Be Smarter Buying Private Barrel Picks

Last year, I was in one of my favorite distillery’s rickhouses doing one of my favorite things with some of my favorite people. Picking a private barrel of bourbon is still exciting for me, even after doing it many, many times. On this particular occasion, we tasted through three barrels of bourbon and collectively decided we weren’t going to take any of them. Noticing the visible shock on the face of our host that morning, I asked him, “How often does this happen?” His reply shocked me even more: “This is the first time.”

Once upon a time, a private selection sticker on a bottle of bourbon actually meant something. Private selections were made by people ‘in the know’, who could identify a honey barrel and deliver something exceptional when compared to the standard release. Given the explosion in popularity over the past few years, private barrel selections are now available to nearly everyone. The problem is, most people haven’t yet figured out what really happens behind the scenes. This became most apparent to me recently when I started seeing a horrible trend develop: People are literally listing private picks for sale as ‘private pick’ without even mentioning the group or store responsible for them! If that sounds crazy, consider all the people snatching them up at secondary prices.

The imbalance of supply and demand has created a dynamic whereby people are paying top dollar for private picks from stores and groups they’ve never even heard of. As a result, those who are offered private barrels are well aware they will sell out fast. How many stores are willing to reject a barrel of Weller because none of the samples met their tasting standards? The answer is none. Distilleries have quality control mechanisms in place to ensure the bourbon somewhat resembles the brand’s taste profile, but that’s about it. Distributor reps know they can dump off any samples to stores and sell barrels. I even know stores who didn’t even want to taste the samples! Some of these fancy stickers should read, “This isn’t great, but I knew it would sell quickly.” Don’t laugh, I’ve heard that said more than once.

On every private pick I’ve been a part of, I think of the barrels we rejected and how some store or group will snatch them up and hype them to customers, members or friends. I think of all the people who will buy those bottles and I wonder what they will think of those responsible for their inevitable disappointment. I get it, it’s hard to find Weller private barrels in some areas of the country. But if you’re willing to throw $300 at a random store pick retailing for $60, you can afford to be a little more discerning with your purchases. Do you know who actually did the pick? Do you know someone you trust who tasted it? If you haven’t figured this out yet, some private picks are actually less enjoyable than the standard shelf bottle. 

Four years ago, at Whiskey In the Winter in St. Louis, the best thing I tasted all evening was a Barrel Strength Old Forester that Jackie Zykan poured special for our breakout session. Both Luke Castle and I were blown away, as it bested every other whiskey we tasted, including the heralded Birthday Bourbon. I asked Jackie why this wasn’t available for sale and she mentioned challenges with getting consistency right with barrel strength bourbons. Recently we’ve seen private selections of Barrel Strength Old Forester released and, lo and behold, they are immediately trading for hundreds of dollars a bottle. 

The night in November 2016 when Luke Castle and I fell in love with Barrel Strength Old Fo

I was fortunate to be included in a Barrel Strength Old Forester private pick with Bob’s Lake City in the Seattle area. Bob’s is well-known for their high standards in private barrel selections. Of the three samples we tasted, one was a disappointment, one was pretty good, and one was truly exceptional. Take a guess what is going to happen to the other two samples? They will eventually be bottled, sold out in a day and flipped for 3x retail. Bourbon has become the greater fool theory, and based on what I’ve seen lately, most of the eventual suckers won’t even ask who did the pick before asking for multiples. 

I can’t tell you how to spend your money or how to build your whiskey collection. I also can’t tell you what you will or won’t enjoy drinking. What I can do is shine a spotlight on some of this nonsense in the hope more people wake up and get smarter about what is happening here. If a mediocre pick sells out in hours, what incentive is there to raise standards for the customer?

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36 thoughts on “Be Smarter Buying Private Barrel Picks

  1. You gotta trust yourself in what you think is a good barrel. I’ve turned down FR twice, Blanton and ELT back in the day and recently WPig. Sazerac doesn’t send samples to my market so you don’t get a choice like some claim to have. This is why I use the “Mohawk” name on barrels to signify it was personally picked and not just sent.

    Cheers!!

    Hope all is well

    1. Unfortunately the age of Influencers people are becoming 🐑🐑🐑🐑🐑🐑🐑. Just like Craft breweries and their stupid stickers Unfortunately they mask their shitty or Repeated beer to the unknowingly victims who are their consumers. With Bourbon stickers have become what we used to enjoy as Children and that is what now Adults are acting as Children. Unfortunately good and Honest Retailers like me who have some of America’s Best & Rarest Private Barrels are over shadowed by Shady Influencers and Stupid Stickers that without those those Retailers would have never sold a single bottle. Now those shady Influencers are now Requiring kickbacks for so-called collaboration. I have had over 30 Requests and asked some that I thought I trusted they also Required kickbacks.

      1. Adults acting like children, that’s funny coming from you Naz. I bet you used to take other kids’ toys as a child, just like how you take other peoples barrels as an adult. You’re a joke.

  2. This was a great read and spot on👊🏻 Wish more people understood store picks are not equal. We too have walked away from picks and it left a message and next time they came back with good samples. Keep spreading the good word and love to try some of the stuff you’ve picked if ever avail to ship to SC let me know✅

  3. The hardest thing to do sometimes is walk away. I’ve passed at 12 different distilleries at my time at Cork n Bottle. It never got any easier but I’m also not sad I did. I figured the one Tough conversation with the distillery was easier than the hundreds with consumers later on.

    1. I hope everyone who reads this goes and checks out my other article on you. There’s a world of knowledge in that bald head!

      1. Agree! Posting the link here to make it easy for others to read it too.

        http://brettatlas.com/meet-ed-bley-from-kentuckys-cork-n-bottle/

  4. This is why I haven’t had a good Four Roses Q. The Oregon Bourbon Connoisseurs are a mysterious group with highly questionable palates.

    1. Q’s aren’t the easiest to take fliers on. I think one of the bottles I had at Multnomah with you may have been from that group. Either way, that was a fun night!

  5. Great read. I’ve done many picks as well. For the first time, a couple weeks ago, the group that I go with came close to not picking a barrel. After selecting four barrels (initially offered three) and tasting them all, we were pretty unanimous there wasn’t a star in the group. We all told our host, and asked if we could pick one other and blind it with one of the initial four. Ultimately, we picked the one that wasn’t in the initial tasting. It was disappointing after having done several other picks there, to not have one that came close to previous picks. We were all wondering if we had COVID, and our taste buds were shot.

    The other thing that sucks right now is, that with COVID, some distilleries that usually let you do picks at the distillery, are only shipping 200 ml sample bottles. Did a pick last week that between 6 guys, we barely had enough to get a good taste of the samples.

  6. 46 walk away trips and 3 deals made , it happens but when you find that one recipe that works…….. It is liquid Gold

  7. Brett, while I agree with some of your sentiment in this article I disagree with a lot. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a group who has done dozens upon dozens of barrel picks and yes, we’ve walked away from picks empty handed too from time to time. However, you come off as an arrogant asshole in this article, talking about feeling bad for whomever buys a bottle from a barrel you’ve passed over. I’m proud to admit that several barrels my group has chosen were rejects from other picks, but that doesn’t mean we picked bad whiskey. It simply means my groups flavor preferences differed from whomever passed it over before…no more and no less.

    Despite having plenty of access to my own private barrels, I do enjoy buying and trying other picks from various stores and groups and I can tell you I’ve yet to find anyone who has done nothing but pick what I’d consider to b “great” whiskey. I’be had bottles of whiskey from Ed Bley formerly of CnB, Lincoln Road, Ace Spirits, Bourbon Crusaders, 1789b, and a multitude of others who I’ve drained poured or given because I felt it was horrible whiskey….but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t enjoy it.

    Too often people get wrapped up in claiming which brand or barrel pick is the best and miss out that every bottle contains its own unique adventure and story to tell. I don’t regret buying any of those “bad” picks as I got to share in their experience…to step into their hearts and minds for just a moment as I try the whiskey that they were proud of, and if it’s bad, well I probably learned something about person’s taste profile and it helps me to choose to purchase or not another similar bottle in the future.

    I do agree with you that barrels that were not actively selected by a group or store but instead by the master distiller or that companies tasting panel should be stated as such.

    1. John, thanks for your comments and I don’t disagree with a lot of what you said here. I wasn’t implying a pick passed over is objectively terrible by any means. In fact, I too have ended up with wonderful barrels someone else rejected. Someone like you, who has gone through this process many times, should understand the reason private picks are so exciting is because there are exceptional barrels out there to find. By the same logic, there are absolutely subpar barrels in every barrel program, even though they pass the distillery’s standards for inclusion. There is no ‘best’ which suits everyone, obviously, but there are certainly barrels selected which large groups of people did not like. Regardless. there are many people out there who haven’t had our experiences and were unaware of what actually goes on. I have also talked with many stores who don’t even bother tasting them before taking the whole barrel. I realize in writing these opinion pieces I may come across negatively to some, but at least several people can gain some new insights into the process. Your comments add another perspective which absolutely should be taken into consideration and I appreciate you sharing them.

      1. Hes just salty because people reading this article will wake up and stop buying his shitty picks, haha JK. But honestly lotta people have gotten into sticker and label collecting and forget to focus on whats inside the bottle, i 100% agree what you said about sometimes standard bottle being better, Im sorry orangecountybourbonsociety but some of your picks are terrible next to the standard bottles, but i do get that everyone has different tastes and preferences so if im not allowed to taste a pick before purchasing im not buying it.

  8. Great article, Brett. We recently did a Remus pick at MGP. We walked away from 6 barrels. After we told them we were not taking any of them, they came out with 3 more that were much better, and we settled on a stellar 36% rye. Let me know if you would like to try it. We were fairly impressed with how it turned out.

  9. Love love love this! Our bourbon group will never pick something to overhype. We believe bourbon is the oil of conversation, and that conversation goes a lot better when the bourbon doesn’t taste like shit.

  10. Great article. I purchased a private Weller pick from a store in Oregon last year while traveling in the area. Had a great conversation with the person helping me, and they seemed to have a pretty good handle on bourbon. Took a chance since it was priced well. Turned out to be some of the nastiest swill I have ever tasted! Was so bad we couldn’t even make cocktails with it.Ended up working it through my infinity bottle and some cooking recipes.

  11. I agree with your article and suggest all new bourbon drinkers read this and apply.
    To me, the barrel pick experience is like no other in the spirits industry.
    Its truly a very personal experience. You will get some good picks, some bad picks, and occasionally an Epic pick.
    Those of us who truly enjoy the experience do it for the whiskey, not for the stickers on the bottle.

    Solid post Brett.

  12. I’ve been involved with picking barrels for over 10 years. Out of the gate our position was we won’t buy if we don’t’ find anything worth drinking. We clearly communicated that to all distilleries we visited. I won’t name the distillery, but one year we rejected 24 samples they sent. I’ve been picking Weller for 9 years and I’ve rejected plenty but also selected many. Of course my focus is different than say a retailer who is looking to get product on the shelf, especially something like WFP. I manage a small enthusiast club and we drink what we select…….no flip is the rule.

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