Buy The Barrel: The New High-End Trend In Local Spirits
Forget the bottle. Why not just buy the whole barrel?
It’s a question some local distilleries are investigating as they embrace an industry trend that allows retailers, whiskey groups, and other customers to pick and purchase whole casks of liquor.
Standard income channels for artisanal distilleries include selling in their own tasting rooms, as well as distribution to bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and liquor stores. According to Chad Munger, the founder of Mammoth Distilling, these channels got all the hits last year thanks to COVID-19, prompting the distillery to try a different strategy.
“[Our distributors] have shifted their focus from selling in stores to selling kegs and bottles to people involved in virtual bourbon groups, ”Munger told The Ticker. “It was probably half of our sales revenue last year, making up for the almost complete loss of on-prem [restaurant and bar] Sales.”
Selling whole casks is nothing new in the world of whiskey. Private barrel programs, barrel picking, and barrel selection are synonymous and refer to a high-end niche aimed primarily at whiskey enthusiasts and collectors. Hobby bourbon groups buy kegs and share the contents among their members. Retailers pick casks and fill them as exclusive batches of whiskey only available in their stores. There are even Facebook groups dedicated to buying, selling and trading whiskey bottles made from rare individual casks.
Mammut isn’t the only local distillery involved in the action. The Grand Traverse Distillery is a year into its first “barrel pick” program. Traverse City Whiskey has made barrel select versions of its bourbon available to retailers such as Total Wine & More and well-known private barrel clubs such as Bourbon Pursuit. Ethanology offers a twist on the formula with a high-end workshop program where customers help the distillery make spirit kegs from scratch.
What’s the fuss? According to Landis Rabish, co-founder and main distiller of the Grand Traverse Distillery, the appeal of private barrel picks lies in the barrels themselves. Each barrel, he says, gives the whiskey matured in it a unique character. The variables range from the chemistry of the wood to the climate in which the barrels were stored. Most of the specific flavors of whiskey – including caramel, vanilla, fruity elements, oak, and more – come from the barrel.
“Let’s say in a week we’re going to set up eight barrels of whiskey,” explains Rabish. “If we pull them down a few years later, they’ll all be unique.” He adds that in a typical whiskey making process, distillers sample the whiskey from each barrel to look for complementary flavor profiles that can be mixed and balanced with one another. It is through this barrel mixing process that most distilleries get their standard whiskey products.
“But every now and then you find a barrel that is perfectly balanced on its own,” continues Rabish. “Let’s say you pull out 180 bottles for this product [of the barrel];; There will only ever be 180 bottles. You will never re-create this product. So that’s the thing about barrel picks: it’s very exclusive, it’s very limited, and it’s a very personal experience. Everyone has a specific taste they like and in order to be able to sit down, try a variety of offerings and pick the one that speaks to you, people like it. “
In the past, whiskey enthusiasts hunted rare bottles of spirits from large distilleries around the world. Experts say barrel select programs are replacing that needle-in-the-haystack search by providing hobbyists with something else to keep track of.
“No question,” agrees Munger. “And partly because it’s more interactive. If you’re just looking for rare things, they’re all looking for the same thing. If you’re looking for a barrel pick, you can actually get the pimple. You can be involved. It is not that [the whiskey] is rare and you found it; It’s rare and you picked it, or it’s rare because you helped make it, or you helped create the mix, or you picked the finish that would go on it. It’s a lot more experimental. “
Mammoth is also experimenting with its keg pick program. The whiskey in these barrels is actually not made by Mammut: Munger notes that Mammoth, as a young distillery, only has so much matured and ready-to-sell whiskey. This product mainly ends up in the tasting rooms or in the company’s sales area. Instead, Mammoth’s barrel-picking program uses a base made from “older Canadian rye” that the distillery purchased in bulk a few years ago. With this base whiskey, Mammoth has given barrel buyers the option of customizing their own blends (a popular option for weddings) or choosing whiskeys made in unique barrels ranging from pinot gris to maple syrup to scotch. The goal, says Munger, is to create a situation where the sky is the limit for whiskey enthusiasts.
“There are really no corners when it comes to innovation,” explains Munger. “It’s all about taste and how risky people are.”
Innovation is also the be-all and end-all of the Barrel by Name Ethanology program. This offering is unique in other programs in the region, partly because Ethanology – a small batch distiller that only makes spirits on a single cask basis – does not have the inventory to sell whole casks. Instead, Barrel by Name invites customers to invest in creating new spirits. One example, says co-founder Nick Lefebre, is a Gewürztraminer brandy, which he describes as “the most expensive product we have ever made”. Customers helped fund this spirit – which is still aging and not yet released – as part of Barrel by Name.
“We bring the customer into our process,” says Lefebre. “All the idea, all the planning, all the sourcing, building relationships with all of our local farmers. Once we’re at the production site, we put them in the background and teach them what we’re doing. We ferment, we puree, we grind to the point where the customer can fill his product. And that could be 6-10 years for some of our brandies, or 15 years if it’s a single malt. But then, on that day, they come out of the keg, bottle and label, and we release the product. And they have their name on it. “