Just before 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, the founder and admin of a Facebook group dedicated to the buying and selling of rare whiskey hurriedly explained the future of whiskey nerdery to me over Messenger.
"When I first started chasing bourbons I wanted the expensive stuff. The Pappys, the older Michters’, BTAC [Buffalo Trace Antique Collection], Willett, etc.," he wrote. "As I built up a decent collection, I started to realize there were some really good whiskeys to be found from people you trusted."
Patrick (who asked that his real name be withheld because Facebook bans alcohol sales on its platform) was referring to the practice of barrel picking, where distilleries offer barrels of whiskey for groups to sample, select and buy for themselves. In 15 minutes, he'd be holding an online sale of bottles from his latest barrel.
Booze retailers and whiskey bars have participated in these private-barrel programs for decades, purchasing all the bottles from a single barrel — which costs anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 — and selling them as an exclusive offering. Barrel picking isn't new, but the customers are. In recent years, it's the Patricks of the world piquing whiskey makers' interests.
While there's no hard data on the growth of private-barrel purchases in the American whiskey market (it's not tracked, and likely won't be anytime soon), there are plenty of anecdotes like those from Four Roses Private Barrel Manager Mandy Vance, who said the distillery's barrel program has grown fivefold since it started in 2013. "When I first started, if someone came in and wanted to buy more than one barrel, we were ecstatic," she said. Today, the program pushes well over 1,000 barrels a year, a number that has forced Four Roses to limit how many people can buy.
Thousands strong, the Facebook group Patrick operates isn't just a platform for whiskey trading and boozy conversation. It is one of very few that exclusively buy, sell and trade picks, otherwise known as bakes — that is, bottles from single-barrel selections. A good number of them are selected by Patrick himself, who hosts numerous community barrel picks through the group and elsewhere. The appeal, he said, isn't just that these are rare bottles that are (usually) not crippling expensive, it's also the juice inside.
"It’s not like my taste is better than anyone else’s, but if you can find a picker that you know has tastes that match up with whiskey that you like consistently, then that’s your best source of whiskey," he explained. "I just kind of fell in love with the concept of being able to choose my own bourbon."
Jay Erisman, cofounder of New Riff Distilling, knows the feeling. In 2014, he and his business partner Ken Lewis opened their Kentucky distillery on the same block as The Party Source, a Costco-sized spirits and party-supplies emporium with a sweeping selection of single-barrel store picks, where Erisman used to work as the Fine Spirits Manager. Some whiskey groups came to him for help barrel picking, but only out of necessity. By law, everyday consumers couldn't — and still can't — buy a barrel on their own. Most of the U.S. must adhere to what's known as the Three-Tier System, which ushers alcohol sales along a strict one-way street: producers (distillers) may only sell to distributors, distributors may only sell to retailers (liquor stores) and retailers own the sole right to sell to drinkers. The Party Source was the broker between the group, a distributor and the whiskey maker.
"Now, it seems any bourbon society worth its salt has got to have its own calendar of barrel selections," Erisman said. The surge in interest has prompted New Riff to cater its barrel program to the general whiskey community, not just bars or liquor stores. The company was the first to conscript a third-party panel to pen tasting notes for each barrel available for purchase, and groups that visit the distillery to pick are given a full tour of the production facility and rickhouses and attend a question-and-answer session with the staff before being sequestered into a room with upward of 20 barrels to choose from.
New Riff's efforts have made its barrel program wildly popular with groups like the one Patrick runs. But why is private-barrel buying just now going mainstream? Easy: the internet.
Known by his username, T8ke, in online whiskey circles, Jay West is one of the Web's most prolific whiskey reviewers. West is in his late 20s, works in software development and posts reviews of whiskey on his website and /r/bourbon, Reddit's largest whiskey community. He's managed a number of private-barrel buys and also runs the subreddit's single-barrel pick program, which has more than 5,500 people on its waitlist. "I've been talking to some of these people for five, six years about whiskey, life, whatever, and I've got no clue what they look like, but that doesn't mean we can't buy a barrel," he said.
Fully Web-based groups are the most extreme example of the internet's ability to connect whiskey drinkers. West says there are pros and cons.
"Doing it over the internet means less camaraderie, but you can get better picks sometimes," West said. "You’re not going to piss off your buddy Steve, who you've known for twenty years, by thinking something is good when he doesn’t like it when you're doing it online."
Connected online or by geography, whiskey groups' thirst for barrels over bottles has spawned track-greasing businesses like Seelbach's, a site that specializes in connecting groups to distilleries across the country (including New Riff). Blake Riber, the company's founder, says facilitating barrel sales wasn't part of the plan when he launched the business, but interest demanded it. Riber's company has handled barrel purchases for West and the /r/bourbon community, the bourbon review site Breaking Bourbon and its legion of Patreon subscribers, and the podcast Bourbon Pursuit, which was so popular those behind it launched a private label out of it.
"I talk with these groups and these guys aren’t, like, getting paid to do this. But they’ve got goals and they take pride in it," Riber said. "I think people are tired of chasing the limited editions, so they just moved on to private barrels and stacking those up. Nobody’s getting Pappy anymore. What’s the next cool thing you could get? Your own barrel."
As his auction was starting, Patrick excused himself from our conversation on Messenger. He was hosting a release of new bottles from a barrel of New Riff bourbon (his first New Riff pick is legendary in the private barrel community). Group members put their names in for the chance to buy one of 200 bottles from the barrel selection. He returned to our chat shortly after, apologetic.
"Back," he wrote. "New Riff pick just sold out in less than a minute. Lol."
A version of this story first published in a recent issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.