It’s time to break all the rules.
Repeat readers of my screeds on this site will be familiar with the “rules” I have developed about barrel picks. For those that missed them or forgot, a quick recap: Be wary of barrel picks, particularly when they are priced at a premium. Even those comparably-priced picks might not be better than the reference expressions from that same distillery. Not all distilleries permit off-profile barrels, the type that deliver uncanny and wonderful flavors. Variation in quality can be extreme, even from nominally similar picks. Unless you’re the one doing the picking, there’s no substitute for knowing the pickers. Even that might not be sufficient; an excellent reputationis no guarantee that your particular palate will line up with someone else’s. Do not be lured by an amusing sticker. Some “barrel picks” aren’t really picks at all.
Collecting that set of a dozen links exhausted me mildly, but I stand by my assertions. There are more barrel picks than good barrel picks. Particularly in the current environment – where the mad scramble for coveted bottles causes grown people to act the fool – it is important to protect your pride and your pocketbook by being a discerning consumer. In other words: pick your picks.
I recently took all the wisdom I had accumulated on this topic and threw it out the window. I grabbed a “pick” that I’m pretty certain wasn’t an actual pick, so much as a single barrel screened for bottling by someone at the distillery. This is also a distillery that is said not to permit off-profile barrels into the selection program, introducing an element of depressing futility to all their brands’ single barrel picks. About the only rule I didn’t violate is overpaying, as this was priced the same as the mass-market retail bottling.
From the peak of the 2017 George T. Stagg – the best whiskey I have ever tasted from Buffalo Trace, and indeed one of the greatest of my life – I am descending to base camp with today’s bottle. The story of how I got my hands on it is perhaps illustrative of many of the aforementioned pitfalls inherent to assuming that all picks are special.
My prior run-in with a Buffalo Trace store pick left a mildly positive impression on me. Despite the distillery’s reputation for only offering on-profile barrels to selectors, I thought that particular pick was enough of an improvement over the batched Buffalo Trace expression to justify the slight premium I paid for a bottle.
On my walks through the local grocery/liquor/housewares/everything else emporium, I am in the habit of scanning the whiskey shelf. Call it market research; I am interested in selection, availability, and pricing. I make mental notes that get filed away and, later, peppered throughout the reviews on this site.
This store regularly stocks Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is not the prevailing state of affairs all over this land. The enthusiasm for Pappy, BTAC, Weller, Blanton’s, and anything Blanton’s-adjacent seems to have deranged certain consumers in a way that causes them to hoard Buffalo Trace. This results in the whiskey being unobtainable in certain quarters, though it’s always been at hand in the places I have lived, so much so that it barely registers when I see it.
However, something about the bottle of Buffalo Trace on the shelf that day caught my eye. Specifically: it bore the copper-colored medallion that adorns all barrel picks from the Buffalo Trace distillery. Though this chain periodically gets “store picks,” I was legitimately surprised to see this particular pick on the shelf, again in consideration of the fanaticism inspired by the distillery.
The shiny orange sticker (which, it should be noted, was haphazardly and unattractively applied) did not bear the name of the store. Rather, where a name or logo is typically placed (in the center of the circle), an italicized cursive font read “Distiller Select.” Buffalo Trace’s own site for their Single Barrel Select program clarifies:
“If you’re unable to visit the Buffalo Trace distillery, we can mail you single barrel samples to taste and choose from, or our Master Distiller will skillfully select a barrel for you that you will undoubtedly appreciate as much as if you had hand-selected it yourself.”
In my experience, the fun of a pick is… you know… picking it. This is especially so when the experience involves a trip to the distillery but – even without picking in situ – the process of comparing and contrasting different barrels and choosing a winner is the sine qua non of a barrel pick. Without it, “your” barrel isn’t really “yours” except in that you presumably control all the bottles produced from it. Otherwise, it’s simply a variation of the retail single barrel format available from Buffalo Trace and also other large Kentucky distilleries like Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey.
To add to the strangeness, we’re given the barrel number (#129) in this case, but no specifics about rickhouse or age or any other details that would help us contextualize this. So, flying blind but for the barest rudiments, I’m now prepared to take the plunge and give this a taste.
Before I do, though, some final specifics: the Buffalo Trace expression is said to be from mash bill #1, thought to be “low rye” (<10%). This is the mash bill shared in common with George T. Stagg, Stagg Jr., E.H. Taylor, and Eagle Rare, among other expressions. The bourbon comes bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV). I paid $27 for this bottle, the same price asked for the normal (non-single barrel) Buffalo Trace.
Buffalo Trace Distiller Select Barrel #129 – Review
Color: Medium golden brown.
On the nose: A corny sweetness meets a fresh floral scent of dew-dampened spring bouquet. There’s a mocha-inflected woody note here that is pushed to the point of mildly unpleasant awkwardness. An appealing note of cherry is quickly overwhelmed by a chemical scent of varnish and more sharply woody aromas, this time in the form of freshly-sanded cedar. The more I nose this, the more I lose the few appealing aspects under the layers of unbalanced bitterness.
In the mouth: Starts with a watery woodenness that tightens up toward the middle of the tongue. There’s the tart flavor of underripe cherry in here, albeit in a dilute form that results in it quickly being lost on the tongue. Some more astringent floral flavors of potpourri make an appearance as this transitions to the finish. I get another oddly chemical and bitter note here that dissipates somewhat, but ultimately lingers as an unpleasant aftertaste on a finish that is otherwise lacking much in the way of character.
Not only is this not better than average Buffalo Trace batched bourbon, in several regards it’s actually worse. There are a few aspects of this that are so aberrant, I’m actually surprised that the barrel made it through the screening process. About the only redeeming factor is that I did not pay up for the “privilege” of this single barrel. With that in mind, I’m deducting a point off an average score and consigning the remainder of the bottle to future Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails.
This was an admittedly low-stakes gamble that didn’t pay off. More irritating than ending up with a fifth of relatively crummy whiskey, though, is that challenging my own preconceptions did not result in anything but their reinforcement. That’s not to say that there aren’t anonymous-but-good store picks out there. If you are in the market for a bottle anyway and you happen upon one of these, I wouldn’t look at you askance if you decided to spin the roulette wheel just like me. Just know that any additional energy or money you spend on procuring one of these might leave you regretting the fact that bottles conforming to the rules are more common than the exceptions thereto.