By Richard Thomas
A common daydream for many a whiskey drinker is buying a whole barrel of their favorite standby and taking it home, and if cost were no object (a standard barrel of even an ordinary whiskey can run to several thousand dollars) many would make that daydream into reality. Private barrel programs are often seen as a gateway for ordinary whiskey lovers to buy whole barrels straight from the distillery, but that misunderstands their intent. Most such programs don’t work that way, but a lot has changed in the whiskey trade in recent years, and private barrel programs have started changing with them.
Private Barrels For Retailers
If you have ever seen a special bottling of a standard label on the shelves of a liquor store, that was a private barrel bottling, and was in fact what most private barrel programs are designed to do.
Buffalo Trace’s private barrel bottlings are fairly typical. When a retailer expresses interest in a private barrel bottling of, say, Blanton’s, they pull four or five barrels of Blanton’s stock and allow the retailer to pick one. The contents of that barrel are then bottled with whatever additional labeling the retailer wishes, and from there it becomes a quasi-exclusive bottling. The program is designed exclusively for retailers and distributors, so if someone without the necessary purchasing licensing, like a restaurant or a private individual, wanted a private barrel bottling of their own, they would have to use a retailer or distributor as a middleman.
Tweaks on this basic model are not unheard of, such as that of George Dickel. The Normandy, Tennessee distillery works just with the stock that might go into their Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey, but within that are two options: nine year old bottled at 103 proof and fourteen year old bottled at 106 proof.
New Private Barreling Options
As with everything else in American whiskey these days, craft distillers have been innovating to turn the private barrel concept into an enlarged business opportunity.
That innovation includes what many a whiskey fan has been daydreaming about all along: ordering a private barrel bottling straight from the distillery with no middleman. Mississippi River Distilling of Iowa, one of the contributors to the hot new Four Kings bourbon, has just such a program. Private groups or individuals can order one of their half-sized barrels for their own bottling, and even select their own proof.
Another new tweak along these lines is what Garrison Brothers in Texas is doing. The program is aimed mostly at restaurants and the like, rather than at private individuals, so what makes Garrison Brothers different is their intent to allow the customer to determine a broader range of aspects of their private bottling. When the Hye, Texas distillery gets the legal details sorted out, they will allow customers to choose not just the bottling proof, but also the age.
Finally, at a time when it seems a new distillery is opening somewhere around the world every week, private barrel purchases have become a way of raising funds. Thoran Distillery in Iceland is pre-selling whole barrels to raise funds, making their project something of a speculative private barrel program.