On your marks, get set… GO CHASE DOWN SOME BOURBON!
Did that get you excited, or did you sigh and shake your head? Fatigue isn’t a theme that will get anyone’s pulse racing (quite by definition, actually) but it is one that has come up in several conversations I’ve had with friends in the bourbon scene. Matt used it as a preamble to his review of some lavishly priced sourced whiskey. I’ve got other acquaintances in the landscape of global whisky who have recently stepped away, citing exhaustion with the chase, competition, gamesmanship, bad behavior, online sniping… you name it.
I reflected on this because I have recently “tapped out” of my former whiskey milieu. A change of job resulted in me leaving Chicago, and with it the stores that I used to frequent. I’m in the process of developing new relationships with retailers in my current locale; however, I still have a virtual foot in the Chicago whiskey scene via the shops I’m following on social media. One of them – Warehouse Liquors – will be the focal point of today’s review.
I first considered Warehouse Liquors in the context of their Maker’s Mark Private Select bottle, which provided me an opportunity to interview proprietor Gene Charness about his philosophy and style. This was followed by an above average Buffalo Trace pick. My most recent visit to the store came on March 11th, 2020. I know this because I took the pair of Four Roses selections I procured to a tasting with Brian Zeeck of Whiskey Were Here fame, immortalized in a Tweet. This would not bear mentioning bar the fact that this was the last day I went into my office before COVID-19 restrictions imposed a work-from-home arrangement that persists to this day.
Plus ça change… Though the world has adapted to the new reality by altering its behaviors, demand for whiskey has remained constant, if not increased.
I recalled Warehouse Liquors again recently when their announcement of a Stagg Jr. barrel pick (one of the first) popped up on my Instagram feed, with the following admonitions (penned by the love child of Dante Alighieri and Christopher Wool, I presume?):
In Store Purchase Only
First Come First Served
Limit One Per Person
We’ll Update Here Once Sold Out
We Don’t Predict This Lasting Long”
Quicker than Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald could debate the correct pronunciation of “potato,” the promised/threatened update was posted, indicating that each of the coveted bottles was spoken for. In a previous life, I would have been the fellow (I almost wrote “moron,” but don’t want to cast aspersions on the more… energetic… members of the whiskey community) hopping on a Divvy bike to pedal furiously across the Loop (in wool pants, idiotically) to secure one of these bottles for myself by arriving at the store in a breathless, sweat-dampened panic (like a dope).
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m looking back with a mixture of embarrassment for my silliness and contentment at having abandoned the erroneous ways. What accounts for my newfound zen? I’d love to flatter myself by telling you that it’s my accumulated wisdom, reassuring me that I should “never dash for a bottle or a bus, as there’s usually another one coming.” In actuality, my aforementioned relocation to accommodations 175 miles from the shop precludes me from beating all but the slowest of tortoises to Warehouse on the day of a limited release.
What have I missed, in my absence? Well, store picks of Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, Jack Daniel’s and Sazerac, among others. I know, I know; I might as well crawl into my grave and die immediately, right? How on Earth would I have survived without being able to taste these whiskeys?
My lifeline comes in the form of fellow Chicagoan Jason (three cheers for him) who… went to the store… and… bought these bottles… and then… sent samples to me? Wait, what?
Look at that, y’all! Zero firstborn children bartered for a taste of whiskey! No expense incurred! No effort expended! I literally sat around on a couch I bought on Craigslist and petted my yellow Labrador Retriever and occasionally tweeted whiskey snark… and the universe, in its unquestionable wisdom and eternal reversion to the laws of nature, dropped these in my lap!
All that to say: be good to one another. Demonstrate kindness to newbies, treat whiskey veterans with deference and respect, and open and share your bottles; my experience shows that your generosity will be repaid tenfold. Most importantly: be grateful for the whiskey you have, rather than pining away for the whiskey you’ve missed. There will always be another bottle, I promise. On to the reviews!
Starting off, we have the Eagle Rare single barrel #228. This came from Warehouse Q and is aged 10 years and bottled at Eagle Rare’s customary strength of 90 proof (45% ABV). Retail price for this was $55, which compares with $33 for the standard Eagle Rare bottling.
Eagle Rare Warehouse Liquors Barrel Pick – Review
Color: Medium-light orange.
On the nose: Immediately, that gorgeous Eagle Rare hallmark note of gooey, chocolate-covered cherry leaps right out of the glass. This meets with a stern counterpoint of limestone and lemon juice, with the two pushing and pulling against one another in an enthralling aromatic dance. There are some springtime aromas of flowers and freshly cut grass, as well as a sprinkling of exotic seasonings such as cardamom pods, tarragon, and dried ginger.
In the mouth: Very subtle to start, I get an initial kiss of floral rosewater-type flavor as this passes my lips and meets the tip of my tongue. This evolves a chalky texture as it moves towards the center of the tongue, where a bitter bloom of nuts and varnish spreads across the roof of the mouth. Some dilute, mild sous bois elements make a fleeting appearance before this tilts back toward the powdery sweetness of confectioners’ sugar. There’s not a great deal of flavor through the finish, but this lingers texturally with a tannic astringency and a radiant heat that belies the comparatively low bottling strength.
The nose on this is a thing of beauty; it strongly entices me to stop sniffing and put the glass to my lips. In the mouth, this is exceedingly delicate in the way that I find a lot of the Warehouse Liquors picks to be. I can see this flavor profile appealing to some but, for me, a decade in the barrel has allowed some of the harder-edged wood nuances to overtake the more appealing fruity and richly sweet notes, leaving the mouthfeel slightly imbalanced. Netting the highs against the lows and considering the price leaves this solidly in the middle of the range for me.
Proceeding alphabetically, we now have the E.H. Taylor barrel #035, pulled from Warehouse H. Again, this was bottled at the customary strength for this expression: 100 proof (50% ABV). Retail price was $85 per Jason; the SRP for the E.H. Taylor Single Barrel is about $60.
E.H. Taylor Warehouse Liquors Barrel Pick – Review
Color: Medium-pale copper
On the nose: Sweet and soft initially; this presents a creamily corny nose with accents of kosher salt, key lime, and nutmeg. Deep inhalation results in this tipping over into an estery scent of synthetic vanilla flavoring. At the margin there are some green grape nuances, but this is mostly animated by that progression from airy sweetness to creamy richness into that artificial, almost chemical note. With some time, I sense the green apple candy note for which Taylor bourbons are renowned.
In the mouth: This is, again, very dainty in its presentation of flavors. There’s a subtle floral note followed by a reversion back to the artificial vanilla as the whisky travels up the tongue. The whiskey become muddled and dilute in the middle of the mouth, with only wisps of nondescript flavors that are hard to pin down. There’s prickly notes of dill and cinnamon as well as more astringent woodiness as this finishes abruptly, disappearing altogether after a few seconds. Subsequent tastings revealed a minty accent and a reprise of the green apple hard candy note, but little additional intrigue.
I actually tasted this against the retail version of the E.H. Taylor Single Barrel to make sure my palate wasn’t totally out of whack, so difficult to discern were the flavors in the mouth on this pick. Turns out my palate is working just fine; there was plenty of flavor and texture on the reference sample and – while they shared things in common – the Warehouse pick felt like it had the volume knob turned all the way down. I’m not as enamored of this as I was of the Eagle Rare (especially on the nose) and – in light of the high price – I’m docking a point.
Ditching Kentucky for Tennessee momentarily, I’ll now be reviewing the Warehouse pick of a Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel at Barrel Proof, in this case 65.85%. Jason informs me he paid $85 for this, which is a premium to the $65 cost of the standard Barrel Proof bottling of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.
Jack Daniel’s Warehouse Liquors Barrel Pick – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brown
On the nose: Inviting notes of vanilla swirl around gooey aromas of caramelized brown sugar and sticky toffee pudding. Those looking for a touch of the hallmark Jack Daniel’s banana will find it, but in the form of an underripe green banana. I also get a novel and surprising pistachio aroma of freshly shelled pistachio. There are some spicier notes here in the form of a subtle touch of root beer and grated nutmeg, but mostly this is comprised of those initial richly sweet notes.
In the mouth: This is immediately lip-tingling, with a stony kiss turning into an expansive heat that radiates through the mouth. There’s a perfectly round note of polished wood at the middle of the mouth, which makes a seamless transition to some salty, nutty flavors as this heads toward the back of the mouth. The flavor of very ripe Red Delicious apples makes an appearance before a suddenly burst of chili powder and a squeeze of lime juice provide this a piquant accent. That first stony note re-asserts itself on the finish, albeit in the form of black volcanic rock, with the whiskey lingering firmly all around the mouth with a vaguely ashy flavor of spent campfire.
Novel and surprising, in the way I hope all single barrels are (and most aren’t). This gives added layers of flavor and interesting nuances that aren’t present in the standard bottling of this expression, at least the one I tried. It’s hard to generalize given these are single barrels and will intrinsically vary as a consequence. Netting that improved quality out against the higher price, I am going to score this in-line with how I scored the reference bottle.
Back to Kentucky to finish the quartet, we have here a Sazerac Rye. This is barrel #003 from Warehouse I, bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV). I am told by Jason that he also paid $55 for this one; retail prices for the standard Sazerac Rye bottling tend to be in the $25-30 range. I last purchased a barrel pick of “Baby Saz” for $35 so, again, this represents a meaningful premium.
Sazerac Rye Warehouse Liquors Barrel Pick – Review
Color: Medium-light dirty gold.
On the nose: High toned, with sharply floral scents. There’s the uncanny whiff of ginger ale soda, some lemongrass, and a subtle accent of vanilla. Deep inhalation reveals a piquant and meaty note of brined pork shoulder. Another one with a delicate presentation, but there’s sufficient intrigue here to entice me into sipping.
In the mouth: This enters sedately before blooming as it hits the front of the tongue with a pure, crystalline flavor of candied cherries. Progressing through the mouth, this takes on some sharply woody accents and a bit more spice, although of a nondescript character. This turns dilute from a flavor perspective while simultaneously getting hotter texturally as it moves into the finish. The flavors all disappear but the radiant heat remains on the roof of the mouth.
Though not my personal favorite profile, I was prepared to grade this about average until midway through the mouth. At that point, everything fell apart and the whiskey became a dilute, nearly silent affair. This would have been a disappointing bottle of plain ol’ Sazerac Rye at $25; at more than double that price, I’m forced to score this punitively.
I’ve written before about the importance of “knowing your pickers,” not least of all to ensure that you’ll actually enjoy drinking the whiskey you’re getting from them. Having now tasted eight of Gene’s picks, I feel confident in saying I have some sense of his palate, and also the ways in which it differs from mine. He seems to prefer a leaner style of bourbon with a lighter body, whereas I prefer a more fulsome whiskey with heft instead of delicacy. That’s OK; it doesn’t make me right and him wrong, or vice-versa.
If you find your preferences tack more toward mine, then you may want to seek out barrel picks from other sources. If you feel like your palate is more in-line with Gene’s: great! Feel free to calibrate my tasting notes accordingly, given our obvious difference in proclivities. I’m also happy to inform you that your odds of scoring one of these picks are now infinitesimally better, as you have one fewer competitor in the mad dash to grab bottles. Just remember, though: there’s always another bottle coming.
Whiskeys and photo courtesy of Jason.
I don’t understand the concept of store picks. So, specifically—-why would a particular store pick be coveted over the distillery regular release? Doesn’t it imply that a person who doesn’t even work in that distillery in a professional capacity has somehow a better knowledge of casks than the distillery professional? I would think the best casks are reserved for the distillery, and they’d be selling the second class versions?
As someone who used to work in the business I can offer you one example as a response. We were offered a Jack Daniels barrel selection, which would be bottled expressly for us with a unique label sticker proclaiming it as such. The rep brought 6 different barrel samples for us to try. Four of them were pretty unremarkable (a couple actually not pleasant) but the final pair were a tougher call. By a majority vote of 3 to 2 we selected our preferred one. That was subsequently bottled and labeled as promised. The reward for us was an almost instant sell-out of all stock at a much higher per-bottle margin than normal. Was it all that much better than their standard equivalent offering? Maybe, maybe not. The differences were very subtle. But it was a unique product that appealed to the American whisky/JD geeks and made us a little extra money, along with buying us a bit of an image polish that we actually were making an effort to offer some different things. But it was mostly an easy margin grab for minimal effort on our part.
Greg, great info here. I’m particularly perplexed by Jack Daniel’s Barrel Proof picks, because we already get this format directly from Jack Daniel’s. I’d have to have a pretty high degree of confidence that whoever did the picking was willing and able to find an off-profile or particularly flavorful barrel. There’s a limited number of folks in that bucket for me, including Justins’ House of Bourbon, but I’d be reluctant to risk the money taking a flier on a barrel from God-knows-who. I’m not the type of geek or completist that you mention, which means that I’m comfortable passing on picks unless they’re a true must-have. Cheers!
That’s really great insight. What’s interesting in this is that the rep chose a small set for you, of which 66% weren’t that good. The other 34% were good enough to bottle , but maybe if tasted blind, indistinguishable from the standard offering. I’d really see value, and I’d pay a higher premium even, if that pick was “ wow…way better than their core, one of the honey barrels”
PB, worth noting that this is also a controversial program. Check out my interview with Gene for more details. You pick the staves in advance, but don’t get to taste the whiskey before the final product is ready. A roll of the dice, in any case!
The way I see it, it’s the IB version for American whisky since you won’t get something like Signatory Buffalo Trace equivalents.
John, I’ve thought a lot about it, and there’s not a perfect analogue with anything in Scotland. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to generalize across store picks: some are proofed down, some are barrel proof. Some can be off-profile, others are strictly managed to ensure that only conventional flavor profiles make their way into the program. Some aren’t picks at all; they’re “take it or leave it” offers of random single barrels by the distributors. For all these reasons, a healthy amount of skepticism is always warranted. Cheers!
PB, the allure is that a store might get an “off profile” barrel that is different and better than what would be released by the distillery. Some barrel pick programs also allow the barrels to be bottled at cask strength, which might not be an option among the official expressions. The risk is that you end up paying a premium for something that is only as good, and perhaps not even that, as a cheaper option. All that to say: caveat emptor and GO BLUE!
The variability just seems super high. First you have to like the brand profile ( let’s say JD in this case). Then you have to like, or trust, the store you normally visit and it’s taste. So…the only value added service for that premium is “hey, trust me, I picked a good enough off profile for that premium”.
I kind of like the way Barrell or Makers Mark do it—-they let the picks be a customized finished. So now, for that premium, it’s “ my pick is a finish you won’t normally see”.