In a recent article on whiskey predictions and trends, I made a statement about “bespoke barrels” being a thing.
“Bars Will Be Stocking More “Bespoke Barrel” Whiskeys
This is a new trend, and it will do nothing but increase. The major distillers have seen the profit opportunity, as well as the branding opportunity, of selling bespoke barrels (single barrels or private blends) to individual bars. The process has become so streamlined that, even in a controlled state such as Oregon, the top-ranked bars aren’t considered in fashion if they don’t have their own selected barrels. One such bar has a current total of 11 barrels, including Bourbon, Rye, Brandy and Tequila…with 3 more on the way. Bartenders see this as a powerful personal statement; smart suppliers see it as a gold mine.
It used to be that the only way you could get whiskey was for saloons and hotels to buy it by the barrel and then sell it to you. Some of those old fashioned ideas are returning with increased emphasis on barrel programs.”
I immediately got responses from readers. “Is this really a thing?”, “Who is doing this now?”, “Where can I go in Portland to taste this stuff?”, and the most important one of all, “Does this ‘bespoke barrel’ make a difference, or is it just marketing?”
To which, I reply 1) Yes, and it’s not just whiskey. 2) I’ll give you a list. 3) I’ll give you a list. 4) Yes, and No.
Many fine establishments feature one or two personally selected barrels of whiskey, tequila, brandy, or rum, but a select few have expanded selections that cover a spectrum of bespoke spirits.
A short list:
Bit House Saloon
Bit House Saloon
The recently opened and highly acclaimed Near East Side bar, tucked at the foot of the Morrison Bridge on Grand Avenue, began operation with 12 bespoke barrels. Currently they have Buffalo Trace, Weller Special Reserve, Eagle Rare 10yr, Four Roses, Knob Creek 9yr, Bernheim Wheat, Blanton’s, Whistle Pig 10yr Rye, Koval Millet Whisky, Germain-Robin Brandy, Novo Fogo 7yr Cachaça, and Orgullo Tequila Añejo…with more selections on the way. All are offered by ½ ounce, 1 ounce, 1 ½ ounce pours, in flights, or in an Old Fashioned. Some may also be used in the signature cocktails created by the Bit House crew.
Multnomah Whiskey Library
Multnomah Whisky Library
It seems axiomatic that the Whiskey Library, that dark wood and leather temple of all things whisk(e)y, would have bespoke barrels. And of course it is and they do. Bar Manager Jordan Felix quickly reeled off the MWL list of whiskey, brandy and tequila bespoke barrels: Four Roses, Bernheim Wheat, George Dickel, Weller 107, Henry McKenna, Blantons, Casa San Matias Reposado Tequila, and the Park Cognac Single Vineyard 18yr Borderies.
Raven and Rose
The Rookery Bar at Raven & Rose
From its inception,The Rookery, under the guidance of David Shenaut, was aggressive about bespoke barrels. Currently the bar features nine selections: Casa Noble Reposado Tequila, Ransom Old Tom Gin, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Four Roses Bourbon, Knob Creek Rye 120 Proof, High West Double Rye Whiskey, Germain-Robin Heirloom Apple Brandy, and Krogstad Gamle Akvavit. These are all available neat and in flights, and frequently seen as the base of The Rookery’s amazing cocktail specials.
And it’s not just whiskey! Danny Sandoval, owner of two Sandoval’s restaurants in Portland as well as the eponymous place on the C Concourse of PDX Airport that has become famous for its astonishing selection of agave spirits, was currently ordering his 18th barrel of bespoke tequila when I spoke with him.
“These barrels are great,” he said. “It takes a little education for the customer, but it allows you teach about Tequila, to make it interesting, to take it to the next level.”
Sandoval travels to Mexico to personally select his barrels; he has gone through nine barrels of Herradura Double Barrel Reposado, four barrels of Casa Noble, two barrels of T1 Tequila, with three more bespoke barrels on the way.
Pictured: Danny Sandoval in the Herradura Cellar, selecting his personal barrel of Herradura Reposado with the Maestra Tequilero. The barrel, aged for 11 months, will be racked and aged in newly toasted barels for 45 days before bottling and shipping to Portland.
“Does it hurt the sales of the many other tequilas you stock?” I enquired. “No. Not at all. People still like their favorites, but if you tell them about something interesting and different, they’re willing to try that too. And I can tell them, ‘Hey, look, I went down to Tequila and picked out this particular barrel as being the best of the bunch.’ That means something.”
Bespoke Barrels: a marketing gimmick or the real thing?
This is the “Yes, and No” part. It’s possible to simply pick up a phone and order a barrel from a distillery without any input. Then it’s marketing, because the bar had no input into the particular choice.
It becomes meaningful when the buyer tastes and selects; it becomes a statement of the buyer’s personal choice, for each barrel is different, unique, an unblended expression of one single barrel. Every single buyer who has gone to a distillery and tasted from the barrels will tell you the same: each barrel is one-of-a-kind.
The art and craft of a Master Distiller is in his or her ability to successfully blend many barrels together to produce a consistent spirit. Choosing a single barrel, a bespoke barrel, is the challenge of selecting one particular expression of that famous spirit that best suits the buyers’ preferences.
At Woodford Reserve Bourbon Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, the process is even more involved. To acquire a bespoke barrel you must go to the distillery and spend a day working through several barrels the Master Distiller has selected—not to choose a single barrel but to identify the best barrels for your own personal blend! The Master Distiller blends those barrels together, bottles your selection, and labels your blend..,so, rather than merely selecting an existing barrel,you are creating your own blend from Woodford’s stock.
Buyers love bespoke barrels. Apparently, so do the customers. So the prediction stays: you’ll see more of these barrels at more bars in future. It’s a thing.