In today’s market, creative retailers are looking for bespoke products to differentiate themselves from the competition. Buyers who collaborate with distillers to select rare barrels are rewarded with exclusive spirits, bottled with custom-made labels featuring the store’s name and the actual barrel for display. While retailers can procure everything from exclusive Armagnac to grappa and put their name on it, many of those spirits aren’t actually sourced from a single barrel, and most stores focus on single-barrel domestic whiskies, such as Bourbon. Even as Bourbon supplies remain tight for many popular products, an abundance of unique single barrels are still out there waiting to be discovered.
At two-unit retailer Acquistapace’s in New Orleans, co-owner Adam Acquistapace says there’s something magical about tasting Bourbon at Kentucky’s historic distilleries, but adds that his most meticulous tasting is done at his desk. “When a distillery sends me five or 10 samples, they’re all barrel-proof, which is to say different high proofs,” he says. “I pour them into beakers and dilute them with an eyedropper of distilled water, so they’re all the same. I keep a sample of the flagship Bourbon to the side, as a reference.” Acquistapace says his customers prefer exclusive-barrel bottlings from brands they trust, rather than unfamiliar labels. “They want an enhanced version of their favorite whiskey,” he says.
Acquistapace carries up to 25 exclusive-barrel spirits at a time and currently stocks 18 offerings, including Bourbons from Elijah Craig ($28 a 750-ml.), Russell’s Reserve ($50) and Blanton’s ($52). Although Bourbon is the store’s top exclusive-barrel category by a large margin, Acquistapace says exclusive-barrel Tequilas like Lunazul Reposado ($19) are also gaining traction. He adds that the store is also on the lookout for exclusive-barrel Scotches, which would sell well in his market, but are difficult to find.
Acquistapace is careful about using the word “exclusive,” and Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, agrees. Both define exclusive-barrel spirits as single barrels (or a blend of two barrels) that come bottled with custom labels. “Just because you buy all of something doesn’t make it an exclusive barrel,” Maloney says. He carries up to 15 exclusive-barrel spirits at a time, ranging from $26 to $150 a 750-ml.
“I look for superior barrels with exceptional quality and flavor profile at any price point, as long as they provide value for our customers,” Maloney says. “And because I order exclusives from the same distillers over and over, I search for flavor profiles that we can duplicate in four to six months.” He generally prices exclusive-barrel spirits the same as the regular expression. In particular, whiskies bottled for his store-sponsored Loch & K(e)y Club lead sales by a large margin, including The Balvenie Singularity Single Cask 15-year-old Scotch whisky ($62 a 750-ml.) and Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Bourbon ($30), which was the store’s first exclusive-barrel spirit 17 years ago. Maloney leverages the exclusive barrels to generate excitement at Julio’s and build community around the store’s whisk(e)y club, which has evolved into a major draw among enthusiasts who attend its events. Club members recently helped select three barrels of Scotch, each aged in its own Virginia Port barrel from The Lost Distillery Co. and priced from $45 to $68 a 750-ml.
At Julio’s, barrels are reused to create another generation of one-of-a-kind products, including barrel-aged spirits and even beers. Maloney recently took the empty barrel from his Caribou Crossing Canadian single barrel whisky ($55 a 750-ml.) and used it to age Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Ragged Mountain rum ($30), a Caribbean-style rum made in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He dubbed the liquid Snowbird rum.
Maloney invests about $10,000 a barrel, and sometimes much more for offerings like the Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Cask whisky from Taiwan ($175 a 750-ml.). To offset that outlay, Maloney shares his barrels with smaller independent retailers throughout Massachusetts. The stores are far from one another so they don’t compete, and all of them receive their shipments directly from the wholesaler. “It benefits the entire community of independent stores by enabling them to sell exclusive spirits without the huge investment,” Maloney says. “And I can order more barrels too.”
The three-unit California retailer K&L Wine Merchants carries up to 60 exclusive-barrel spirits at a time, and assistant head buyer David Driscoll agrees that quality is key. “Exclusive products give people a reason to shop with you—as long as what you’re selling is good,” he says. K&L focuses mostly on exclusive-barrel Scotch whiskies, and promotes them via social media, emails and store displays. Current strong-selling exclusives include two cask-strength single malt Scotch whiskies—1995 Glenburgie 21-year-old Signatory ($100 a 750-ml.) and the 1997 Linkwood 19-year-old Signatory ($90)—as well as two single barrel Bourbons from Russell’s Reserve ($65 each).
Securing unique single casks to sell can be a challenge in itself. “We could sell an endless amount of Bourbon if there were more casks available,” Driscoll says. At Acquistapace’s, demand for Scotch single barrels exceeds what’s available. While some distillers offer official single barrel programs, many other large brands don’t sell single casks at all. Suppliers don’t offer long-term contracts or agreements to sell barrels on an ongoing basis. Retailers note the need to be flexible and to maintain strong relationships with suppliers, particularly to gain access to more unusual casks.
Retailers describe nuanced aromas they encounter while searching for what their customers want. For example, Maloney of Julio’s is on a mission to track down barrels of Barton 1792 Bourbon that exhibit a dry apple flavor. “Those are the only barrels we’re looking for,” Maloney says. Julio’s currently offers a Barton 1792 Single Barrel Bourbon ($32 a 750-ml.). Acquistapace says he rejects barrels with notes of earth or mushroom. Although marketers promote their flagship spirits as consistent and unchanged over decades or centuries, myriad factors make each barrel unique.
“There’s a tremendous number of variables that impact the flavor of one barrel,” says Denny Potter, master distiller at Heaven Hill Brands. “You just need one minor difference in the life cycle of a whiskey to have a noticeable impact on the flavor. That’s what makes single barrel spirits so exciting.” Heaven Hill offers a private barrel program for Elijah Craig Bourbon. Potter and other distillers provide lists of variables, including mash bill, yeast strain, proof at the time of barrel entry, warehouse floor, warehouse humidity, proximity to the warehouse’s exterior walls and windows, and air circulation. Barrels influence flavors and colors as well, and distillers say barrels’ type, size, char level and toast degree make a huge difference. Some barrels are made from more than one type of oak, with each species lending its own characteristics. Even where the trees grew can influence the liquid inside the barrel, says Eddie Russell, master distiller of Campari’s Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve Bourbons.
Some say the barrels are the most important factor, including Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett. The Brown-Forman brand adds an extra toasting step to its barrels, in addition to the classic charring. “The toast and char levels vary from barrel to barrel, influencing the amount of sweetness and oak flavors in each one,” Arnett says. Wood is so important that Beam Suntory has made it the centerpiece of its Maker’s Mark Private Select barrel program, which allows retailers to select a custom mix of staves for finishing their Bourbon.
Wild Turkey’s Russell notes the Bourbon’s age and warehouse floor location are the most important factors. “We have seven floors in our warehouses, and the middle floors—we call them the center cut—yield the caramel, vanilla and fruity flavors we look for, while the air circulation and temperature help to develop these flavors,” he says. Rob Mason, vice president of Bourbon at Beam Suntory, agrees. “The center-cut barrels yield the most consistently balanced flavors of wood and baking spices,” he explains. Yet Mason notes that barrels from high and low racks also have special characteristics. Top-rack barrels experience more water evaporation, resulting in higher proof and intense flavor in the Bourbon, while evaporation is slower for lower-rack barrels, leading to lower proof and a softer finish.
When placing an order, savvy retailers ask how many cases to expect, as the number varies. Driscoll of K&L says he’s ordered barrels yielding as few as six to as many as 50 nine-liter cases. Distillers say the average is 10 to 23 cases per barrel. Sales volumes of exclusive-barrel spirits often remain difficult to pin down. Heaven Hill says its Elijah Craig Private Barrel volume comprises less than 5 percent of the brand’s business. Brown-Forman distributes 700 barrels of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel in the United States annually. Beam Suntory and Campari America decline to share specific volumes, noting that their exclusive-barrel programs comprise a very small part of their spirits business. It’s likely that exclusive-barrel spirits make up a larger percentage of the overall business at smaller-scale and craft distilleries.
For most brands, 60 percent to 90 percent of their single barrels go to stores, rather than on-premise accounts. Brown-Forman has two exceptions: its Woodford Reserve Personal Selection program, which until recently targeted only on-premise accounts, and Old Forester Single Barrel, which leans only slightly toward the off-premise. Although exclusive barrels have been geared more toward the off-premise, on-premise purchases account for an increasing share of the exclusive-barrel spirits sold by Beam Suntory and Campari America.
There’s also some crossover. “We’re seeing more partnerships between retailers and restaurants for single barrel purchases,” says Jacquelyn Zykan, Old Forester’s Bourbon specialist. “This helps lighten the burden of purchasing the entire barrel, allows the accounts to purchase a greater number of different barrels in a given time frame and allows the restaurants to best meet their guests’ needs by having a recommended place to purchase an entire bottle.”
Retailers who participate in exclusive-barrel programs gain greater understanding of how the spirits are made, as well as a story for hand-selling them. Elizabeth McCall, master taster for Woodford Reserve, says the brand’s Personal Selection experience allows retailers craft their own flavor profile and the story becomes a selling point on the sales floor. “It’s more than just picking a barrel,” McCall says. “The retailers experience individual barrel flavor profiles, and then batch them with another barrel to create a unique flavor profile that can never be duplicated.”
Mason of Beam Suntory—which offers Jim Beam Single Barrel and Knob Creek Single Barrel, in addition to Maker’s Mark Private Select—says exclusive-barrel programs strengthen the company’s relationships with their accounts and in turn with their customers. “Retailers who select a barrel at our distilleries get an intimate look at exactly how our Bourbons are made,” he says. “In both on- and off-premise accounts, this knowledge is valuable currency for engaging consumers who come through their doors. Barrel selections allow retailers to offer their customers something iconic and familiar yet elevated and exclusive with their personal seal of approval.”
Acquistapace says exclusive-barrel spirits strike just the chord his customers want—a balance between recognizable and rare. In addition, he finds that his distinctive barrel displays showcase the brands’ flagship spirits, as well as the store’s exclusives. He sees a bump in sales across the brand’s portfolio. “When I create a display on our empty barrel of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, I’ll also incorporate bottles of the regular Jack Daniel’s,” he says. “Lots of customers will admire the barrel and get a sense of where the spirit comes from—and then buy the regular bottle. Just having the wooden barrel enhances customers’ perception of the brand and elevates the status of the distillery.”
By definition, exclusive-barrel spirits will always be a small portion of a store’s retail mix, but they give retailers a way to connect with their customers and broaden their interests. “When we first started bringing in exclusive-barrel spirits, the products attracted people who had been interested in whiskies for a while,” says Maloney of Julio’s. “But now we have a diverse crowd of enthusiasts who come in for our exclusive single barrels and take part in the events as well.”