Choosing a Barrel of Whiskey: At Work with the East Bay Study Group
If you count yourself as a serious whisk(e)y drinker living in the greater San Francisco Bay area, it is likely that at some point or another you’ve made your way to Ledger’s Liquors on University Avenue in Berkeley. Unlike J. Walker or Cask, this old-school looking store (one of the oldest in California, actually) serves the needs of a highly varied clientele. At the register you’re just as likely to find people buying expensive single malts as someone from the neighborhood picking up smokes, a six-pack, and some lottery tickets. And yes, the inventory is that varied.
If you’re something of a regular at Ledger’s then you’ve undoubtedly also made the acquaintance of Mr. Ledger, AKA Ed, who’s almost always on hand. It’s Ed’s passion for spirits and craft beers which keep the store shelves literally overflowing with treasures, some you won’t find elsewhere. Mention the name of a vermouth or a gin Ed’s not heard of and he’ll more than likely write it down on one of his “lists” and bring it into the store. And if the subject of bourbon or rye is brought up (easy enough to do) and, if your timing is just right, Ed’s very likely to steer you toward one of his private single barrel bottlings.
About buying a barrel…
While barrel purchases have now become somewhat common place, Ed and others like him started doing this when many distilleries had stocks of older whiskeys just “laying about” and which they were more than happy to sell off to anyone showing some interest. Several legendary bottlings emerged from that period, most notably the very old ryes purchased from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and sold variously as Black Maple Hill, Vintage, LeNell’s Red Hook, and Willet. Those days are for the most part behind us. Old rye stocks are more or less gone and old bourbons, when you can find them, have become expensive rarities.
Today, it’s more typical for bars and liquor stores to be offered the chance to buy a barrel of regular product (e.g. Sazerac rye) which may or may not represent anything out of the ordinary. It can, depending on the distillery, be more or less just a marketing gimmick. Even when you are offered several barrel samples from which to choose (and sometimes you are not—demand being what it is for some products, it can be a “take it or leave it” deal), none of them may be particularly more (or less) exciting than the standard bottling. This is in part a function of flavor profiling, meaning the distillery may not want to release any product that varies too far from a brand’s established taste. (And note that blending and/or carefully selecting barrels as they mature is one way this is accomplished.) I suspect it may also be a function of what I will call laziness: the distillery may prepare all of the barrel samples from the same easy to get to spots in the warehouse. Barrels which have spent their lives aging next to each other (AKA “sister barrels”) are very likely to be similar in taste.
Still, it is possible to obtain an extraordinary product through a barrel program. For starters, it helps if you are working with a smaller distillery (though not all have sufficient inventory to offer barrel purchases) or with a distillery willing to offer off-profile barrels. Second, it helps if you have contacts who work at the distillery with whom you can communicate directly. (Are you on a first name basis with Parker Beam or Harlan Wheatly? You’re ahead of the game!) Finally, it helps if you are perseverant, patient, and willing to taste through as wide a variety of samples as you can obtain, not just from the first set you are given.
Enter the East Bay Study Group
Coming back now to Ledger’s: if you have been fortunate enough to purchase any of Ed’s recent bourbon barrel selections (three from Four Roses, one from Henry McKenna), you probably noticed a secondary label affixed to the bottle that looks something like this:
Selected for Ledger’s Liquors by the East Bay Study Group. Whom, you may then ask, is this mysterious (and generic sounding) East Bay Study Group? Over the course of about a year, in various conversations with Ed, I learned bits and pieces about the group. There are about half a dozen to eight people in the group, including Ed. Most but not all live in the east bay. There is no regular meeting time. Some of the members have worked “in the business” but most are just amateurs who’ve given themselves a serious education in distilling, warehousing, and blending of barrel aged spirits. There are members who have committed to memory the detailed history of all the major distilleries in Kentucky or who have tracked down vintage bottles of bourbon from the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s so they can compare them to modern product. Another member can identify where a whiskey was distilled and aged by reading the Distilled Sprits Producer (DSP) numbers off the end of the barrel. Other have great palate memories. Yes, the East Bay Study Group are whiskey geeks of the highest order. And they do like to drink.
A few months ago Ed introduced me to one of the group members who had come by the store to pick up bottles from a recent barrel purchase. After chatting him up for a while and exchanging some emails, I was asked if I’d like to participate in some upcoming tastings. I didn’t need to be asked twice! A few weeks later I got to take part in the evaluation of barrel samples from Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna brand bourbon. Ed and the group had already purchased one barrel, all of which promptly sold out. The group was now looking to buy a second barrel, ideally a “sister” of the first which had come from a secondary warehouse some miles from the main Heaven Hill facility.
[The ESBG at work, faces obfuscated to protect their identities.]
The first tasting I attended was held in early February, shortly after the distillery sent a set of samples out to Ed. When I arrived I discovered that there were some other whiskeys to be sampled first: six different 70′s vintage Old Taylor and Old Grand Dad bourbons of various proofs. Several hadn’t ever been opened and had intact tax seals. I learned you could roughly date spirits like this by looking at the bottom of the bottles on which the year of their manufacture was impressed. There were also subtle differences in the labels and, as brands were bought and sold over the years, changes in the DSP numbers and city of origin. Some of the bottles had been purchased on eBay but most were “finds” from liquor stores in small California towns where they had stood on some back shelf, gathering dust for the better part of 30 years. (I suspect there’s a central valley road trip in my future.)
After tasting through this “warm up” flight, we moved on to the main event: six barrel samples of Henry McKenna. These samples had been assigned numbers by our host, #10 – #15, which continued the series the group had evaluated when selecting the first barrel. Since the final product would be delivered at 100-proof, our host had also kindly diluted some of each sample with water, ready to taste.
Looking back over my notes, I see that these samples varied quite a bit in terms of nose and flavor, though tea and caramel notes seemed to predominate. Several also exhibited significant tannins—from the wood of course—but not a lot else to back them up. Discussion was lively but it became clear there was no consensus at the table. Each of us was given the opportunity to “defend” our top choices but in the end, no one was convinced by anything we’d tasted. Everyone felt there had to be a better barrel out there waiting to be discovered. And no one wanted to settle, especially after finding such a great barrel last time.
Heaven Hill: A Great Working Partner
It was at this point that I also started to learn a bit more about the specific provenance of the barrels we were sampling. For starters, while the program that the group was working under was for single barrels of Henry McKenna it sounds as if Heaven Hill was willing to offer barrels from a wide variety sources within the warehouse, meaning they were more likely to be off-profile. (Note: some distilleries earmark barrels for their different brands relatively early in their lives and mange them as such throughout the aging process.) In point of fact, the group made it very clear to me that they are extremely pleased with the relationship they’ve forged with Heaven Hill. The distillery has shown a deep commitment to matching buyers with barrels they really want, not just what they feel they can sell. This hasn’t meant that the distillery hits the bull’s eye right away, but it does mean the group can be confident that they will eventually find something distinctive and worth buying.
To this end, the group had been sent samples from two separate warehouses: one in Bardstown at Heaven Hill corporate headquarters, and one in Deatsville, about 8 miles northwest, at the old T.W. Samuel’s distillery. Apparently the barrel which the group had selected last time came from the Deatsville warehouse and had been pulled for them at the recommendation of Parker Beam, Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, who was consulted after the group gave feedback on the earliest samples sent to them. I had also learned that the barrel which Ed finally purchased had been part of a run of whiskey distilled by Brown-Forman under contract to Heaven Hill (using the Heaven Hill “recipe”) to offset production capability lost in a fire in 1996. This was something discovered after the barrel was delivered and the DSP numbers on the end decoded. (Yes, you may keep your barrel after it’s dumped and bottled for you. Shipping included in the price.)
Though the group had given notes to Heaven Hill requesting samples that matched the profile of the barrel they had previously bought, the distillery wound up sending ones which, while interesting enough, were not on the mark. (One member has characterized them as more like Evan William Single Barrel than McKenna.) It’s hard to know why. I might guess that possibly the notes didn’t get through to the right people or because it was simpler to send samples that had already been pulled. The group would now ask Heaven Hill to send additional samples, please, but might they specifically come from the same section in the Deatsville warehouse where Parker Beam had told them to look last time?
It took another month for Heaven Hill to deliver the new samples. I imagined some marketing person in Bardstown making a call to the manager at the T.W. Samuels warehouse in Deatsville. The instructions would be pretty precise: go to the 5th or 6th floor in such and such a section of the rickhouse. Pull three samples and drive them back here. The manager gathers up the tools for the job: some empty bottles, a funnel, a cordless drill (for putting a hole in the barrel head—faster than popping the bung), a mallet, and some spiles (thin tapered wooden pegs for sealing the hole back up when done). Oh, and a clipboard for recording the location and number of each barrel. There was no telling what the group was going to get. They were hoping for a “honey barrel.”
The next tasting was held on the evening of the 19th March, structured more or less like the first, though fewer group members were present. We “warmed up” by sampling two newly released whiskeys and comparing them to some other comparable releases from the same distillery (both were from Buffalo Trace). One of these, an Abraham Bowman barrel-strength rye from Virginia, was deemed “a winner” by several of us. It was practically explosive, with spicy orange peel notes and a distinctive viscous mouth feel. It’s also worth mentioning one of the comparison whiskeys: a rare bottling of the “baby” Sazerac rye, which is normally 6 years of age. This bottle, which was purchased as a barrel by Sam’s in Chicago before it closed, held 10 year old product. It was distinctly more refined than the regular bottling. I’d have been happy to drink it along with the Abraham Bowman all night long. However, the group some other more pressing work on its plate.
So how about those new McKenna samples?
There were three new barrel samples to try, all from the T.W. Samuels warehouse as requested. Once again we poured tastes from bottles holding 100-proof dilutions. We also poured tastes of the previously purchased barrel so we had a point of reference. We got right down to serious nosing and tasting.
The previous samples, most all of which came from the Bardstown warehouse, had seemed kind of short and ultimately disappointing, especially compared to the barrel that had been purchased a few months back. In stark contrast, the new samples all seemed bold, rich, and easy to love. The first two were notably perfumed and practically floral in the nose. As good as these were, the third sample just blew them away. It was rich and spicy with an array of fruit cake notes: candied fruit/peel and a clean grain aroma. You just wanted to keep smelling it. In the mouth it was concentrated and powerful with a long tail finish, a sign of good acidity.
The group held opinions back for a few minutes more and then someone finally spoke up: “You know, I’m really loving these whiskeys. What do you all think?” Everyone’s response was the same: “Delicious! I would buy any one of these three barrels!” It was clear the group’s persistence had paid off. There were now three candidates for purchase sitting before the group. The question then became: how to pick one?
Someone asks the obvious question at this point: “How would you all rank these?” We go around the table and, incredibly, everyone ranks them same! The third sample (our designation #18, since it was actually the 18th McKenna sample received by the group) was everyone’s favorite. The first sample (#16) was everyone’s second place. The group now knew exactly which barrel they’d be recommending Ed buy, though the final decision would be his after he got a chance to try them on his own. And then I decided to make a bold suggestion: perhaps they should buy both #18 and #16? If, as some group members suspected, these were low fill barrels (as the previous barrel had been), then they’d not be getting much whiskey from them. Rather than risking another fast sell out at the store and another round sampling, having found suitable candidates, why not just purchase two of them now? There was a nodding of heads. The group would be recommending this option to Ed as well.
And speaking of Ed: he won’t be sampling these whiskeys until next week some time. We’ll all be curious to know what he thinks and whether he abides by the opinion of the group. I’ll post a follow up to let you all know. I’ll also be sure to let you know when the new whiskey arrives and goes on sale at Ledger’s so you can try it too.
PLEASE TAKE NOTE: It will be at least a couple of months from time the barrel is selected till the day it arrives at the store. Please don’t be pestering Ed for bottles now. Ed does however have some bottles of his previous Four Roses barrels available for purchase while supplies last.