Column: To Pick Or Not To Pick: The Single Barrel Conundrum

Part ego, part elitism: is the single barrel selection craze a scam?

Single barrels, store selections, and private picks have become fixtures as commonplace as the cash register in retail stores. An opportunity for consumers to catch a glimpse of the magic inside the aging process, single barrel selections dominate both the conversations and collections of hard core enthusiasts. Add to the mystique of an elusive single barrel a custom sticker and you’ve got yourself a recipe for demand. Distilleries and retail owners alike have us wrapped around their little fingers, begging them to take our money.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in hundreds of selections over the years. It’s a good time. Across the board, distilleries roll out the red carpet for barrel selections. It’s an experience. It’s even romantic, if whiskey is your one true love. But what does it accomplish?

Dickel barrels

George Dickel whiskey at rest in barrels (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

What a barrel selection is:

Typically, if one is able to visit the distillery for the selection, the visit consists of a full tour of the distillery- from grain intake to mashing to fermentation to distillation and warehousing- before the tasting begins. Each distillery, presented with a captive audience, rattles off their origin story and touts their uniqueness and unsurpassed quality to the group. Finally, a selection of whiskeys is presented and you go about the business of breaking down the individual options.

Each distillery has its signature experience when it comes to the actual selection process. Some take place in the rick houses, some have special rooms built for the specific purpose of hosting the visiting pick groups. Smaller distilleries might plop you down in the lobby. Between three and ten barrel samples are offered. Four Roses is uncommon in that a variety of recipes are on the table. Mostly, though, the choice being made is all about barrel interaction as the samples will be from the same mash bill, yeast strain, and of relatively similar age.

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A barrel selection is often times bottled at a strength uncommon to the core brand. Cask strength is king in the store selections, especially with brands that normally bottle at lower proofs. Many established brands dictate the ABV and don’t allow for customer input at bottling. It is in the interests of both the distilleries and store owners to create a new product that doesn’t compete with the core brands already on the shelf.

What a barrel selection isn’t:

With few exceptions, a barrel selection isn’t free rein in the rick houses to go and find your barrel. You aren’t set loose with a drill and a glass to go find your favorite. The Master Distiller or a proxy thereof pre-selects barrels based on what they want you to have. It is, after all, a representation of their brand, regardless of the stickers affixed and claims of picking prowess.

A single barrel selection is a choice between a very few barrels already selected by the distillery. It is not so much a testament to the skill of the picker as much as it is a way for distilleries to sell more whiskey by selling it by the barrel instead of by the case. It is unlikely that the distillery will let a barrel go out that in any way reflects poorly on the profile they’ve spent years creating in their batched products.

Where barrel selections don’t belong:

Beginners to the hobby will surely be dazzled by the lure of the single barrel. Resist! Get to know the base product and create some sensory memories. The fun of the single barrel lies in its variances. If your palate isn’t intimately familiar with what the blended batch offers, you’ll be hard pressed to recognize the intricate and subtle variations presented by a cask selection.

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A single barrel selection should never be your introduction to a brand, especially craft brands. Get to know a product before judging it based on a store pick alone. Smaller craft distilleries are just as eager, if not more so, to sell their inventory by the barrel to increase sales. With fewer barrels to choose from, consistency from sample to sample might not be achievable and single barrels might not best reflect their efforts.

Single barrels should not be whiskey of the year or best whiskey ever or generally judged against batched whiskey. Single barrels are not representative of a duplicative process. Magic happens in a barrel, yes. Honey barrels are real. Recreating that magic in enough barrels to produce a consistently great product is the skill and talent worthy of awarding.

So why are we so crazy about getting the latest picks?

Single barrel selections are a great place to turn to further your education and test your palate. For long time whiskey drinkers, a single barrel can be a cure for boredom. Purchasing store selections gives you a chance to chat up the store owner and perhaps show loyalty. But mostly, the picks are a game of bravado and showmanship and create a market for comparison, where the consumer is compelled to buy more. Is it fun? Hell yeah.

I’m lucky to be in close proximity to the distilleries of Tennessee and Kentucky. It’s not uncommon for me to run up to Bardstown or Frankfort or over to Tullahoma or Lynchburg for a day trip to pick some barrels. I’ll continue going as long as I’m invited. My personal modus operandi is always to find the barrel that best represents the brand  tasting. Others choose the funkiest, most offbeat, disparate barrel they can get their hands on. And that contrast, my friends, is why we continue chasing these barrels, singularly.