I wondered about the thought process of selecting a single barrel to sell to customers at a retail outlet. I would think about it from the perspective of a consumer first, so I’d pick what flavor components I like and enjoy.
In developing relationships with some retailers in my market area I’ve come to realize that it’s a very deliberate process, with much thought and debate going into the selection. What do customers like, what types of flavor profiles sell to customers, will we be able to sell an entire barrel of this whiskey? These questions are a starting point for what retailers must keep in mind when setting up barrel selections.
I’ve been very fortunate in my whiskey journey in, that I’ve been able to develop relationships with store owners and department managers. In building these relationships I’ve been fortunate to get to know the people at the store level who can get me information on the more special and sought-after bottles. In certain locations, these are also the individuals that do the single barrel picks and selections.
Luckily, while shopping at a Market District location, I came across two interesting barrel selections: the Solomon Scott Rye finished in a curaçao barrel, and the Morning Glory Kasha Bourbon, both from Spirits of French Lick. Both selections were done at the same time, and both hit the retail shelf at the same time as well.
I’ve done a review on Spirits of French Lick before and, with these two store picks from them I figured I was hitting the jackpot and couldn’t go wrong. Now I’ll preface that also by saying, that I know the beverage manager who does the selections and have also purchased single barrels she’s selected in the past. I’ve enjoyed the previous picks, thus I had nothing but high hopes going into these two whiskeys.
Being the whiskey fan that I am, I also figured this was the best opportunity to gather information from the retail side on what considerations govern a single barrel selection. I’m also going to use my already developed contact with Alan Bishop at Spirits of French Lick to see what the distillery’s process is when offering a single barrel selection, and to learn more about what makes up these whiskeys.
Here is my interview with Alan Bishop Head Alchemist at Spirits of French Lick. (edited for content and clarity)
Malt: What is the idea behind using a non-traditional grain like Kasha to make a bourbon?
Alan: It all started with the TTB recognizing pseudo-grains to make bourbon. Grains like Kasha, Buckwheat, Amaranthus, and Quinoa- not normally recognized as traditional grains- were starting to be recognized. It has a curious mashbill of 66% Corn, 12% Rye, 16% Kasha, 2% Buckwheat and 4% Malt. Kasha cereal has become such a popular thing, we were poised to start laying this down in preparation for them changing that rule. People don’t realize that the majority of bourbon has some buckwheat in it, as it’s such an endemic weed to corn, so we figured let’s see what it will do and distill it. Buckwheat itself does not distill very well as flavor components like green hay present, but the Kasha itself does well when toasted.
Malt: What is the distilling process used when creating the Morning Glory bourbon?
Alan: Its always going to be fresh ground grain daily to begin. Now the Kasha and buckwheat we source from Georgia as its not available locally. We split the fermenter into day one and day two. So, day one we do 600 gallons and use our in-house yeast captured from the environment in distillery. And then next day we go in 24 hours later and we pitch one or three different brandy yeasts. On the Kasha, I believe we used Vin 13 yeast which is a South African Brandy Yeast which is interesting. We then hit fermentation with 85 degrees for typically 4 days.
I think with the mash bill on this one we hit a 10/75 specific gravity. Then we do a stripping run, which is just to collect alcohol and not to do any heads or tails cuts. This is done on our 1200 gallon still Lilith. Then this goes into our 650-gallon copper pot still named “Inanna”, and we’ll make four cuts into it: heads, hearts, and tails. We’ll rerun the heads portion for about 5 batches, because you break down all those acetaldehyde compounds into esters.
Then, after that we toss that out, we start getting some off flavors. If we run the Morning Glory 50 times, we rerun those tails each time in the doubling run, because most of your flavors and your consistency is in the tails on a pot still. Then, all that goes into 53-gallon number 2 charred oak barrels, usually Kelvin Cooperage medium plus toasted heads. That all gets aged in something we like to call the Chai cellar, that’s attached to our facility.
Malt: What is your barrel entry proof?
Alan: All my bourbon and rye has an entry point of 105 into the barrel. Of course, pre-Prohibition it was a common entry proof. The idea for me is that water is a better solvent on wood then ethanol is. You get a better chance of breaking down that lignin and cellulose. Plus doing the number 2 char on barrels you’re getting more of those toasted coconut and toasted hazelnut notes.
Again, I don’t need the caramel and vanilla. If I want those, I can use different brewers’ malts to get them. So, in the grand scheme of things in the lower warehouse you’re coming out at typically 107 and 144 and raise in proof. If it’s coming out of that upper warehouse it is coming out at 103 or so after 4 or 5 years. Now if it’s an alternative yeast we go in at 118, because they are targeted as single barrels since there is so much more interest in proof on single barrels.
Malt: Tell us about your aging process.
Alan: Typically, we don’t get a ton of temperature variation in our Chai cellar, as it’s attached to the distillery. Even though we aren’t actively heating and cooling it, it works off our passive heating and cooling of the distillery. Really high pressure, about 7% a year roughly, which gives a lot of retention and concentration of flavor. I will tell you, cause I’m an honest distiller, that for the first one to three years that this product was in a barrel I thought it was trash and would never see the light of day. Something of magic happened three years and six months in, and it changed overnight into something interesting.
Malt: Do you think this had to do with weather changes impacting barrel contact or some other factor?
Alan: It could, but a lot of people don’t realize barometric pressure is driving that as much as temperature is. You can go in that Chai cellar and if you had a storm front coming, you’ll think every barrel is leaking. We do have some of the morning glory in our other rickhouse more like a Scottish style dunnage that is exposed to the elements.
Kasha and buckwheat are volatile grains so you want to try to maintain and capture all the aroma you can as the aroma is about 90% what you taste. So, putting a few of the barrels over in that rickhouse to test, you can pick up on any of the Kasha or buckwheat like it was driven out. Keeping it in that lower warehouse seemed to help with smaller changes to climate.
What I think the issue was, is that buckwheat even at two percent itself is still very green grassy. The kasha is very nutty right off the still but almost a bitter almond. But the interesting thing was at about three and a half years we started getting an odd taste profile, but people seem to love it; there’s almost a Reese’ peanut butter cup note that comes from that kasha, but it takes literally three and a half years to get it. I’m going to keep a few barrels back and get them to five, six, and seven years and really see what the barrel aging does to this one. I suspect that barrel is going to quickly overdrive that kasha.
Malt: How does your motto “Respect the Grain” drive your focus on creating?
Alan: That’s our motto, and the idea is that if the grain has terroir depending on where it was grown at, what kind of grain, etc., be able to approach even bourbon distillation from a pot still perspective to where for us the barrel is more of a cohesion tool. It’s an ingredient. So as opposed to your Kentucky distiller that says that “60 to 70 percent of your flavor comes from the barrel,” we want more of a 50/50 split.
All the positive aspects of the grain, all the way through fermentation, and all those individual flavor profiles, we also want all the positive aspects of the barrel without pushing your caramel and vanilla. Interestingly, a cinnamon profile that can be present comes from the yeast and not the barrel. You’ll see it in the Morning Glory and occasionally in the Lee Sinclair bourbons, and I wish I knew how to replicate it all the time.
Malt: What can you tell me about the Solomon Rye?
Alan: Solomon Scott rye is based primarily on the mash bill used by George Washington but also incredibly popular along the Ohio Valley in the early 1800’s: 60% Rye, 35% Corn, and 5% Victory malt. This style of whiskey nearly died out as it falls distinctly between the Kentucky “barely legal” 51% ryes and the 90-100% rye mash bills of Monongahela and MGP fame.
We grind the grain, mash, ferment, and double pot distill on site here at Spirits of French Lick using fresh grains daily. Fermentation is split into two 600-gallon cooks over two days, entering one closed top stainless steel fermenter of 1,200 gallons capacity. Day one we use our house yeast to capture all the fresh grain aroma and flavor, again the idea always in focus being Respect the Grain. The house yeast is prepared by us daily and propagated exclusively by us in the same method that pioneer Hoosier distillers were using in the early 1800’s.
The second cook we co-pitch a brandy yeast variety which quickly overtakes the house yeast and lends us fruity, herbal, floral, and baking spice aromas and flavors. We use a brewers two row malt known as Victory yeast, for this project as it brings a distinct toasty and biscuity aroma and flavor to the party. Fermentation is commenced at a 1.060 specific gravity and continues for 96 hours at 85 degrees Fahrenheit until the sugars are depleted to 1.000 SG. From here the distiller’s beer is pumped to Lilith, our 1200-gallon stripping still.
We collect all the alcohol from this distillation at a proof of roughly 55 to 60 and re-distill the following day in our 600-gallon whiskey doubling still “Inanna”. The doubling run is swift to blow off any unwanted volatile components from the rye and heads, hearts, tails, and sweet water components are separated and either collected or discarded. The hearts are then proofed to 105 using reverse osmosis filtered water and entered into 53-gallon, 24-month air seasoned, #2 char bodied, medium plus toast head barrels and taken to our Dunnage style rickhouse for maturation over a four-year period.
Malt: What separates your rye from the other Indiana varieties?
Alan: Having been to Mount Vernon and producing that mashbill previously, it was nice to say, “Hey this is similar to that George Washington mashbill.” The other reason- on the tiny amount of Indiana history of rye before Seagram’s came to town, the southern part of the state did produce a tiny amount of rye whiskey prior to the 1800s. it didn’t happen more, cause the rye crop failed often. Pretty much all the other states producing rye back in that day were using that same type of mashbill, which makes sense all being along the Ohio river, and that makes it a traditional mashbill for era. A little-known fact is they were traditionally aging those in hickory barrels.
Malt: What kinds of perspectives do you see when dealing with retailers doing single barrel selections?
Alan: Its funny working with some of the big guys as they are looking for something exactly on profile that is just amped up flavors. A little mom and pop store who’s just starting to get into the bourbon game also wants something on profile. Then you get the guys who are fun, that want something way off profile. The ones that come in looking for weird barrels, stuff I have literally forgotten about. And one pointed out a Lee Sinclair that had been there for two years and I transferred to stout barrel and forgot about it and was sitting in this stout barrel for two years. I was like “Let’s try it!” I’ll be damned if that wasn’t one of the best barrels we drilled into.
Malt: Does your distillery do barrel finishing?
Alan: We try to co-mature barrels. I will let a barrel go six months to a year to co-mature a barrel. Typically, the stuff we do finish, I always make sure they are dry and whatever is left (residual product, i.e., curaçao) is what is soaked into barrel. The ones that we keep that are still somewhat “wet” are ones we produce at the distillery like your apple brandy or absinthe.
Malt: What is your process of single barrel selections?
Alan: Its like free range bacchanalia, you come in and so long as you stay a certain age range, it’s your choice. I don’t point to barrels, I don’t pre-pick barrels, I got a drill and spiles. If its something you want to drill into, we drill into it, and if it’s something I haven’t tried even better. I don’t give any tasting notes upfront, if people start giving tasting notes, and there is something interesting that they haven’t picked up, I might throw it out there. It’s pretty much free range. So far, it has worked out well. There has only been one barrel so far that once I drilled it and smelled it before customer that I had to throw it out. Other than that, lets learn and do this process together.
Malt: Is there anything interesting in the works regarding finishing or otherwise?
Alan: I tend to be more interested in what I can do coming off the still. Then we manipulate it later. There is a long-term project that will probably become a Solara project. Instead of going into new oak barrels at 105 we went into a plethora of barrels, anything I could get ahold of. Every year we will pull down some and put the remainder into different barrels and release it every year. Who knows if it will be good or bad, but we will see and try it?
Malt: What would you recommend to consumers when purchasing single barrel picks?
Alan: I’m pretty picky when send out single barrels so, always get your single barrels from accounts that know what they are talking about and are knowledgeable and put the time and effort into what they are picking. Or, accounts that – if they aren’t going out picking the barrels- they are asking the distiller for samples of something that they would find interesting.
That’s not knocking any big retailers, but right now it’s a single barrel market. We sell as many single barrels as we do bulk product. I am proud of every single barrel that I’ve put out and felt they were excellent or wouldn’t let them out the door. Some companies are just selecting a single barrel to have a “single barrel”, so talk to your retailer and see what they know about the product. If they let you try it and its interesting, even better!
In my opinion with the way the single barrel market is nowadays, you’re better off getting a better single barrel from a trusted retailer and one from a smaller craft distillery that you have some knowledge on. I think the smaller distilleries seem to be a little pickier on what they are putting out there.
Thanks to Alan for sharing his time and insights.
I was also fortunate enough to get the retailer’s perspective from Laurie Campbell, the Beer Wine Liquor Leader at Carmel Market District. Laurie shared her thoughts on barrel selections and the process of procuring them.
Here is my interview with Laurie from Carmel Market District (edited for content and clarity):
Malt: How does retailer decide what distillery to get selections from?
Laurie: As a retailer we aren’t always able to pick each distillery we would like to select barrels from. Quite often there are steps you need to go through before you are granted a single barrel pick. It may be as simple as carrying a larger amount of their shelf items, or perhaps a larger display.
Malt: Who does the selections? Is it a sole individual or group consensus?
Laurie: I am always present at the barrel picks, but there are usually two to six of us, total, on picks. This is usually one or more of my team members, our Store Director, and our Regional Vice President. As a group, we will discuss likes and dislikes of the presented barrel, and decide if it meets our needs for the store. We will not buy a barrel just to have another barrel if it doesn’t meet our current needs. If we are undecided, the group will defer to me.
Malt: What guidelines do you have going into selections?
Laurie: Our usual guidelines are to stay true to the flavor profile we have built here at Carmel Market District. We always go for barrel or cask proof, when possible, as you can always proof down but not up. We look for good sweetness, full mouthfeel, and a long finish.
Malt: Does type of whiskey have a determining factor? Do you pick more rye or bourbon or other varieties?
Laurie: We currently do more barrel picks of bourbon vs. rye since that is the current trend, but we do have several great rye store picks available at this time!
Malt: What is your process for selections? What are you tasting for when making the pick?
Laurie: As a group we always keep our guests’ profiles in mind. As I said before, we have found that if we keep the barrels at Full Proof our guests are happy to be able to “proof down” to their own personal taste. The flavor profile that we tend to seek will be on the sweeter side, with caramel, toffee, butterscotch, maple syrup and/or honey. But we also look for interesting components like dried fruits, nuts, chocolate, both baking or pepper spices, and of course a touch of wood or smokiness. The final “must have” is a nice, long, smooth finish.
Malt: How does the consumer factor into a selection?
Laurie: We base all our picks on the feedback we have received from our guests/clients and their flavor profiles blended with ours.
Malt: After selection has been made, what is remaining to be done to bring to market?
Laurie: Depending on the distillery and the product, the next steps can be as simple as just bottling, labeling, and shipping to the store. But sometimes there is additional barrel ageing that needs to happen before it can be bottled. An example would be our Bardstown Barrel Futures; we picked two barrels with them in November 2020, these barrels will not be bottled, labeled, and shipped until January 2023… unless we feel they still need additional time, then it could possibly be even longer.
Malt: How important is a relationship with distillery for selection process and what things does retailer look for out of the distillery?
Laurie: As in all things, relationships are of the utmost importance. If you have a solid relationship with your distilleries, you will possibly be afforded better selections, opportunities, larger quantities, or frequency. I look for distilleries that have integrity in their product, service and meet the agreed upon deadlines.
Malt: Is there anything you would like a consumer to understand about a barrel selection that is otherwise unknown or overlooked?
Laurie: I would like our guests to understand the uniqueness of all our barrel picks. All our barrels are single barrels unless we chose different finishes which have become very popular. Examples of barrel finishes would include finishing in used wine, brandy, cognac, and curaçao barrels. Many of our guests do not realize that the majority of whiskey brands are blended to maintain a consistent flavor profile so today’s whiskey will taste the same as next years.
Thanks to Laurie for spending her time and lending her insights.
Before I get into each of these glasses, it should be noted that these are single barrel selections, which means they do not necessarily showcase the core flavor profile of what the distillery sells normally at retail.
Both selections have come from Market District and both were purchased for $50. The Solomon Scott Rye is 99.7 Proof (49.859% ABV) and is aged four years and finished in a Curaçao barrel. It is barrel #169 with a mashbill of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.
Spirits of French Lick Solomon Scott Rye Whiskey (Market District Barrel Selection)- Review
Color: Rich amber with chestnut hue.
On the nose: Rich honey and sweet mint open this introduction. The influence of the curaçao barrel shows up with powdered sugar dusted orange jelly candies coming through. It plays back and forth with the sweet mint and tea notes into an almost evening dinner drink of tea and honey with a slice of citrus. A crème brûlée finishes out the sweet nose of this rye, as a subtle sweet oak.
In the mouth: As this touches the lips it begins with dark brown sugar and mint. The rye starts coming forward with black tea, and some slight spice. Some slight aloe notes present here, but this leans on the sweeter sides of rye initially. Black pepper and lemongrass swirl around as the juiciness of the citrus comes back from the curacao influence. The curacao here is defiantly a theme that carries through the entire palate, but it does not overwhelm the rye, but more merges with this whiskey. There is a pleasant, toasted sugar note that seems to resemble what the barrel has left for its impression. It finishes with a slight bitter citrus oak that seems to round out the flavors with some balance.
I find this rye hitting all the flavor notes that I enjoy in rye, the addition of curaçao has amplified the citrus notes in the whisky. It feels almost like a premade cocktail or something that could easily make a great old fashioned. The proof is this whisky make it very palatable; I could see this as an easy everyday sipper as well. Finding this for $50 and being a finished rye, and a single barrel pick, make it seem like I found a Christmas gift hidden at the back of the tree. With the flavor composition and approachable price, I am adding a point to make this a positive score.
The Morning Glory Kasha Bourbon is 102.3 proof or 51.215% ABV, and aged four years. It is barrel #584 with a mashbill of 66% corn, 12% rye, 16% kasha, 2% buckwheat, and4% malted barley.
Spirits of French Lick The Morning Glory Kasha Bourbon (Market District Barrel Selection) – Review
Color: Dark Honey
On the nose: This first presents as expectedly grain forward. It’s not like a typical bourbon upon initial greeting that comes up from glass. This starts with short bread that has a nice honey glaze, intermingling with baking spices of fresh ground cinnamon and clove with allspice mix as well as a crisp apple note. Toasted almond and pie crust round out the nose with a small finish of oak char making sure you don’t forget this was in a barrel.
In the mouth: With the first sip I’m greeted with a sweet wave of shortbread and grain. The sweet honey crisp apple carries to the front of the palate but fades sharply. This then quickly transitions into baking spices like clove, cinnamon, and allspice. It brings a picante spiciness as it approaches the back of the palate of with the flavor of white pepper. There is a medium tannic finish that is slightly bitter; not in an off-putting way, but in a way that balances the initial sweetness and brings this bourbon full circle. I enjoy that this bourbon has a modest viscosity that is coating enough to bring you the flavors and fades just enough to continue to invite you back into the glass.
This is a great single barrel selection. The complexity that has come out from this non-traditional grain is really something special. I can’t help but to give credit not only to Alan for the work he has done but to Laurie at Market District for having the palate to pick up on something tasty and complex in this single barrel pick. I would say this bourbon punches far about its modest $50 dollar price point. I could see paying an additional $10 to $20 dollars and not have issues with that. For the value and complexity of what’s in the glass, I’m adding an additional point for a positive score on this one. If you haven’t had a bourbon with Kasha grain, I think you’re truly missing out on an experience!
Hopefully you gained some additional knowledge as to what goes into single barrel picks and some great information about what Spirits of French Lick is doing for craft whiskey in Indiana. I will leave you with my favorite part of my conversation with Alan and a quote I will not use for the remainder of my bourbon journey.
Alan: Bourbon is a blue-collar drink, has always been a blue-collar drink, and should always be a blue- collar drink. I have not ever had a bourbon in my entire life, I don’t care how old it was, where it came from or how “special” it was, that I would ever pay more than $100 for.
Bottle photos author’s own. Other photos courtesy of Spirits of French Lick.