What's all the rage with barrel picks? What's a private selection? I'll help explain the phenomenon that's sweeping the liquor world
Author's Note: While other spirits can be offered in select barrel versions, I am first and foremost a whisk(e)y drinker, and Barrel Pick whiskeys are much more prevalent than other spirits. Therefore when the word whiskey is used in the following post, it should be treated as interchangeable with "spirit" or "liquor".
Private barrel, store pick, special selection, barrel pick.... variations on these terms have been popping up all over the liquor industry, and unless you're a whiskey nerd or booze aficionado, they can leave consumers confused. What these phrases really mean is quite simple.
Barrel picks are simply bottles of liquor (often whiskey) that have been specially selected by a vendor in collaboration with a distiller. Usually by tasting a selection of samples provided by the distiller, the vendor will then receive the actual, physical barrel they sampled from, and everything that came inside- usually over a hundred bottles or so. This is usually then marked with some sort of designation letting the consumer know this a unique bottle, and who selected it.
These are fun and intriguing for a couple reasons.
Single barrel whiskeys are, by nature, going to vary wildly from selection to selection. This can be a frustrating situation (or fun, depending on who you ask) when two bottles of the same liquor bottled in the same factory can have totally different flavor profiles. From their location while aging within the rickhouse, to the climate that surrounded the distillation and aging process, many factors affect the final flavor and character of a spirit.
Most whiskey, unless it is labelled 'single barrel' or 'small batch', is usually the product of many barrels being blended together until the master distiller finds it has achieved their characteristic flavor. This leads to the consistency we have come to expect when we pick up a bottle of our favorite whiskey. If Jack Daniels didn't taste the same every time, people would probably stop buying as much.
Store picks are a fun way to experience this barrel-to-barrel variance, as you may pick up on new and unnoticed flavors in a whiskey you thought you were familiar with, all due to the varied nature of single barrel spirits. I recently had this happen to me when I picked up a store pick Eagle Rare 10. It was like meeting one of my favorite whiskeys all over again; with sweet toffee and candied fruit notes jumping out at me more prominently than I'd ever noticed before.
Currently, Trailhead Liquor is carrying our very own Barrel Pick of Jefferson's Ocean. A whiskey with a fascinating backstory and amazing flavor profile, our bottling has vibrant, sweet candy notes that appear on the palate, only to settle into a refined complex finish that lingers with just a hint of spice. For the same price as the normal Ocean, this is a special opportunity to try something entirely unique.
Additionally, the culture around collecting whiskeys has made certain exceptional or small batch bottles very difficult (if not impossible) to acquire in many areas. Barrel picks are a way for whiskey enthusiasts to add a unique and rare piece to their collection without having to exert the time and money other bottles might take in hunting down.
And lastly, these specially selected offerings are more often than not priced the same as their regular, commercially available counterparts. For example our store pick version of Eagle Rare 10 I mentioned before (from Buffalo Trace distilleries, a most reputable source) was available for just around 30 dollars last month. This to me is almost reason enough to venture outside the box and give these unique bottlings a try, as they are often delightful (if not often better) versions, that I always end up being pleased with.