With the American whiskey boom stronger than ever, it’s unlikely people’s lust for anything branded “Pappy,” “Elmer,” “Stagg,” or “Sazerac” will wane soon. Even here in Kentucky, where 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced and practically spilling off the shelves, the desire for “a 23” or “this year’s Birthday” will drive people to stand in line for a lottery ticket to … you guessed it … stand in line again outside a store in questionable weather to get one of those liquid treasures.
Just as surprisingly, though, is how many of those same whiskey fans will walk right by displays of private bottlings of single barrel selections done by the proprietor. Such whiskeys are true one-offs, never to be seen again, are arguably the new unicorns of the whiskey world, bottles that become legendary when talked about in social media.
My personal favorite last year was a barrel picked by the Paducah (Kentucky) Bourbon Society (PBS), a 15-year-old Knob Creek barrel they dubbed “The Beast of Bourbon.” The offering disappeared in days from the shelves of Wagner Wine & Spirits, the retailer that played the legal link in the chain of whiskey sales by buying the bottling for resale.
“It’s the best barrel pick we’ve ever done,” says PBS founder Brian Shemwell. Like most whiskey fans, Shemwell has a stash of well-known pours prized by any whiskey drinker, but he says it’s hard to beat choosing exactly what you want in the bottle. “Even though on the Beast I knew the first barrel (of three) was it, the one I wanted, you don’t say that because you get to keep on tasting.”
Proof that great finds come from small places, The Pearl, a bar in Louisville, Ky., got a package license this year to sell bottles from its numerous private picks done by a sister restaurant. Just from Feb. 1 to Feb. 3, the diminutive neighborhood bar sold nearly 450 bottles to whiskey hunters, ringing up $6,000 in the process.
In 2016 alone, Westport Whiskey & Wine (WW&W) in Louisville, Kentucky, made 25 different private barrel picks for its store. With barrel prices ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, and yielding between 140 to 180 bottles, that’s a highly significant investment in liquid assets for an independent retailer.
“But it’s an important part of our business, so we’ll keep doing it,” says co-owner Chris Zaborowski. “A few years ago, we decided this was direction we needed to go in to develop that niche.
“And there’s that competition aspect of it. We want ours to taste the best.”
WW&W has built a steady following of return customers who specifically wanting private selections. But he says his work gets fun when out of town customers, seeking hard-to-get big name bottles, get turned on to their private selections.
“When they ask what we have that’s unique and special—which translates to, ‘Do you have any Pappy?’—our position is to lead them to these bottles as unique and special because you can’t get them anywhere else,” Zaborowski says.
Jamie Masticola, owner of four-unit Louisville Party Center, says having multiple private selections on hand gives customers variety and his stores an edge of prestige in the marketplace.
“It definitely enhances the image of the store … and shows we’re knowledgeable and passionate about this industry and our business,” Masticola says.
Probably the best staff training he commits to is taking employees with him on barrel picks. Not only is the work a perk, it makes them better salespersons.
“I think it’s neat when you see an employee tell a customer, ‘I helped choose that one,’” he says. “They take pride in that and they can tell the customer all about it.”
While convincing them to spend a little more as well. Depending on the product and the retailer, private selections sell for 25 percent to 40 percent more than brands’ base products due to added labor required on the bottling and shipping end of the supply chain.
Yet many whiskey fans who recognize the value of these selections understand the price increase equates to added value and even collectibility. PBS’s Shemwell regularly buys multiple bottles from the group’s barrel picks not only for his own stash, but to trade with others and give as gifts to lucky recipients.
“People love knowing we were there when that whiskey was picked,” he said. “You give one of these bottles to somebody and you’ve got a story to tell.”
Zaborowski and Masticola regularly invite favorite customers to join them on barrel picks. Not only is it a thank you gesture for their patronage, Zaborowski said it’s another experienced palate to add to the final decision.
The marketing value doesn’t hurt either, as lucky customers tend to blab and brag about the privilege in social media.
“It’s an amazing experience to go to a distillery, be shown the whole (manufacturing) process and be treated somewhat like royalty,” Masticola said. “We love sharing that experience.”
Arguably the most involved “pick” is the Maker’s Mark 46 Private Select experience, in which clients create their own unique barreling rather than choose from finished barrels. In the Loretto, Kentucky-based brand’s newly opened Whisky Cellar, barrel buyers go through an extensive blending process to choose which of five custom-dried French and American oak staves they want to influence their Maker’s 46 cask strength whisky during a second, nine-week fermentation.
“When you have 1,001 possible stave combinations, you’ve got a lot of flavors you can create,” says Jane Bowie, maturation specialist at Maker’s Mark. “And when you get several people involved in choosing, you get a lot of opinions, especially if they’ve tasted several versions.”
Not surprisingly, Kentucky distillers say most private picks are done by retailers and restaurants from the Bluegrass State and the seven states surrounding it. Some buyers do travel to Kentucky to conduct private selections, but more commonly distilleries send barrel samples to retailers located far away. They say a growing number of restaurant and liquor store accounts are making private selections this way, but that due the high demand on Kentucky whiskey only a limited number of barrels is released each year.
So can you purchase private selection bottles online from Kentucky retailers? Unfortunately, no, but that restriction may not apply in every state where a liquor store, bar or restaurant has made a private selection. So ask around.
There’s always the secondary market, which, while illegal everywhere, is poorly policed. A few PBS members who declined to speak on the record about secondary market activity did say they’ve sold some of their private selections to interested hunters and friends they’ve made online.
“It’s not all about getting your hands on the (Buffalo Trace’s) Antique Collection or the oldest Pappy,” said one member. “It’s about finding good whiskey, and these are the bottles that really interest me now and which are affordable. So, yeah, I’ll sell them if I have them.”
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....