Until recently, bourbon and whiskey barrel picks — or barrel select programs — were only available to retail outlets, bars and restaurants, but now more distilleries have lessened the restrictions on these one-of-a-kind experiences, allowing bourbon/whiskey clubs and groups to get in on the action. So what exactly is a barrel pick, and why are they becoming one of the hottest tickets in town?
The answer is simple: Because it’s yours and you, ultimately, are the one who will decide how you like your whiskey: smooth, spicy, rich or mellow. But before we jump into tasting notes, let’s back up to the beginning.
What exactly is a barrel pick?
Barrel picks at distilleries are private experiences where a person and/or small group get to meet with the master distiller (or sometimes brand ambassador) to help select an entire bourbon or whiskey barrel that will be bottled for the group and include a special sticker or label indicating it’s part of a barrel select program. You’ve most likely seen these special stickers on certain bottles at your favorite liquor store, and some of the more prominent liquor stores throughout the country might do dozens of picks a year.
The cost of barrel picks isn’t cheap, as they can run up to $15,000-$20,000 per barrel, and, due to federal regulations, you might have to partner with a liquor store in order to receive the bottles from your barrel. But typically the distillery can help you navigate the red tape.
As the astute bourbon aficionado you are (since you’ve read this far), you know that single barrels of whiskey can offer up vastly different flavor profiles from the original product. No two barrels are the same, even if they’re sitting next to each other in the rickhouse.
And this is exactly why people clamor for the opportunity to not only taste the bourbon straight from the barrel, but also find a barrel this is so unique and different from the brand — yet is still technically the brand. It’s also why consumers tend to grab a single-barrel bourbon or whiskey whenever they see one on the shelf — chances are, the spirit will taste slightly different from the last bottle they enjoyed.
Growing Enthusiasm for Barrel Picks
As with all things bourbon, the popularity of these barrel picks has increased tenfold from just a decade ago. More than a million people visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Tennessee Whiskey Trail® each year, and oftentimes they’re seeking elevated distillery experiences and hunting for those elusive unicorn bottles that are so hard to find. By doing a barrel pick, you check off both of these boxes.
Last year, Mandy Vance, the Private Barrel Manager at Four Roses, was quoted for Bourbon+ Magazine, saying they average about 500 picks a year, not including the special Visitor Center bottles. The number has increased every year since she’s started in 2013, and now they’ve had to limit the number as to not disrupt their core product productions. Other distilleries host over 1,000 per year.
How Can You Pick Your Own Barrel?
Due to high demand, a barrel pick is not as easy as showing up to a distillery and requesting a barrel. You will likely have to get on a waiting list to be considered. Usually, the bigger (and more popular) the distillery is, the harder it will be to nab a spot in their private selection program.
For example, Sazerac, which owns Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 distilleries, only offers barrel picks to individuals once a year through their Single Barrel Select website. Once that small window opens, the barrels sell out in less than 10 minutes.
If you don’t have the money for your own barrel pick, then you could always join a popular bourbon club in your city and see if they do their own picks. Sometimes groups will raffle off chances to join in on a barrel pick for charity as well.
Do All Distilleries Offer Barrel Picks?
Unfortunately, not all distilleries offer barrel picks, especially some of the smaller craft distilleries where production is limited. If we’re talking regionally, though, it’s probably a safe bet that more distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee offer barrel picks than don’t. And as we venture further out into the country, non-regional brands like Old Elk, Smoke Wagon and Old Scout offer barrel picks that are often highly sought-after.
And good news, barrel picks aren’t just an American thing. Many distilleries throughout Scotland and Ireland offer barrel picks, and there are even some rum distilleries in the Caribbean and tequila distilleries in Mexico that host them as well.
What are Some Regional Distilleries That Offer Barrel Picks?
As stated above, there are numerous distilleries throughout Kentucky and Tennessee that offer barrel picks, so I can’t begin to list them all here. So instead, I will focus on a handful of some of the more popular programs.
Maker’s Mark — A few years ago, Maker’s Mark created a unique and extremely fun way to choose your own barrel, called their Private Selection Program. Basically, participants take a barrel of fully aged Maker’s Mark and then choose 10 stave types to add to the barrel for nine extra weeks. The wood-finishing staves differ in type of oak, how they’ve been toasted/cooked/charred, etc., and they elicit different flavors from the bourbon. This process results in more than 1,001 possible combinations.
New Riff — New Riff was one of the first distilleries to open their barrel pick program to individuals and groups, and now people clamor to the Northern Kentucky distillery to find their honey barrel and create fun labels for the bottles they pick. They also roll out the red carpet to visitors and include a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery.
Four Roses — While the Four Roses barrel pick program is limited, if you’re lucky enough to get a spot, you typically get to choose from 10 barrels — one of each of their 10 distinct bourbon recipes. Usually the Private Barrel Manager and the Master Distiller will walk you through all 10 samples, and the group will blind taste them so that there are no preconceived notions of age, recipe or location in the rickhouse.
Jack Daniel’s — Jack Daniel’s, the best-selling whiskey in the country, has opened up its rickhouses in Lynchburg, Tenn., to allow enthusiasts to pick their own barrels. And recently, they have partnered with Mint Julep Experiences to make the experience not only fun and all-inclusive, but also effortless and hassle-free. The adventure includes a trip down to the distillery either from Louisville or Nashville, a full distillery tour, and then a chance to select your very own barrel of either Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select or Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof. Learn more about the Single Barrel Select Program offered by Mint Julep Experiences and start planning your own barrel pick with one of their Experience Coordinators.
Leave It To Mint Julep Experiences — Industry Experts with Exclusive Partners and Access
If you’re interested in your own exclusive barrel pick, Mint Julep offers Single Barrel Picks in Kentucky and Single Barrel Selects in Nashville. On this custom tour with Mint Julep, you’ll be touring the barrel house, sampling four barrels you select, nosing, tasting and then blind tasting until you find the winning barrel. Upon your group’s barrel selection, you can be apart of the hand labeling of your bottles, making them extra special. Perks of booking a single barrel select experience through Mint Julep is VIP transportation and coordination of the experience is handled by the team, and you can take the bottles home with you that very day if you want to (there is a shipping option if you prefer as well)!
Work with a Mint Julep Experience Coordinator to begin planning your one-of-a-kind elevated experience.
About The Author
Sara Havens has been a bourbon enthusiast and educator long before the boom began. As a Louisville-based writer, her work has appeared in various national and regional publications, including Bourbon+ Magazine, The Bourbon Review, Alcohol Professor and Food & Dining Magazine. In 2020, Havens was one of 10 finalists in the World’s Top Whiskey Taster competition held by the Bardstown Bourbon Co., beating out more than 400 contenders to represent the Kentucky region. She maintains her own website, barbellelou.com, covering the bourbon industry and local nightlife scene, and in her down time, you can find her leading tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® for Mint Julep Experiences.