Barrell Bourbon: An American Whiskey Bottler Doing It Right

| January 21, 2016

Joe Beatrice, founder of Barrell Bourbon, was kind enough to meet with me on a horrendously rainy day in New York City. Over lunch in SoHo, Beatrice jumped right into explaining the story behind Barrell; it quickly became clear to me this man was passionate about his product, and not in the salesman-y way one might assume from a guy with a long-time background in marketing.

Beatrice has been in New York since 1984 but has spent much more time these days on the road, including many trips to Kentucky. He made beer his “whole life” as a hobby, but when he considered making a career out of it, he realized the margins would be too low and that there were so many people already doing it that were “much better than him.” Seven years ago, however, a trip to the Bourbon Trail with his wife was the catalyst for his new venture.  Beatrice sold his first batch in 2013.

I asked Beatrice why he chose the independent bottler route, and if he’s faced any flack doing so. His response was enlightening. Beatrice wanted to create a quality product, but he didn’t want to be a distillery with just a few core offerings. There were already plenty of those, and he didn’t want to be one that didn’t succeed. For Beatrice, this was a passion project but also a serious business. So rather than create a brand-new distillery, he’s followed the Scottish model of independent bottling. Beatrice sources product from some of the usual suspects in Indiana, and some he couldn’t mention down in Kentucky, and no one seems to be complaining about the end product. In fact, every batch that Barrell’s released has had some sort of accolade thrown its way.

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barrell-bourbon-line-of-bottles Whisky Advocate is certainly a fan: Lew Bryson made Barrell’s Batch 001 number four on his top ten list for fall 2015. At 61.25% (Barrell only makes cask strength whiskeys from variable corn, rye and malted barley mash bills), the 7 year old  whiskey distilled in Indiana and aged in second-use barrels is very complex in its tasting notes: maple syrup and toasted corn bread that is “richly sweet on the palate” with hints of anise and syrupy dark fruits. It is spicy, as are many of Beatrice’s batches, and often not for the faint of heart, though a little bit of water can do wonders in opening up these almost dessert-like whiskeys.

Though the company name remains simple, its products are anything but. And once a batch is released, it’s time to pick one up because once it’s gone there won’t be another batch made. Beatrice said he’s already had people contact him asking him to make more of the batches that have run out or are in limited availability. But, he says, it is his company’s distinct mission to make every release a limited one.

Barrell’s latest batches, 005 and 006, are markedly different: 005 is strong and spicy, while 006 is low-profile and rounder. Bath 004, on the other hand, was Barrell’s best impression of a Kentucky bourbon, with strong intentional notes of charcoal and tobacco. We’ve reviewed Batch 004 and 005, finding them as delightful as they are different from one another. That diversity is all part of Beatrice’s plan for Barrell to release whiskeys that can appeal to everybody.

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Beatrice likes to experiment with the barrels he uses before making a decision to produce and bottle, organizing blends around concepts like honey flavors, macaroon flavors, or old Booker Noe barrels.Recently, Barrell has been working on a malted rye. Beatrice hopes to release it soon, but isn’t sure if the spirits he has at the moment are the product itself, or just an ingredient.  Bourbon-aged rum is another product currently in the works.

While the products speak for themselves, I asked Beatrice how he goes about educating buyers about his products so that people actually end up ordering what he makes. “Wait staff or people in liquor stores are the first line of defense. It’s also good to have a rapport with those distributing the product through samples and tastings.” Beatrice isn’t one to drop-in and try to convince bartenders why they should put Barrell on the shelves: they’ll most often just ask you to come back later, he said. Nor will Beatrice put his product in bars or restaurants where the staff doesn’t know their stuff.  When it comes to whiskey bars, Beatrice believes that patrons deserve to know what they’re being sold, which is why he makes a point to offer in-person education for all his major accounts.

I also asked Beatrice about how he selects the perfect whiskey. He looks for certain flavor profiles as well as unique qualities (he’s a huge fan of the Garrison Brothers in Texas – he likes their young, yet forward-thinking approach to distilling). But, he reminded me that everybody’s palate is different, and there is no real answer to what is the “perfect” whiskey; it’s more about your own personal preferences.

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A great example he provided is when one of his daughters sampled a batch he’d been aging and couldn’t put his finger on the tasting notes. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” she said; and then it was obvious. The way to hone in on your own tasting notes? “Try and try again,” and be sure to share information with your fellow whiskey drinkers. Another tip, he added, is to create an association with each tasting note of a whiskey that you like. That way, if you want to explore something new at a bar or tasting room, you can give your bartender a good starting point to select something for you.

Barrell Bourbon remains a relatively small operation: Beatrice’s wife handles social media and very few people are actually employed by the company. He usually produces 900 to 1,000 cases per release these days. But, Beatrice anticipates growth through relationship building with other distillers and businesses. And even though Beatrice hasn’t been distilling his own spirits, that doesn’t mean he won’t be in the near future. Plans are underway to start making his own spirits, so keep an eye out for a Barrell Bourbon brick-and-mortar establishment.


Lindsay Brandon

I am an avid whisk(e)y drinker born and raised in Seattle, Washington. My love for the drink developed at an early age when I had the privilege of living and studying in Galway, Ireland where I visited many distilleries. Since then, I’ve worked at bars with exhaustive selections of whiskey...