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Kentucky’s Private Barrel Bourbon World Is Reborn

And The Best Is Yet To Come


Kentucky whiskey fans don’t have to fear– private barrel choices from the state’s distilleries are here to stay. Earlier this year, the practice of having merchants, restaurateurs, bars, and clubs select their own special barrels from Kentucky distilleries suddenly came under legal analysis, as the state’s Alcohol Control Board ruled that the practice had no statutory authorization– meaning it wasn’t clear that private barrel selections were entirely legal.

Naturally, Kentucky distillers had been running private barrel programs for years– a few of them for years– and in the last few years private barrel choices have ended up being a best-seller at retail. So when this concern was called into question, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) sprang into action. Ultimately the group dealt with state legislators to prepare new legislation– HB 500– that not just made private barrel programs fully legal but also enhanced their role.

The Private Barrel Isn’t Going Anywhere

So what exactly does the brand-new law mean for private barrel choices? Aside from making sure that they’re here to stay, there will be even more accessibility at the distilleries themselves.

“In the past, whether you sold to individuals, companies, bourbon clubs, or whomever else, you always had to go through a retailer,” says Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell. “Now we can sell up to 30% of our private barrel whiskeys through our visitor center.” (No bottles were permitted for sale in the distillery shops before, so this move marks the first time this is actually codified.)

Wild Turkey debuted private barrel sales in 2013, and the program has actually broadened by leaps and bounds. In its first year, the distillery sold a simple 50 barrels, specifically to Kentucky sellers. More just recently, Russell has actually limited sales to around 600 barrels a year, with allowances going to different states. He’s quick to note that the limitation isn’t about lack of supply.

“In the last five years, we’ve reached a point where we can sell as many private barrels as we want,” he explains. “So it’s about trying to keep this a unique thing. In the beginning, anybody who wanted a barrel could get one, or two, or three. But now it’s about partnering with the right people to keep the program special.”

At New Riff Distilling, creator Ken Lewis is excited about how the brand-new law will change the landscape for Kentucky whiskey fans.

“It enables exclusive sales at our gift shops, meaning these are small production, individual items that don’t have to go out to anyone else—that we have the legal right to sell just in our gift shop,” says Lewis. “The whole point there is to create a treasure hunt for individuals. It’s going to dramatically draw people in for tourism, which is another extremely important part of this very prescient, far-reaching piece of legislation.”

New Riff, founded in 2014, has actually been a trendsetter in private barrel sales, which have actually ended up being a huge part of its success. Lewis expects double-digit growth going forward, and he’s currently taking a look at ways to expand the program to include more single barrels and half barrels for gift store sales.

There’s a lot more reason for single barrel fans to celebrate HB 500, as the law legislated satellite tasting rooms, where distilleries can provide samples, bottles, and mixed drinks. Barrel-aged and batched cocktails, too, are discussed within the new legislation; formerly this practice, however relatively typical, was not specifically authorized at distilleries.

In New Riff’s case, the present distillery experiences will stay. “We prefer that the consumer group or bourbon club come to the distillery, to our production campus, which is not ordinarily open to the public,” says Lewis. “We give them an extensive tour, and it’s a couple-hour experience that bonds them to the brand, and it’s no longer just a business transaction.”

In the future, Lewis wishes to reduce the turn-around time of bottling individual barrels after groups pick them out, to the point where it’s a one-day turn-around.

Maker’s Mark is a long-time heavy-hitte in private barrels whose team is also delighted by the passage of HB 500, specifically as it refers to visitors. The Maker’s program is cherished because its individuals get large access to the entire production procedure.

“We host some amazing account partners who get to come down to the distillery and physically create their perfect version of Maker’s Mark—it’s not just picking a barrel, which is incredibly cool on its own, but it’s taking that experience even further and letting these folks come and create their own whiskey,” says senior manager of private selection Rachel Harb. “They learn about the wood and what it does to the whiskey, and they come up with their own unique recipe.”

Then there are others who have a different take on the private barrel experience. Woodford Reserve, which has been tweaking its private barrel program given that 2003 (making it among the longest-running in Kentucky) batches 2 barrels together for every private barrel scotch.

“A customer will come and taste a number of single barrels with myself or assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall, and then once we understand the flavors of those individual barrels—they’re coming from different production dates, warehouses, etc.—then we can combine them in two-barrel combinations, which is the smallest batch possible,” states master distiller Chris Morris.

From there, consumers pick one of the two barrels for bottling. Woodford’s program originally covered bourbon only but has since grown to include private barrels of Double Oaked and rye. Since of sky-high demand, the Woodford program is occasionally forced into a hiatus, though the distillery is now making around 2,000 private barrel whiskeys a year.

The Best Is Yet To Come

The new law hasn’t moved the needle much yet for Rabbit Hole Distilling, which brought out its first private barrel bourbons last July. However, creator Kaveh Zamanian foresees a major impact from HB 500 on Kentucky as a whole.

“The most important thing for me is to see the law’s impact in terms of being able to bring more attention to Kentucky bourbon, extend much-needed tourism dollars, and allow parity—with wine, for example,” he says. “This law definitely allows bourbon to be a little bit more like Napa, and reach a wider consumer base. It’s going to take time, but the news will get out, and people will have this option to go deeper in terms of interaction with their favorite distilleries.”

While private barrel whiskeys might not always end up being easier to discover– distillers will still like keeping them fairly special– HB 500 has actually guaranteed they’re being permanently engraved into the scene. And maybe similarly significantly, it has made a check out to Kentucky an even sweeter proposition for us all.

H/T WhiskyAdvocate

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