If you’re a big fan of whiskey, you’ve probably tried your fair share of bourbons, rye whiskeys, single malt Scotch whiskies, and the various other whisk(e)y styles. You probably have a few bottles from each style that you love more than all others. Perhaps you stop by your local liquor store and buy multiple bottles at once to make sure you never run out. But, if you really love a specific whiskey, you’ll buy a whole barrel of it.
While far from the cheapest option, there’s no better way to have a stash of your favorite style of whiskey that can’t be found anywhere else. But it’s not always easy. Because of the rules governing the sale of alcohol, you can’t just stroll into your favorite distillery and buy a long-aged barrel. Even if they have a barrel program. The distillery legally can’t sell it outright to you. Thankfully, a fair number of distilleries have found ways to work within the law to make it happen.
How Does The Process Begin?
According to Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, there are various steps need to get your hands on a full barrel of delicious whiskey.
“The first step is to find a trusted retailer that you would like to work with so that we can deliver the final bottles within the ‘three-tier’ system,” he says.
In the three-tier system, the distillery must first sell to a distributor, who sells it to a retailer, who then can sell it to you.
“This retailer will be the one that secures the bottles,” he adds, “and most likely is the one that works with our team to secure the samples and such.”
Seems complicated, right? Three-tier laws were put into place after the repeal of Prohibition for extra tax collection, product safety, and to curb aggressive advertising tactics of the past.
In the simplest terms of how those laws impact anyone who wants to purchase a barrel today, it means you’ll need to contact a liquor store and have them buy the barrel for you. Then you buy the bottles from the liquor store.
Picking Your Barrel
Barrel program selection processes vary from distillery to distillery. At FEW, the selected retailer will contact the distillery’s representatives. Then, samples from three barrels will be secured. The buyer will taste each and select their favorite from the trio.
“You taste the samples, select, and then let the retailer and our rep know which barrel you would like to make your own,” Hletko explains.
This is probably the most important step in the process. You need to take your time. Spend a long time nosing the whiskey, finding all the different aromas. Look for dried fruits, vanilla, caramel corn, charred wood, and other scents. Taste is important as well. Look for complex, balanced profiles with no sulfur or other undesirable flavors. Understand that since you’re sampling right out of the barrel, the proof is going to be much higher. It might be spicy and hot at first. Let your nose and your taste buds get used to the higher proof.
At Jack Daniel’s, the Personal Collection Program is as close to having a barrel crafted just for you as possible.
“We give our friends a few ways to buy a barrel,” says Lexie Phillips, assistant distiller at Jack Daniel’s. “They can lean on us to select one on their behalf, they can taste samples of all but Barrel Proof from the comfort of home and choose accordingly, or they can visit us in Lynchburg and select one-on-one with one of our expert tasters.”
Woodford Reserve’s program has an interesting twist.
“Woodford Reserve’s Personal Selection program is unique among barrel programs because we allow consumers to pick two barrels, then batch them together,” says Chris Morris, master distiller emeritus at Woodford Reserve. “This allows buyers to blend various barrels together, then taste and see which hits the profile they are seeking—spicy, fruity, sweet, grain, etc.”
Buying whiskey this way makes for a couture experience. “Rather than an off-the-shelf bourbon. These two-barrel blends are still distinctly Woodford Reserve, but they will taste differently than a standard bottle you’d purchase at retail,” Morris says.
Just remember that not all distilleries do this. Don’t go into your favorite distillery and assume you’ll have to opportunity to blend two barrels together.
How Much Does It Cost to Buy a Whiksey Barrel?
Cost will vary from distillery to distillery and retailer to retailer, but you can get a general estimation by considering you’ll get 250 bottles from a barrel pick that sell for around $60 each.
It goes without saying that buying a barrel of whiskey definitely isn’t cheap. The average bourbon barrel holds 53 gallons. Even with the “angel’s share” (the whiskey that evaporates during the aging process) lowering the final number of gallons, that’s an awful lot of whiskey per barrel. You better be prepared to find a place to put those 250 or so bottles.
That is, unless you make a deal to split the barrel with a liquor store. While this will make your overall price lower, it means you and the store will have to agree on which barrel to purchase.
How Long is the Process?
It’s not easy to pinpoint a specific length the whole process of buying a barrel of whiskey will take. This is because every distillery is different. This means their barrel programs are different as well.
“It can be a moving target due to the number of people involved,” says Hletko. “But if you figure a month to deliver from the distributor to the retailer, a month to deliver from our warehouse to the distributor, plus however much time it takes for you to approve the labelling you wish, that can give you an idea of how long it will take.”
In essence, from start to finish, you’re going to be (at the very least) waiting a few months to get your bottles of whiskey.
“Certainly, the quicker you can provide the name you want on the label, the faster we can deliver,” he says. “But patience can be a virtue and having your own barrel is well worth the wait.”
Can You Keep The Barrel?
Part of the fun of buying a barrel of whiskey is the hope that you’ll actually get to keep the barrel once the juice inside has been procured and put into bottles for you. It’s a good idea to find out beforehand if you’ll be receiving the barrel. Otherwise, you might find out that it isn’t included. Hletko says FEW has no problem handing over the barrel once it’s emptied of whiskey.
While Jack Daniel’s doesn’t include the barrel, you do get a customized barrel head to commemorate your purchase as well as customized medallions for the bottles it yields. “Currently, we provide the option to purchase barrels of Tennessee Whiskey and Tennessee Rye,” says Phillips.
Other Brands With Barrel Selection Programs
Knob Creek Single Barrel Program
In this program retailers can purchase a barrel of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and even visit Clermont to sample barrels and pick the one for them.
Old Forester Single Barrel Program
This is a limited offering as Old Forester only produces a few barrels per year. If a buyer wants a barrel, they must reach out to a local off-premise or on-premise account to purchase a barrel.
New Riff Single Barrel Selection Experience
New Riff’s barrel program consists of a selection of barrel proof, non-chill filtered, unique bourbons. Every barrel is different.
Barrell Single Barrel Program
Barrell’s single barrel program is bottled at cask strength. On top of that, you get a specific barrel as opposed to the blends the brand is commonly known for.
Maker’s Mark Private Selection
One of the more unique barrel programs, Maker’s Mark lets you completely customize your barrel. It begins as Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. You then select from five different wood staves, adding 10 to the barrel for an additional nine months of aging.Learn More