Thursday, December 11, 2014

Buying a barrel of bourbon

What bourbon connoisseur (reprobate) hasn't at some point during a boozy, bourbon fuelled night thought "man I want a BARREL of this juice"? I was fortunate enough to turn this into a reality as part of my role at Small Batch Liquors.

Barrel picks are amongst one of the biggest bargains in bourbon at the moment. This has been well noted across a number of blogs most notably RW&B.  At a time when the national press is focussing on the 'bourbon shortage', with distilleries such as Buffalo Trace 'allocating' hitherto bottom to mid shelf bourbons (Weller, Elmer T Lee, EH Taylor) and with interest in limited releases at an all time high, barrel picks offer both value for money and, if you get it right, the opportunity to stock the shelves with some truly fantastic bourbon.

Not all barrel programmes are created equal, and this is something I found out pretty quickly after making a few calls to the main distributors; Classic for Four Roses and Republic for Buffalo Trace. I also reached out to Smooth Ambler but was a week too late; they suspended their barrel programme until further notice due to their ever increasing popularity. Both distributors, to their credit responded positively that 'yes, a barrel is a possibility'. The catch is that for BT barrels at least, the only barrel available at the time was 1792. In January 2015 the distillery will decide how many barrels will hit Colorado and the distributor will then allocate these barrels based on 2014 barrel sales. So, to get one of BT's main lines next year in a single barrel offering, you'd better get a barrel this year. Ergo, you better buy a barrel of 1792!

Whilst not previously a big Four Roses guy I recognised that their programme which allows you to pick from their 10 recipes, gave the greatest flexibility of any barrel programme. The fact that their product is a non chill filtered barrel proof was even more appealing. Their limited edition releases are amongst the most sought after bottles of the year, and their programme essentially allows you to play master distiller, picking a barrel that in blind tastings *could* 'beat' their yearly single barrel offering.  Furthermore, there is a lack of barrel proof offerings on the shelves all year round. ECBP, the best value for money barrel proof bottle on the market, is released every 3 months and lasts less than a day on the shelf. BTAC normally doesn't hit the shelf. Stagg Jr hits the shelf and stays there. For. A. Reason. The exception is Smooth Ambler, and as already noted, their excellent juice and barrel programme is in high demand. I will write separately about Smooth Ambler so all I will say here is that they offer the best value for money of any bourbon on the market right now. But, Four Roses Barrel picks are pretty close (even with the scheduled price increase next year).

So after expressing an interest in buying a barrel Four Roses sent 6 samples to our store. I was initially a bit disappointed by this as I had expected to sample all 10 recipes. I was further dismayed to find that 4/6 were the 'high rye' OB recipes (OB=35% Rye, OE= 20% Rye). I had originally favoured the OE because after some 'research' I realised that my previous indifference to Four Roses barrel picks was due to stumbling on a number of high rye recipes that had spiciness that I prefer left at the door when drinking bourbon.

The samples did not have an age statement alongside them either. I surmised this was to stop people picking barrels solely on age (Jim Rutledge has stated numerous times that he doesn't believe age equates to quality) although it was clear that a couple of he samples were on the younger side when holding them up to the light.

Unsurprisingly the 4 OB recipes were a non starter for me. The 5th sample was OESF. I really wanted to love this sample. From a marketing perspective this would be perfect as the 2014 single barrel LE was the same recipe. Unfortunately it just didn't offer up enough. The finish was non existent and the profile was rather 'ordinary'. With 5 samples down and only one left I was pretty despondent and actually left the final sample for the following day. I spent that night figuring out how I could tactfully ask Four Roses to send more samples without offending them or the distributor. Fortunately, when I tried the final sample it blew me away. I knew instantly that this bourbon was something special. The store owner and manager agreed. Job done, right? Not quite.

The fact that 5/6 samples were not (diplomatically) to my palate had me asking more questions from the distributor about how samples are allocated. And it turns out that once a store selected a sample the 5 they didn't select are sent back to the distributor and included in the next store pick (they send fresh samples but it's the same barrel). So in essence 5/6 samples a store gets have been turned down by previous customers. Over time this means that the samples you get could have been turned down dozens of times. I also found out that if you visit their distillery in person they can custom pull barrels for you. As soon as I heard that, I knew that I had to visit Kentucky and do a proper tasting. Go hard or go home.

The OESQ sample was outstanding compared to 5 other 'poor' samples. But how would it stack up against other OESQ samples?

So I sent a quick email to the head of their barrel pick programme asking if they could kindly pull a number of OESQ barrels for me to blind taste alongside the OESQ sample they sent me, in person. To Four Roses credit they replied the same day saying this wouldn't be a problem and that they would literally pull the barrels just for me and return the unwanted barrels to inventory. They also stated that Jim would have to pick these barrels as there were no more OESQ barrels 'highlighted' for their barrel programme at this stage. They also suggested they pull some more OE recipes for me. Whilst I was pretty set on OESQ at this point I thought 'hell, why not".

Four Roses schedule an entire morning or afternoon for tastings which at first seemed a bit excessive to me. I thought I would be in and out in an hour or less. This was in part due to my belief that the OESQ that was sent to the store would probably stand out, and partly because I had spent the previous night doing my own sampling at Doc Crow's in downtown Louisville and the thought of drinking bourbon again at 11am didn't really appeal all that much.

Fast forward 3 hours later. I was slightly drunk (no one uses the spit barrels, right!?) and for lack of a decision I had purchased two barrels. I was somewhat relieved to find that one was indeed the OESQ recipe that had been sent to the store. The other was the OESK recipe that I hadn't planned to even taste. The most interesting aspect of the tasting was that FR pulled an OESQ barrel which had been aged one row down in the rickhouse from the sample they sent me, and had been aged for the exact same amount of time. Tasting side by side was a revelation. They didn't have ANY similarities in tasting notes at all. I would have sworn that they were not only different recipes but different brands. It really opened my eyes to how single barrels can vary so much even when aged side by side  before you even consider the plethora of factors that affect taste and form the basis of the BT experimental collection.

It's worth noting that from a business perspective the smart choice lay with OESF. It would be easy to market our barrel as being very similar (better!?) to this years annual LE release. The OESQ is also a popular pick in Denver this year.We are the third store to carry it. It doesn't make a whole lot of business sense to pick the same recipe as a competitor. I recently had a discussion on Twitter with a customer who was disappointed with our recipe choice for the understandable reason that he just wanted to try a different recipe. I get this. But for me it's all about 'what's the best juice'.  It's easy to market one of the 'best bourbons in the world'.  How do I know? Because we've already sold half the barrel in under two weeks.