“For liquor stores, whiskey bars, restaurants — having a private barrel label is basically their way of saying ‘This is how we like our whiskey.’” Tom Fischer, the founder of BourbonBlog and a frequent judge at many spirits and cocktail competitions, told me over the phone after we got back from Kentucky. “So it allows them to put that bottle on a shelf and say, you know, ‘This is something we went to Kentucky and we picked up. This is how we like our whiskey, but it may not always be how you like it.’”
For the half dozen guys who flew in from Seattle to pick out a barrel for Duke’s Chowder House, a personal barrel straight from Kentucky carried even more weight. As a typical morning tour group followed a microphoned guide out of a rick house at Woodford Reserve, a smaller group of men, coffees in hand, stood excited, huddled around Chris Morris, Master Distiller, to get a pep talk while everyone was still sober. They followed Morris, bespeckled and in a tan Woodford Reserve quarter zip that would look as much at home on a horse track as Woodford’s property in Versailles, into the warehouse.
The rick house was a relatively new, state-of-the-art building with temperature controls. In the winter, when temperatures can drop so low that the aging process slows to a halt, hot water pipes running throughout the building raise the temperature, then cut off to let the temperature drop once more. This repeats throughout the winter. These fluctuations cycle the bourbon in and out of the barrel’s wood faster, adding to the batch’s flavor as well as the electricity bill. But Woodford has penned itself as a premium, luxury bourbon label from its first release in 1996, and these costs show up in the liquor store checkout line.
After a brief lesson — a little homework before the tasting — the Duke’s team used a whiskey key to take samples from three barrels of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked that Morris had set aside. This is par for the course: After finally reaching the top of a waiting list, restaurants and liquor stores interested in selecting their own single barrel of whiskey will typically call in and give the master distiller an idea of what they are looking for — just broad strokes of flavor — and the master distiller will try to select barrels that fit this preference. He wants to give them something they’d be willing to buy around 216 bottles of, to let them bring home their own taste to serve exclusively at their restaurant.
“Five or six years ago — I think it was five or six years ago — people hardly knew what personal barrels were”, Fischer said, thinking back to his own experiences picking barrels. “So this really gives you a nice idea of how the industry has grown in five or six years and how the distilleries are using this as an opportunity to market themselves and offer a very personal experience and a very personalized product to consumers.”
Personal barrel selection undergoes the same process and has the same end goal as when a distiller releases a single barrel bourbon under their label. Ever since Buffalo Trace (then Ancient Age) began the trend of single barrel bourbon with the release of Blanton’s in 1984, the majority of distillers have followed suit and started flexing their range of flavors with these releases. “The goal is to find a hand-selected barrel that shows something unique and special,” said Fischer. “This is one they didn’t want to mingle with other barrels in a small batch or regular release. They thought it was worth standing out by itself.”
While the age and cost of a single barrel release is typically higher than a standard bourbon, there’s nothing to say the flavor’s better. It’s just different. A distiller’s flagship offering is based on consistency: the notion that every time you get a bottle of Jim Beam White Label or Four Roses Yellow Label, it tastes the same. Evan Williams builds their entire black label campaign behind the premise that their flavor, and their distilling process, hasn’t changed since the first bottle in 1783. Contrast this with a single barrel which, by definition, varies with every bottle release.
After filling sample bottles from each of the three barrels, Duke’s team, along with Morris and one of his master tasters, moved into a tasting room where each sample was placed in a glen-cairn and labeled A, B or C. “So, this is fun. Since they were all filled on the same day, the same batch of Woodford went into the barrels. Since they’re all the same age, the only difference is the barrel itself”, Morris said. “So let’s go through these and find out what we have!”
Sitting in the Pepper Room of the Dryer House waiting for the tasting to begin, I was reminded of Penn & Teller. On March 7, 2003, the two hosts released an episode of their Showtime show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, in which they served fancy bottled water at a Southern Californian restaurant — $7 a bottle for “L’eau du Robinet” (French for “tap water”) — that were actually just filled in the back with a garden hose. Nevertheless, patrons gushed over the hose water, saying they could taste the glacier that the water was melted from and that each bottle seemed to be unique and distinguishable.
Bourbon, it turns out, isn’t water; there was definitely a discernible difference between each barrel. It’s not the difference between scotch and bourbon, or even rye and bourbon, but it’s there. But being different doesn’t necessarily mean being better. Everyone in the Kentucky bourbon world actively avoids directly comparing brands for anything but subjective differences in taste; we never once heard the word “better”.
The three barrel samples, along with a sample of the wide-release Double Oaked, sat on a placemat in front of each taster, myself included. With the help of a few tasting notes from Morris, who sat beneath a bright orange painting of a Kentucky thoroughbred, we sampled each and wrote down our notes and preferences, with the intent to single out our most preferred barrel. After two rounds of tastings — each ending in ties — Morris had to step in to make the tie-breaking vote. A flight from Seattle and the cost of a barrel of whiskey, and they couldn’t even pick the barrel unanimously. It’s a testament to the variety of flavors from barrel to barrel; at the top level, bourbons are all good for different reasons — which itself is a testament to the skill of the blender. Granted, though I’d never have mentioned it at the time, the common, easy-to-find Woodford Double Oaked was easily my favorite.
Just 20 minutes after the barrel selection was over, at the personal tasting, you could have performed surgery in my mouth, it was so clean; the bourbon for the cask strength Double Oaked barrel selection was around 96 or 98 proof, whereas the samplings for the following tasting — which was just “for fun”, a thank you from Morris for buying a barrel’s worth of whiskey — topped out at 140. Those temperature cycles from the heated warehouses mean the water loss, the Angel’s Share, is bigger. You can’t get onto an airplane with a 140 proof bottle; it’s a fire hazard. And it numbs your mouth.
It isn’t until a master distiller asks you to taste eight different barrel proof samples that you see how subjective taste can be. Bourbon, according to Morris himself, varies sip by sip, by which part of the tongue its touching and by how long it sits in your mouth. And then you throw in an ice cube and everything changes. A lot of it is suggestion; in some cases I sampled one bourbon and then another and couldn’t pick out any particular flavors…until Morris started naming what he tasted and I’d immediately taste the floral or the dark fruit or the maple bacon. However, a few other times, I’d tasted the bourbon and thought “mint”, and moments later both Morris and his master taster said “mint” as well. This is when I realized that there are true differences in bourbon that master distillers see as green tea versus black tea, that the novice can sometimes detect, but that most others can’t put into words.
“Come on people, this is the Cinnabon and lemon cake mixed”, Morris said while distributing the last sample. This sample came last because after everyone had tasted and ranked their favorite bourbons, the four favorites were married in different combinations and then resampled, to show the crew how blending affects flavor. This mix was distributed last as a bonus, so it was a mixture of everyone’s fifth and sixth picks; these were two bourbons that weren’t even in the top half of everyone’s preference during the initial tasting.
Regardless, the taster a few seats to my left took a sip and said, “Well, this is easily my favorite.” There were nods of approval, everyone drunk and happy from being done with the tasting, done with their barrel selection and looking forward to a seeing the Louisville Cardinals take on Florida State Seminoles. Even though no one liked these bourbons initially, after they were handed back while the master distiller excitedly mentioned the words “Cinnabon” and “lemon cake”, everyone loved them. This is a what master distiller hopes for when he releases a single barrel, for better or for worse.