The time has come: I finally got picked for a pick.
I’ve written extensively in this space about barrel picks. At their best, they are unique drinking experiences promising off-profile aromas and flavors unobtainable in widely available expressions from the same distillery. At their worst, they are indistinguishable from the standard retail bottlings but for their premium price, offering poor value to bourbon drinkers.
Through the ups and the downs of tasting barrel picks, I have had ample time to consider what I like and dislike about the format. I’ve also thought frequently about the way I’d go about selecting a barrel, given the chance. That opportunity finally knocked last week when I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky as part of a Bourbon Crusaders trip to pick a barrel.
For those not familiar with the Bourbon Crusaders: united around a shared love of bourbon and a focus on giving back, the group has leveraged industry connections to raise several hundred thousand dollars for various charities. Though the principal focus of the group is the annual fundraiser (the last, in 2019, produced $368,000 in donations for food banks), the Bourbon Crusaders also do their own barrel picks.
I was invited to join the Bourbon Crusaders as a member in the spring of 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. Though I was an enthusiastic buyer of several of the group’s excellent picks, the strictures imposed on traveling and gathering meant that the Crusaders were unable to gather en masse. Still, my friends in the group (which includes innovative craft distillers, O.G. whisky bloggers, influential critics, and published authorities on bourbon) promised that we’d be back to normal as soon as regulations permitted.
That day arrived in mid-August, 2021, when I was able to join the team in Kentucky for a pair of barrel picks. To say I was excited would be an understatement. For months, I looked forward to being able to interact in the flesh with folks who had theretofore remained known to me only through their digital avatars, or as kind voices on the other end of the phone.
My anticipation was particularly heightened given the specifics of what we’d be selecting: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. The expression is one of my personal favorites, and was only added to the Heaven Hill barrel selection program in Spring of 2021 (prior selections had been diluted to the Small Batch level of 94 proof). If I had a dream pick, this would almost certainly be it.
At this point, a bit of self-doubt began to creep in. As anyone who has perused the comments on my reviews will know, I am frequently maligned as an incompetent taster with a rubbish palate. As one of only four tasters allowed (due to new restrictions related to the surge of the Delta variant), I’d be carrying the hopes and expectations of thirty top-level bourbon connoisseurs on my shoulders.
I arrived in Louisville the night before and was met at the airport by my sensei, Mr. Brett Atlas. He was my entrée into the group and is the type of fellow we need more of in bourbon. He has been exceedingly generous toward me as well as with others, and I was looking forward to repaying his generosity. To that end, I brought a bottle of the Single Cask Nation Pre-Fire Heaven Hill 24 Year Old, in a nod to the distillery where I’d be making my maiden pick.
Regrettably, the incompetence of United Airlines resulted in my checked luggage failing to appear, though the bag (and whiskey therein) was finally transported by the hotel in time for a post-dinner bottle share. In the meantime, Brett and I walked around Bardstown’s quaint and charming downtown. We also hoofed it the half mile to the Barton 1792 distillery, which is conspicuously not quaint, nor charming in any way.
Fast-forwarding to the next morning: we departed the hotel in a van under foreboding skies. Though only the ordained quartet would be selecting the actual pick, the rest of the group was along for the ride. On the way, our de-facto leader broke down the tasting procedure for us: pure blind, with no prior knowledge of age, proof, or provenance. Tasters were to keep their opinions to themselves until the voting stage, to avoid influencing other tasters.
In this case, we were to select one barrel from among a set of three. We received instructions to eliminate one straightaway, and to cease tasting it in order not to dull our palates. The two finalists should be tasted deliberately, at barrel strength and with moderate dilution, and a winner was to be selected by a vote (allocation of one point for second place and two points for first place).
On arrival at Heaven Hill, we noticed a small crowd outside the gift shop. A half dozen folks had created a queue, sitting in folding chairs in a row a full hour before the shop opened. Some gentle inquiry revealed that they had learned that a few cases of Elijah Craig 18 Years Old were being released that day; the selling price of $220 was above the SRP of $150, and reputedly closer to prevailing secondary market prices. Though I couldn’t prove it, I had the suspicion that a grown man dragging his aged mother to a distillery more than an hour in advance of the doors opening to pay an elevated price for a trophy bottle suggested ulterior motives.
We were rescued from our pitying of these benighted souls by the arrival of our host, who beckoned us inside. While the remainder of our party was left to gaze despairingly upon the hundreds of thousands of barrels contained within rickhouses dotting the landscape, the four of us were being guided to the promised land of Warehouse Y (circa 1971), where our barrels were waiting.
Warehouse Y is an anxiety-inducing place for those acquainted with the recent history of fires, collapses, and other misfortunes that quasi-regularly befall aging buildings filled with wooden casks of flammable liquid. Making note of several nearby exits, I trepidatiously entered and gazed upon my quarry.
On a rack on the floor sat three barrels, bungs facing skyward, illuminated by the diffuse light of a nearby translucent window. After a brief discussion of protocol and an arrangement of glassware (mini Glencairns), we commenced the tasting in solemn silence. Our host pulled each barrel’s bung and carefully filled our glasses using a patinated copper thief.
We were informed only that we were picking Heaven Hill Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, from barrels aged between eight and 10 years. All barrels shared the standard 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley mash bill, and had a barrel entry proof of 125 (62.5% ABV). We were told at some point that these barrels would have been included in a Small Batch bottling of Elijah Craig, had they not been selected for the barrel pick program. All had an identical golden brown color.
I’ll now provide you with my contemporaneous tasting notes, which will be less extensive than normal, given the conditions.
On the nose: Sweet confectionary, ester, cinnamon sugar, vanilla buttercream, grassy, cantaloupe, faint note of chili pepper. With water: maple syrup and clover honey, pine needles.
In the mouth: Metallic and citric bite upfront, lapses into a soft woodiness at midpalate.
A distant third compared with the other two, this was soft-spoken and somewhat nondescript in the mouth. By consensus, this was eliminated first.
This was barrel #5774981. At 11 years old, it was the oldest of the three barrels we tasted that day. Coming from floor 7 of rickhouse 1G (a brick rickhouse on the Bernheim campus) it weighed in at 127.5 proof. We were told that temperature variations in these brick rickhouses tend to be less extreme, with cooler conditions generally, hence the proof not much higher than barrel entry.
On the nose: Classic Heaven Hill note of pennies and clementines, metallic warmth, vanilla buttercream, chocolate fudge, watermelon, cardamom. With water this softens significantly, yielding more creamy aromas; chicken in mole negro sauce.
In the mouth: Tart and woody kiss, astringent wood through midpalate. With water: softer, and more emergence of exotic spicy notes. Finish becomes sweeter and fainter, with subtle woody accents. This got very sweet and soft with dilution.
A unanimously close second place, this had intrinsic Heaven Hill characteristics, with additional nuances to boot.
This was barrel #6257066. At eight years old, it was the youngest of the trio. Coming from floor 5 of rickhouse BB (from the fabled Deatsville campus, allegedly a favorite of departed Master Distiller Parker Beam), this was the second-highest proof barrel, at 129.5 (64.75% ABV).
On the nose: Similar to #2, more earth and toasted wood notes, fluoride, tobacco, peaches and cream, roasted poblano peppers. With water: sous bois and tobacco, more nutty notes, sappy scents of pine.
In the mouth: Tart tangerine and intense minerality, a sugary softness comes in a surprising turn, shorter and more astringent on the finish. Again, softer with water, with some more ample fruit emerging, maintaining the limestone backbone.
Conclusion: Consensus favorite. The addition of a drop or two of water released some fascinating dark and earthy notes that pushed this ahead of the prior barrel.
Barrel #6059727. At 138.9 proof, this bruiser was almost a full 5 percentage points of ABV higher than its closest competitor. This was 10 year old whiskey from Bardstown Warehouse N, from floor 7 (the top floor of this rickhouse).
At this point, a wrinkle emerged: our handler informed us this was a “short barrel” with a low fill, likely yielding 120 bottles or less. The four of us were considering not only our own needs, but those of the other members of the group. We had a close runner-up; would it be better to go with that one instead?
Ultimately (after a check of the second barrel’s fill), we decided that three bottles of superior whiskey per person would be better than four to five bottles of very good bourbon, plus the regret of the barrel that got away.
I found the whole process very intellectual (and, honestly, mentally taxing) up until the point at which we made our final determination. Our guide handed me a Sharpie marker and instructed me to sign the chosen barrel. Given the distillery’s ownership, I believe the most apposite description of my feelings at that moment is “verklempt.” The enormity of the experience hit me all at once; I was both exhausted and enervated, relieved and rueful. In a bit of Frost-ian hand wringing, I regretted that we couldn’t have two barrels. Such is the state of demand for barrel picks in the year 2021, that we were lucky to have been invited to pick the one… and what a barrel it is!
Having not yet tasted the final product, I can’t tell you if this will be one of my favorite whiskies ever. Irrespective of the quality of the resultant bottles, I can confidently assert that this was one of my favorite whiskey experiences ever. This has less to do with the ambiance of the rickhouse and the flavor of the whiskey, though those both delivered on my elevated expectations.
However, when I look back on that day, I’ll mostly recall the conversations, the laughs, the stories, the gossip, and the giddy smile on Brett’s face when we made a brief post-tasting stop to photograph the Deatsville warehouses. Bourbon whiskey, for as much as I love it, isn’t really the point. The point is the relationships, and bourbon is just a liquid medium for facilitating them. I’m grateful for the friendship and mentorship I have found as a member of this group, and I’ll do my best to pay it forward.
In the meantime, I’d encourage all of our readers to find your own versions of this camaraderie, whether it be on a barrel picking trip or a bottle shared in the comfort of your own home.