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 among 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 is
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 fewer
barrels in a batch, but there’s no 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.
Suppose you buy a bottle of
these mainline whiskeys. In that case, you can rely on tasting notes from
anyone relatively similar to the ones you’d experience, no matter where you
purchase the bottle.
WHAT IS A SINGLE BARREL
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 an utterly different whiskey. The reason for
that is that you are drinking another whiskey.
No two barrels are exactly
alike. They can share the same mash bill, age the same amount of time, and sit
right next to each other in the same rickhouse, but the liquid sunshine in
those barrels is different. That’s because other factors come into play,
notably the barrel itself.
Suppose you buy a bottle of
single barrel whiskey based on someone else’s recommendation. In that case, you
must ensure you’re purchasing a whiskey from the same barrel. That’s why I
include the barrel number whenever possible in my single barrel reviews.
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 is 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 and can
choose a proof based on 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 typically batch
whiskeys, such as Buffalo Trace or Elijah Craig, and instead buy
a single barrel. In this case, you’re choosing from a single barrel of whiskey
that was likely destined to be poured into a batch.
HOW DOES THE PRIVATE BARREL
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 allowed to try before they buy.
Assuming 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
I’ve been involved in a
store pick before, and it is one of the best 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 called 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. We reviewed our ratings together. We then tasted the
samples again, in a different order than the first round, and rated each. We
chose the barrel based on 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 terrific. 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 ensuring they get the
right barrel to represent their store.
Suppose you are familiar
with the retailer, bar or restaurant and their history of Private Barrel
selections. In that case, you can quickly determine if they pick barrels well.
If you’re unfamiliar with them, asking if they offer any samples can't hurt.
You’d be surprised how many stores have open bottles available just to help
move their special ones. If they don’t offer samples, ask for detailed tasting
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 you’re getting something special you can find nowhere
My Simple, Easy-to-Understand
- Bottle = Buy It
- Bar = Try It
- Bust = Leave It
you to enjoy your whiskey as you see fit but begs you to do so responsibly.