard Water in San Francisco, Michael Lazar, who co-curates the whiskey program alongside Erik Adkins, views private selections as a way to introduce customers to smaller distilleries. “It’s a chance to show off something no patron has ever had,” he says. Though they may not have widespread name recognition, smaller distillers like Garrison Brothers and Journeyman Distillery can sometimes fill the void left by larger operations who have curtailed their private barrel programs, or closed them to newcomers.
Once a private barrel program is place, the next step is to educate guests about these offerings. At Haymarket, a pour of a private barrel whiskey runs from $8 to $18 per glass, and Landan encourages visitors to ask questions about the brands that are available, how old (or young) the whiskies are, and how strong they are. From there, bartenders help provide recommendations. Educating guests is equally important at San Francisco’s Elixir, whose private selection includes barrels from Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and Four Roses. “People come to us trusting us to know what we’re talking about with whiskey [and trusting] that we wouldn’t buy anything we didn’t think was good,” says owner H. Joseph Ehrmann. Ehrmann even repurposes his empty whiskey barrels for beer collaborations with neighboring breweries, including Magnolia and Speakeasy.
Sometimes the whiskies are so good, even the bars hate to see them go. “Obviously the goal is to sell them,” Rice says, “but you get kinda greedy about it when you really love barrels. Like, ‘I don’t want to sell the last couple bottles because then I can’t ever drink it again!’ ”
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